British Isle Excursion - London

Thurs. July 12, 2011- Amherst, N.Y.

We were up by 5:30 A.M. It was to be a long day for us. We got ready for the day, finished packing and then weighed our luggage to make sure it was under the 50 pound limit. We then got ready to leave. The airport cab picked us up at 9:45 A.M. and soon dropped us off at Buffalo International Airport.

Check in, with U.S. Air for the first leg of our flight to Charlotte, N.C., was effortless. The security lines were minimal. The two-hour flight to Charlotte was easy and we arrived at 1:30 P.M. Now came the long part of the day. Our flight to London’s Heathrow Airport wasn’t boarding for another five hours. We walked the terminals, had coffee and people watched the hours away. The airport was busy with summer travelers.

Our London flight boarded at 6:30 P.M. on one of those wide bodied monsters with nine seats stretching across the fuselage. We watched a few movies, read our kindles and passed the hours as best we could. It is a difficult flight no matter how comfortable you are. Sleep eluded us as we grew more tired.

At 7:25 A.M. local time, we landed at Heathrow Airport, outside London. We knew enough to run like hell for the customs lines to avoid a huge jam up. There was already a long line of people waiting to clear British customs. After an hour’s wait in line, the interview was perfunctory and we were soon cleared to the main terminal. It was awash with travelers, even at this early hour.

We found an ATM and purchased both British Pounds and European

Euros to get us by for the next several days. Then we found the British Rail ticket office and purchased two tickets (L18 ea.)for the “Gatwick Express.” It is a direct rail service that takes you right into London’s Victoria Station.

The ride in was easy enough. You could easily spot the other newly arrived visitors like us. Their clothes were wrinkled and their eyes bleary like ours. At Victoria station, a nexus of the London tube and the British rail system, the crowds were even larger. The verbal waft of a dozen languages drifted around us as we made our way through the throngs to a taxi stand outside of the terminal. There, we boarded one of those delightful, lumbering black cabs that London is so famous for. The driver was a talkative Cockney who had been to the U.S. on several occasions. We chatted with him about the coming Olympics in London next year and visiting Disneyland in Florida, as he barreled through the massively automobile-clogged streets of central London. The huge double-decker buses careened down the narrow lanes like freight trains. Driving here is not for the faint of heart.

We were booked into the Edwardian Bloomsbury hotel, near the British Museum. The driver got us as close as the one way streets would allow. I gave the lad  L15 and we thanked him for his daring drive. The Bloomsbury, a Radisson Hotel, is just a block over from the British Museum and only a few blocks from The University of London. Pedestrian traffic here is heavy amidst the cafes pubs and small businesses that dot the streetscape.

The hotel agreed to check our bags, but it was too early to have a room ready for us. We smiled, said okay and headed out for the British Museum.

Hordes of school groups had already entered the venerable museum before us. We decided to come back later. We walked around the busy area and spotted a very nice place called Patisserie Valerie. It is a chain restaurant that offers cappuccino, pastries and lunch. We settled in for some tasty Salad Nicoise and cappuccino while watching the busy pedestrians flow by us. (L20)

After lunch, we walked the streets, stretching our legs and dodging the kamikaze double-decker buses careening by. Like most Americans, we automatically looked to our right when crossing the street when actually the traffic was coming from the left. It made for a few hurried street crossings on our part. The bicycle riders are not to be believed for their daring do. I would think the number of them peeled from the front of buses must be considerable.

A Starbucks offered us another cappuccino, near London University. We sat for a time enjoying the flow of people and traffic flowing by. It was getting late in the day and we hadn’t slept for what seemed like a very long time. Still, we were here in one of the more exciting cities on the planet and time was of the essence. We wandered back towards the British Museum and entered that venerable institution. It had been twenty years since last we had visited the museum and we were anxious to again see their fabled collection of Egyptian antiquities.

Even this late in the afternoon, the museum was aswarm with visitors from everywhere. The newer exhibits featured Australia and Afghanistan. We wandered along the marble halls enjoying the jewels, cultural exhibits and historical potpourris from across the globe. The Egyptian mummies, and all of their attendant artifacts, are always impressive. Here lies the remains of civilization from several thousand years past.

After an hour or so, the “museum glaze” settled in upon us. You can only absorb viewing so many artifacts, however attractive or significant, before they become just another glass cabinet that you walk by. We were footsore, tired and in need of sleep. We left the museum and walked back to the hotel. Our room was ready. We checked into a smallish but clean room on the first floor.(L180 per night) In Europe, of course, the first floor is really the second and there is no thirteenth. It makes for some recalculating whenever you enter an elevator.

We unpacked our gear, settled in to watch some t.v. news and soon were fast asleep. We slept fitfully, as you always do with a big time change and a new hotel, but were glad to be here.

Thurs. July 14, 2011- London, England

We were up early at 5:00 A.M. The time differences, and the need to get ready for a 7:10 A.M. shuttle to our tour today, got us in motion early. We got ready for the day, made some coffee in the room and appeared in the hotel lobby for the shuttle from “Golden Tours.” For $141 ea., the tour would take us through Windsor Castle, Bath and Stonehenge.

The bus collected us and then stopped at a few other hotels to gather other passengers. We got an early tour of central London as the buses, taxis and cars all made their way to the start of a new work day. We were deposited at Victoria Station and asked to stand in one of several lines, all clearly marked with the various destinations for the day. Our early start had placed us first in line. This would get us favorable seats on the bus for the long day’s tour. This was a strategy we were to employ daily on the many cruise shore excusrions aboard the

Crown Princess. There was always considerable jostling and hurrying among passengers to get the best seats for viewing on board the various buses.

Tony Randall, our guide for the day, collected us and at 9 A.M. we set off through central London, headed for nearby Windsor Castle, about 23 miles from London. The facades of many of the taller buildings were shrouded in screening. London was beginning the one year run up to next year’s summer olympics. Many of the buildings were getting facelifts for the event. Knightsbridge shops, Harrod’s Department Store and the Buckingham Palace area were all abustle with activity as we sailed by in our huge land cruiser.

Tony gave us a brief history of the Windsor Castle and its grounds enroute. William the Conqueror triumphantly arrived in England in 1066, after defeating Saxon King Harold of Essex. He began to build a series of fortifications in Southern England to consolidate his rule. The central tower of Windsor Castle, with its deep moat, is one of these fortifications.

The bus disgorged us below the castle. We walked up several series of steps to get to the level of the castle. The train station stopped here at this level, amidst a large collection of shops, cafes and boutiques that service the large daily crowds of visitors.

We got our tickets, stood in line for the entrance to the castle. We were required to walk through an electronic security grid to gain entrance. Off in the distance we could see the fabled playing fields of Eton and the building and grounds of that venerable school. Walking up the ramps to the castle area, we viewed a detachment of the storybook British soldiers in their colorful red coats and black balaclava fur hats. The grim visage of their sub machine guns heralded a note of reality. These weren’t toy soldiers, but elite combat troops who had drawn the ceremonial duty of guarding her majesty when she was in residence at the castle for two months of each year.

We hadn’t much time as we wandered through the various state rooms of this wonderful palace. Oak paneling had been installed in the 1700’s along the length of the halls. Portraits of British Royalty vied with suits of armor, battle flags, broad swords and many other eye-catching items displayed artfully. It was early,  but the crowds were still considerable. The Formal Reception Hall and The Waterloo Room are festooned with banners and ceremonial flags. Paintings by Colbein, Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Reubens decorate the walls in a colorful array of ceremonial decor that catches the eye. We wandered through the King’s ornate bedroom and other colorfully decorated official rooms, enjoying the full panoply of the British Raj. It reminded me of Versailles, only the decor here is both more subdued and tasteful.

Outside of the staterooms we could look across the fenced courtyard to the Queen’s residence and the ornate chapel, all buildings that had been added to the castle complex over the last thousand years. I find the orderly continuity of the last millennium on display here an attraction, as we wandered amidst the various eras of British history.

The Castle was already crowded as we made our way back to the train station and the bus area. The small town beneath the castle was awash with tourists who were having lunch or an early pint or shopping in one of the colorful botiques. The imposing statue of Queen Victoria, high on a pedestal,  looked over the town square reminding us of where we were. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shined brightly overhead. It was a gorgeous day. I wish we had more time here. The castle and bustling town of Windsor deserve a day or more to spend and appreciate all that is here. Next time, we will take the train out from London and spend the day.

Back at the bus, all the passengers had made it back on time. The driver passed out a boxed lunch that was surprisingly good. We ate it as we drove through the very green and bucolic English country side. We were headed for the medieval Town of Bath and the ruins of the fabled Roman baths there.

Bath is only 13 miles from the South Coast of England. The guide informed us that Hitler had ordered Bath bombed in 1942, to strike terror into the populace. We were dropped off near the venerable Bath Abbey. Surrounding it are a series of pedestrian malls loaded with shops and cafes. The principal attraction of course is the Roman Temple complex and its series of ornate public baths dating from the 4th century. We got our entrance tickets and wandered amidst the ancient ruins of the fabled Baths of.

The central feature is a very long rectangular bath, surrounded by a two story atrium. Off hallways surrounding the large pool are several smaller bathing pools and galleries where the Romans could enjoy a sauna and take their ease. The cobbled stone floors were worn from use. I could imagine the various Roman functionaries coming here late in the day to take their ease. The elaborate plumbing system could deliver heated water to the various bathing complexes where slaves would tend to their Roman Masters. The baths were part of a much larger temple complex that the Romans had built. The invading Vikings in later centuries would tear down the complex. The baths were eventually filled in. During later centuries, the Brits would excavate the baths so that these splendid reminders of ancient Rome were preserved for modern people to admire. From the second story of the baths, we could get great pictures of the Bath Abbey next door. It was built in the 15th century and if picturesque in the extreme.

After we walked through the Baths, we wandered amidst the quaint Town of Bath. The area now harbors over 65,000 residents. The Park area and River are pastoral and attractive. We walked along the pedestrian mall and watched the various street performers acting for throngs of young tourists. It seemed like half of Europe was on vacation. Cappuccino, in a small cafe, made for a good break from the crowds. We were on a tight schedule, so we saddled up the bus and set off at 3:00 P.M. through the English Countryside, admiring the pastoral scenery along the way. Sheep, cattle and hayfields made for a restful visage. We were headed for the Salisbury Plain and the fabled rocks of Stonehenge, about a 75-minute drive from Bath on our way back to London.

Our guide gave us a brief history of Stonehenge as we approached the site. Construction was first started by ancient Britons, called “Beaker People,” about 4,500 B.C. Is it a ceremonial religious site, an advanced astral calendar?  Some even posit that Aliens had built the complex as a long ago landing site. No one yet knows. The complex is a series of 15-foot upright stones roughly laid in a large circle. Two smaller rings of “Blue stones “ intersperse with the larger stones. Several stone lintels connect the larger stones, forming a ring of sorts. We obtained our L 7.5 tickets and walked into the fenced-in complex.

The mystery lies in how these huge stones could have been quarried and then erected by these ancient peoples.  Most scholars think the Blue stones were quarried in nearby Wales and shipped here along the River, then rolled to the site on a series of log rollers. How they moved the big rascals is still a mystery.

We walked around the stones, viewing them form different angles. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun shining overhead. It seemed to leech much of the mysticism from the stones. I would think on a rainy day, or in the rising mist of the morning or failing light of the day, they would inspire an eerier feeling. We took our photos and walked amidst the crowds, everyone staring at these ancient stones. Ropes kept people back about 100 feet from the stones. In years past, tourists had not been kind to the stones. Over the centuries various local inhabitants had even borrowed some of the stones to use in other construction projects. It is a marvel that they have survived all of these years intact. Whatever the weather, you have to come out to Stonehenge. Something this old deserves a good viewing. And if it is raining or on a misty day, your mind will supply you with a much more interesting picture of what they are and what they might have been used for.

The day was fading for us. It was after five P.M. as we boarded our land cruiser for the ride along the M 4 motorway back into London. The road was clogged with traffic into central London. It was slow go all the way in. Finally, around 8 P.M. the bus dropped Mary and I off near the entrance to Hyde Park. We found a cab nearby. The driver made a mad dash across central London. The buses and cabs were still aplenty even at this late hour. We sat back and enjoyed the panoply of a busy city as it flashed by us. We got dropped off in Bloomsbury. It was getting late, so we voted for a nearby Italian restaurant for a late dinner. ”Giotto’s Italian Ristorante” is s a small and charming street cafe near our hotel. We sat at a small table and enjoyed a glass of Chianti, then a salad and pasta salmone for L 28. It was delightful. I chatted with the owner in my limited Italian and wished him a Buona Note on our departure. It was a good stop,

The day was waning as we reentered the Bloomsbury Hotel. We had been on a 15 hour odyssey that we much enjoyed. A mixup with the room cleaning engendered another delay before we finally settled in for the night. I wrote up my notes and we crashed, tired but  with visions of castles, huge altar stones and Roman baths in our heads. It had been a good day.

Friday. July 15, 2011- London, England

Arising at 8 A.M., We had coffee and pastries in the room. That started us off for the day, as we watched the BBC for news. The Rupert Murdoch eaves dropping scandal was still raging across the airwaves.

We walked the one mile over to one of the city’s more venerable commercial sites, Covent Gardens. This early in the day, the shops weren’t yet open. The cobble stoned courtyard would be awash later with visitors and entertainers. The London Opera sits in one corner of the rectangular area. Over the centuries, the area had served as a fruit and vegetable market and other commercial enterprises. Now it is more a collection of stalls that sell everything imaginable. Cafes and boutiques draw in visitors daily by the thousands. Nightly, it is a gathering spot for all of central London.

Continuing on from the Gardens, we walked across the busy Strand Blvd. It had once been the shoreline of the Thames. Up ahead was one of the more storied gathering spots in London, Trafalgar Square. In the center of the square sits Nelson’s Column, with a statue of the Naval hero Lord Nelson atop the column. It had been erected to commemorate the English naval Victory at Trafalgar over the French and Spanish fleets in the early 1800’s. The column is flanked by four stone Lions and surrounded by sitting areas and fountains where throngs gather daily to enjoy the summer weather. Across the Square, we could see the Greek Classical facade of the British National Gallery. We would explore it later. Double decked buses and cabs clogged the circle and ground traffic to a standstill that would exist until the wee hours of the early morning.

We found a stop for the “Original Tours” bus. For $44 each, we would get an open air tour of central London on one of those delightful double decked buses. The tour bus allows you to get off at any of the stops along the way and continue your journey with the next bus. It is a great way to see London. We waited but briefly before the next tour bus came along and picked us up. We got a seat topside and had a great vantage point. In order of our line of march, we saw first Buckingham Palace with the gilded Victoria monument in front or back of the palace, depending upon whom you asked. Daily at 11:30 A.M. there is the wonderful changing of the ceremonial guard. Many thousand flock there to witness the spectacle of pomp and circumstance. Our next area of view was the Hyde Park Speakers Corner, where every Sunday ordinary people orate on their topic of choice. The solid bulk of Wellington’s Arch and the stately Adsley house former homes of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington who had beaten Napoleon at Waterloo, lent a stately elegance to the area.

Horses and riders were ambling down the paths of the park when we passed Tyburn Place. From 1193 until 1783 the area had been the site of public executions in London, from the “Tyburn Tree.” It was then a public spectacle that attracted the mobs. Condemned men had been taken here in carts from the Old Bailey to have their sentences carried out. Along the way they were permitted a single pint of ale as a last Inn. Often sympathetic patrons would want to buy the convict another pint. He would be told by the warder that the man was “On the wagon” and not permitted any more. The saying came to be associated with those who couldn’t or wouldn’t have another drop of ale.

We crossed the Thames at the Horseferry St. crossing and beheld a magnificent view of the Parliament Buildings and England’s “Big Ben” tower. To the Brits, the actual bell in the tower is “Big Ben.” To the rest of the world it is the entire tower and bell. Sitting on the banks of the Thames, the site has become an iconic symbol of Britain. St. Martins in the field, a church of the royals, passed by in stately manner, as we drove along the Thames. We passed by Parliament Square, the seat of the United Kingdom’s government and circled the fabled Tower of London. We had visited this 1,000 year old fortress on a previous trip and enjoyed viewing the British Crown Jewels, Traitor’s gate and the colorfully dressed Beefeater guards. Two of Britain’s monarchs had been executed here and a few royal nephews were reportedly dispatched in one of the towers.

The Tower and the nearby eye catching expanse of the Tower Bridge, with its twin towers and suspension cables, are among  the more scenic areas for tourists in London. Brits like to joke that the Americans, who had bought the old London bridge and reassembled it in Arizona, had thought they were buying the Tower Bridge. You can pick up a cruise down the Thames here at West Minster pier. We had done that once before, but didn’t have time today.

        Crossing the Tower Bridge, we again viewed the splendor of Parliament on the Thames. The bus then drove us by the fabled architectural masterpiece of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, with its large central dome. It is built in the Baroque style and dates to the late 17th century.

The guide informed us that much of London had burned to the ground during the great fire of 1666. Rebuilding afterwards had been brisk. Much of London’s iconic architecture dates from after the great fire.

The tour finished at Leicester Square, a few blocks over from Trafalgar Sq. We had it in mind to visit the National Gallery of Art there and so headed in that direction. The traffic was brisk.

The Classical Greek facade of the National Gallery is imposing. Its three wings, each three stories tall, stretch the length of Trafalgar Square. Like most London museums, admission is free. We walked up the steps into swarms of visitors. We wandered along the great hallways admiring the magnificent collection. Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Turner, Tintoretto, Cannoletto and scores of other great masters adorn the walls. You can wander here for hours. We did for a time and then had a cappuccino and croissant in the comfortable cafe in the basement of the museum. Computer monitors there give you a better scan of the huge collection available.

From the National Gallery, we walked into Trafalgar Square and joined thousands of other who sat basking in the 70 degree sunshine of a beautiful summer day. Any number of languages drifted by our ears. Large school groups gathered here to mingle and enjoy people watching. We sat by the stone lions and did the same for a time. Then we walked back towards Covent Gardens.

It was early afternoon and the cafes along the periphery of the gardens were loaded with tourists, eating and sipping beverages. Street performers were entertaining the crowds and the vendors were doing a brisk business selling everything. We were tiring with the day, so we walked back toward our Bloomsbury Hotel and stopped for a Cappuccino on Oxford Place, watching the people traffic flow by us. At the hotel, I wrote up my notes and we settled in for a nap, tired with the day.

Later, we cleaned up and headed out for dinner. We had determined that we were not leaving London without having fish and chips in one of the many colorful pubs. The “Bloomsbury Pub” dating from 1895, was nearby. We walked over and entered its comfortable and cozy quarters. Smokers were consigned to the exterior of the pub. We sat on the second level and ordered fish and chips and a pint of Whistable Ale. The pub soon filled up with the after work crowd. The fish and chips were decent enough (L24). The ale was tepid and lacked much carbonation, not to our taste. Still it was what we had wished for.

The evening was still young, so we walked back over to Covent Gardens. The area was awash with a younger crowd, mingling about and looking for entertainment. Several street performers had circles of amused patrons gathered around them. The diners and cafes were filled with patrons. A steady stream of well dressed Londoners were headed into the nearby Opera. We people watched and wandered around the gardens, enjoying the experience. It was life and action in a great city. We were however tired with the day. We walked back to the Bloomsbury hotel and started repacking for tomorrow’s exit. I wrote up my notes, settled in with a martini and soon drifted off into the arms of Morpheus.

Saturday, July 16, 2011- London, England

We were up by 7 A.M. We read the London papers and had coffee in our room. Outside, a light drizzle was falling. We packed up out things and settled the hotel bill. A cab scooped us up outside the hotel and ferried up to Waterloo Station. The traffic was light for a Saturday morning. The real chaos was inside the terminal. Crowds of people, speaking a dozen languages, walked hither and yon, most laden with luggage of some sort.. We located the ticket booth for the British Rail Service and stood in line. Tickets to Southampton were L 34 each for the ninety minute ride South. The trains leave every half hour, so we boarded one almost immediately. It was wall to wall passengers headed for the seaside resorts on Southern England. We settled in across from a Spanish couple and watched the very green and very wet countryside flow by us. The train stopped frequently, so we watched with interest the various scramblings at each stop. The rain and gloomy skies put a damper on the day.

At Southampton, we got off at the cruise ship station and hailed a cab for a quick ride to the docks and the berth of the Crown Princess. It was raining and in the 60’s out. Two very cheerful luggage attendants took our bags and toted them aboard the ship. The Brits do always seem to be cheerful in any endeavor in which you encounter them. It is an attractive national trait.

We checked in with the ship’s shore personnel and were assigned Cabin #306 on the Baja Deck. (deck 11 to landlubbers.) The security grid processed us as unlikely terrorists and we walked up the gangway to enter this sea going Leviathan. We had been aboard three other Princess ships so the layout was familiar to us. The ship’s crew sent us on our way. We found and entered our cabin. The Cabin steward, Raul, introduced himself to us. These estimable personnel can make your stay ever so much nicer if they are competent. Raul turned out to be among the best that we had ever help us enjoy our stay aboard ship. All of our shore destination tickets had been delivered to us. Princess at times can be a marvel of organization. The rented tux had been delivered. I checked it out for size. Everything appeared to be okay. I didn’t find out until 20 minutes before dinner, on the first cruise formal night, that I had been given two right shoes. But I will detail that later.

The ship itself is an amazing vessel. The Crown Princess, registered in Bermuda, is one of the largest Princess ships, with room for 3,080 passengers and another 3,000 crew. She weighs in at 113,000 gross tons, is 952 feet in length and soars 18 decks above the waterline. It really is a floating five star hotel, with all of the same amenities.

We walked the gangways amidship to deck #15, the location of the Horizon’s lounge. It is a buffet-style offering that feeds most of the ship breakfast and lunch. Tuna, Rockfish and some curried tortelini with iced tea were very good. We watched the rain fall ashore from our perch high above the docks. On days like this shipboard, you just dine, and then settle in with a good book.

After lunch, our luggage was delivered to the cabin. We unpacked and stowed our gear. Then we watched a little of the ship’s television, read our books (The Ridge- Michael Koryta) and caught a nap. It is a nice way to spend a day.

Late in the afternoon, we mustered for an all hand’s lifeboat drill in the Deck #7 Explorer’s Lounge. The crew’s tone was light hearted but everyone paid attention. A long sea voyage could bring anything your way. It helped to know that the ship has both space and procedure to evacuate us in an emergency. We were all wearing our gaudy orange life vests with whistle and blinking lights as we listened to ships personnel explain emergency evacuation procedures.

The ship was scheduled to leave Southampton at 5 P.M. We stowed our life vests and made our way topside. We have a nice tradition while aboard ship. When the vessel leaves port, we get a glass of cabernet and stand topside watching the land drift behind us and feeling the fresh sea breeze on our faces. We stood at the ship’s rail and watched the mighty nautical leviathan maneuver her way through a series of canals on her way out into the English Channel. We were headed for Le Havre, France. As big as the Crown Princess is, you soon realize that she is a small ship in a mighty sea.

At 7 P.M. we made our way to the Michelangelo dining room on deck five. We stood in line for a bit and then were assigned a table, sharing it with Jim and Ann from Oxford, England and Susan and John from New Jersey. Conversation is always lively on ship at dinner. A lobster pate appetizer was followed by a tasty mushroom soup, a bowl of crawfish chowder and and some sinful chocolate cake, washed down with a Mondavi Cabernet. The dinner and the conversation were pleasant. I could see where this trip was going to pack on a few pounds. C’est la vie.

We had stayed late dining, so at 9:30 we headed up to our cabin. The seas were rough in the channel and the boat was rocking back and forth, even using her side-thruster stabilizers. We settled in to read our books and retire. The next two weeks would amount to a veritable sprint through the British isles. We were much looking forward to it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011- La Havre, France.

We were up by 5:45 A.M. We had lost an hour crossing a time zone in the English Channel. The Horizons cafe’ summoned us. It was awash to the gunnels with early breakfasters. There were slews of tours headed for Paris, the Normandy Beaches and all points in between. We sat with a personable Chinese couple for breakfast. These accidental meetings, for meals on a cruise, are among the most interesting features of the voyage.

The Explorer’s lounge, on deck number seven, was the rally point for four separate tours that morning. It was SRO. Outside, it was rainy, breezy and 58 degrees.

A crew member led our tour group to the gangway, as we walked ashore to board our huge double-decker bus for the three hour run into Paris. It was a little claustrophobic on the top deck, but we had a great view of the wet and green French countryside. Pascal was our driver and Karin our guide .She had an uncharacteristically well developed sense of humor for a French woman. She admonished us to “be French” for the day and assume an arrogant posture to gypsies and other vagrants who approached us bent on mischief. We laughed at her humor. She also said that if we wanted to see all of the art work that  the French had stolen  during military conquests over the centuries, we should head for the Louvre. That kind of humor, from the French, is endearing.

Karin gave us a warning about miscreants which we saw played out  several times during the next few hours. Young gypsy women would approach you with a clipboard and motion you to sign for some cause. The object was to get close enough to pick your pockets. Sure enough, when we first got off the bus at the Place De la Concorde, two of these miscreants approached us. Acting French, we dismissed them with an arrogant wave. The other scam, which we saw later in the day, involved a young girl finding a golden ring on the ground and asking tourists if it was theirs. The same objective was involved, getting close enough to pick your pockets.

The ride in was pleasant enough. Karin dropped us all off on the Coeur De La Reine, a few hundred yards from the Place de la Concorde. Mary and I had stayed near here some twenty years back. There were scores of huge French tricolors decorating the Champs Elysee. Bastille day had just taken place a few days back.

We made it across the busy Place De La Concorde, headed for a museum that hadn’t been here twenty years ago, L’Orangerie. It is studded with glass windows and has a small domed area at its center. Its original purpose had been to grow oranges and fruit for the French Royals, hence its name.

A small line led us into the newly made over building. E 7.5 each for tickets to the main collection. All transactions and instructions transpired in French, which we dredged up from our memory banks. All signs were in French only.

The main hallway of the small Museum offered a series of beautiful Renoir's that we had not yet enjoyed. The characteristic deep blue velvet and blacks were absent in these red tinted portraits of young women and a very young Renoir. They are exquisite. Several intriguing and colorful works by Gauguin and Cezanne were also of interest. There were even several intriguing Picassos from his more sane blue period. Whacky or not, the man could paint.

Ascending to the domed tower, we were treated to two rooms sporting enormous murals by Monet. The soft pastels were eye catching and attractive. Outside, a brief rainstorm crashed upon the domed roof as we walked the halls. We had fortuitous timing all day. In Normandy, it

rained all day as it did in Paris, with  several small showers, each of which we missed.

It was breezy and warm out as we wandered down the Tulleries to that most famous of museums, The Louvre. I smiled remembering Karin’s comments' about the origins of much of the art there. We could see I.M.

Pei’s famous glass Pyramids framed through a much older stone arch as we approached this “u shaped” French palace, built in the French Empire style.You would think that the glass pyramids would contrast with the dark stone of the Palace’s style, but they oddly enough compliment the entire structure.

We had spent several hours inside the Louvre on a previous trip. We well remembered the fantastic array of Charlemagne’s sword, the French Royal jewels, the headless statue of Samonthrace and many other iconic objects’ d’art. The Mona Lisa had then been as enigmatic for us as she is for everyone. Throngs of tourist wandered the Tulleries and around the two glass pyramids in the courtyard of the Louvre palace. We sat for a time there and watched the ebb and flow of people visiting from all across the globe. From the Louvre, we walked up the Rue D’Rivoli along the Seine and crossed over to the Isle de la Cite' at the Pont Neuf. This Isle had been the founding site of Paris some two thousand years ago.

We were headed for the splendor of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The size of the crowds in the square in front of the church surprised us. True, it was Sunday and ordinary Frenchmen were attending services. But, a long line snaked out into the courtyard for tourists whose intent was to walk briefly through the church to see for themselves the wonderful architecture. We had visited here on another occasion and lit candles for a family member who had recently passed. This time, we sat in the courtyard and people watched. It was as interesting as it always is. And I just know that everyone was looking towards the beflry of the church and imagining Quasimoto swinging back and forth on the bells. laughing maniacally.

We recrossed the Seine and hiked down to the large statue of St. Michael that introduces you to the Blvd. Ste. Michel. It is the entre' to the Latin Quarter, and the Sorbonne just down the boulevard. All of the cafes were sro with people having brunch or cappuccinos. We walked down the Blvd. St. Andre' Des Arts into the Latin Quarter. The area had been a hang out for college students in the 1800’s. At the time most of them were trained in and spoke classical Latin and Greek. That is where the name comes from. We found a vendor stand and ordered Mary a tasty hot dog, with cheese on a baguette, and a tuna on a baguette for me. With bottles of water, we walked about the quarter eating our sandwiches like the French do. We had discovered this lovely custom on a previous trek when wandering through the nearby Fleur Marche (Flower Market.)

The colorful cafes, with all manner of interesting people taking their ease on a Sunday morning in central Paris, are always interesting. We browsed the shop windows and the art stores as we made our way back toward the Seine and the Pont Alexander Trois. Our bus pick up time was nearing. We could see most of the Eiffel Tower just down the Boulevard from the Pont Alexander and the stylized roof dome of Napoleon’s tomb just down another Blvd. We had visted there and the nearby Musee’ Rodin on our previous visit.  We sat on the bridge enjoying the skyline for a time until noisy piccolo mostri (little monsters) chased us off.

Up ahead, lay the Petit and Grand Palais. We hadn’t yet been in either  structure. Time would preclude that for us today as well. We walked on to the Champs Elysee and again admired the waving French Tricolors hung along the storied Blvd. We could see the Arc d’Triomphe in the distance. It was picturesque and stately. Napoleon had ordered it built after viewing the Arch of Constantine in Rome, when he carried off much of the loot to the Louvre. We had visited the Arc before as well.

We sat for a time, outside the Petit Palace, and watched the colorful panoply of tourists flow by us. Families as usual did not show off well in large groups. It was nearing 3:00 P.M. and we were due back on the bus. We had walked 5-6 miles through central Paris and were ready for a nap. The grand cruiser loaded us up and we set out back for Normandy. The rains came with a vengeance as we neared the coast. We were lucky in the timing of our travels. On a previous visit, we had stopped at Honfleur on the coast just across the seine from L’Havre. It is a replica of the Bergen waterfront in Norway. The Viking visage had startled us when we visited. The origin of the name Normandy is of course Norse Men. They heralded from Scandinavia originally and had laid down this historic site on the French Coast. Much of L’Havre had been bombed and leveled by the allies during W.W.II. Honfleur had been spared.

The bus rolled into the ship’s dock area around 6:30 P.M. that night. We climbed the gangway, made it through the electronic security and stopped by our cabin to write up my notes and enjoy a martini. It had been a long but interesting day.

Dinner for us was the Davinci dining room on deck six. We snagged a table for two and enjoyed some wonderful escargot, pumpkin soup, pasta in lobster sauce and a sinful chocolate pudding. We really enjoyed our meal. We had noticed that however enjoyable good company is at dinner, you lose your attention to the wonderful food when you are gabbing away with others. It was an ironic  attention-span dichotomy that Andy Warhol would love to have filmed.

We were tired with the day and returned to our room to read and chill out. The seas were rough in the Bay of Biscay as the great ship set sail for Edinburgh on the northeast coast of the U.K. Adieu Paris.!

Monday, July 18, 2011- aboard the Crown Princess in Britain’s North Sea.

We got up late this morning. The skies were cloudy and gray and the seas were rough. It was a day at sea for us. There was no urgency to do anything. Sometimes, a day at sea can be among the most relaxing and enjoyable parts of the voyage. At 8:45 A.M. we made our way to the Horizons Lounge on deck fifteen. We met John and Susan, from New Jersey, there and sat down to a breakfast of eggs and fruit. We chatted for a while with them, enjoying the unhurried luxury of the morning.

After breakfast, we made our way topside. The seas were rolling and the far horizons gray and rain filled. Usually, the scene topside on a liner is a portrait of hundreds of sunbathers crowding every available deck chair and filling the swimming pool. Today, the top decks were empty. It looked decidedly strange, viewing the barren decks, like a scene from a movie where everyone has already been evacuated from the ship, only they forgot to tell you.

In the decks 5-7 promenade areas, the aisles were aswarm with passengers browsing the shops and looking for things to do. It was too crowded for us, so we made our way back to the cabin and picked a book to read for the afternoon. Reading at sea, on a cloudy afternoon, is decidedly a pleasant experience. Mary did a load of whites in one of the laundry rooms and we then drifted off to an afternoon nap, one of my favorite past times.

Later that afternoon, we enjoyed a drink on the balcony, watching the rolling sea, something I could do forever. Then we made preparations for getting ready for the “Formal Dinner” night aboard ship. It was an occasion when most of the ship’s male passengers wore tuxedos or dark suits and ties and the women  formal gowns to dinner. It is a nice tradition that appears to be fast fading in the new age of informal dining.

Everything on the tuxedo seemed to fit pretty well until I tried on the shoes. I had checked the right shoe when we first boarded and assumed everything was okay. That was when I discovered that the ship had given me two right shoes. It would have been funny were we not twenty minutes away from dinner. But then, if this was the worst part of the day, it was still a pretty good day at sea.

Mary called Passenger Services and asked for help. I rounded up Raul, our cabin steward, and asked for help. Between them, a pair of left foot shoes arrived in the next thirty minutes, one of which matched the shoe that I had been given. Not bad, considering the complexity of activities and things to do that the crew already had been assigned. Clad in two shoes, we made our way to the Michelangelo dining room on deck five.

The gangways and restaurant were crowded with elegantly dressed men and women. It was a visage of a cruise era past, when formality had been the norm. We were seated with another couple from New Jersey. We chatted amiably while munching on crab quiche, asparagus soup, filet of halibut with green beans and new potatoes and a chocolate confection for dessert, accompanied with a Mondavi cabernet. Life is good.

After dinner, we walked the gangways along deck seven enjoying the spectacle of so many well dressed people taking their ease on a great ship. We stopped by the Explorer’s Lounge and enjoyed the antics of a comedian/magician who performed an hour long show. He was good at his trade.

We didn’t feel like late night entertainment so we made our way back to our cabin to read for a time and then retire. We gain an hour tonight as we recross the time zones on our way to Edinburg, Scotland.

Tues. July 19,2011- Edinburgh, Scotland     

We were up early on this fine morning in the North Sea. The clock read 4:45 A.M.,but it was already light outside. The great ship had dropped anchor in the Firth of Forth, Scotland. It is an inlet of the North Sea, North of Edinburgh. We made our way to deck fifteen and had breakfast with an elderly couple from Arizona. Either one of them had had several cups of coffee already or they had not talked to anyone in a long time:)

The ship was tendering its passengers ashore today, utilizing its fleet of small lifeboats. From the balcony, I could enjoy the visage of rural Scotland. The lands around the inlet are shades of green and tan, reflecting crops we later learned of barley and wheat, supplies for the whiskey making production prominent in the area.

The tender pushed off from the ship at 8:00 A.M. We made the short ride to a very small pier ashore. A band of native pipers, in full Scottish regalia, welcomed us with lively tunes even at this early hour. The burr from their speech was as thick as the heather. We filed into the large bus and began our tour for the day. Our guide, Ian McDonald, gave us a brief synopsis of Scotland.

Scotland is about the size of the state of Maine in the USA. It harbors five million residents and is noted for the production of Scotch Whiskey, woolen products and various agricultural goods. Most of its population lives around the two major cities, that of Glasgow, and around Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital.

For the Scots, history is a present state of mind. Tales of Robert The Bruce, first King of Scotland and defeater of the English King Edward II, still live in their minds. The recent movie “Braveheart” had done much to stir up nationalistic feelings. A taste of the revenues, from North Sea Oil, also added to the mix. University educations are free to native Scots, but jobs are scarce and in the cities, people struggle to get by.

Famous historical figures like Alexander Graham Bell, Joseph Lister, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott all hail from this neck of the woods. Whatever problems the Scottish economy is undergoing, didn’t detract from the beauty of the countryside. Sheep, with their colorfully painted spots, crops of wheat, barley and the green grass of a wet climate offered a portrait of rural beauty to us, as we made our way into the Capital.

The Georgian style solidity of the buildings in Edinburgh first claims your attention. They are stately, if grime sooted from the weather and acid rain. We passed by Holly Rood, the Royal Castle in Edinburgh. The Queen stays here while in the area. The new parliament building is an exercise in bad taste. Someone had let some architects, with an odd sense of design, off the leash here.

We were headed for the rocky expanse of Edinburgh castle. It looms over the area from atop the rocky volcanic pinnacle of an old lava plug. The black stone beneath its foundation forms a significant mound upon which a castle has been placed for as long as anyone remembers. The approach to the castle, from Holly Rood, is called the “Royal Mile.” It is a series of boutiques, pubs, shops and Inns flanking a cobbled stone street that runs for a mile, gently rising up to the castle’s main gate, which is protected by a drawbridge and a moat. Statues of William Wallace and Robert Bruce flank the entrance. A wooden fortification had first stood here in the 1400s.

Ian shepherded us up to the gate where he procured tickets for us to enter the castle. This wasn’t an idle service. When we left the castle, a few hours later, the line to buy tickets and enter was over an hour’s wait.

Before we entered the castle, we walked through a small outdoor stadium. Here, the Scots hold “Tattoos.” They are fife, pipers and drum competitions that draw thousands of spectators. It is a much treasured event by local Scots.

Inside the castle, the cobbled path ascends in a spiral that takes you to the very top of the ramparts of the castle. Ancient, black metal cannon stand guard even still over the landscape, which stretches out for miles before you. At the top of the castle a courtyard, about 100 feet square, makes up the central keep. In one of the four buildings, we got in line to view the “Scottish Crown Jewels.” Like the Scots themselves, they are a parsimonious offering. A large and ornate sword, a tiara, a crown and an orb make up the treasure. Surrounding it are a multi media presentation of Scottish history and all of its major figures.

Next to this building sits the “Great Hall.” Inside, the walls are lined with those wonderful Claymores, Scottish broadswords, pikes and other weaponry. Different suits of armor and other medieval bric a brac line the walls of this stately and comfortable ceremonial hall. We enjoyed the pennants and remnants of Scottish military history. Underneath the hall, a series of steps winds down a few levels to a basement complex where German prisoners of war from W.W. II, and other prisoners from several conflicts, had been held. Their story is memorialized in implements that they left behind.

Across the courtyard, in what had been the main chapel of the castle, is now a moving memorial to the Scots who lost their lives in W.W. I. The valiant highlanders had given much to the cause. These fine lads are remembered here, with the names and colors of their regiments, for younger Scots to come and remember. It is a ceremonial hall of remembrance worthy of those whom it honors.

We stopped briefly in the castle's “Redcoat Cafe” and had scones with jam and clotted cream and cappuccino. It is a wonderful combination that we were becoming addicted to. The rains broke overhead as we were inside. Flocks of tourist from many countries flowed into the cafe.

It was time for us to make our way out. As we walked down the slippery cobbles stoned paths, throngs of other tourist were making their way in. The line to enter the castle snaked through the stadium and down the lane of the Royal Mile. Best advice is to get here early and wear good shoes. Also, carry some rain gear. And do try the clotted cream and jam on scones.

We tried to browse the shops below the castle, but the crowds were just too big. We drifted in this sea of people and eventually sat at a bus stop waiting for our grand chariot. It came shortly and we headed back toward the Firth of Forth some 45 minutes away. We passed again through the pastoral countryside, pregnant with wheat, and oats and barley.

At the small pier on the Firth, we boarded a large ferry that was carrying Princess passengers to the ship. It was SRO. The sky overhead was blue and the air cool. Pipers were trilling their mournful sounds on the dock as we said good bye to Edinburgh and all of its history.

Aboard ship, we had a brief lunch in the Horizons cafe and wandered topside. The decks were empty. The odd visage of a large movie screen playing a film to no audience was another effect worthy of a science fiction movie. From the top deck, we looked out on the pastoral beauty of the Scottish Country side all around us and were glad we had come to this wet and beautiful land.

We read for a while in our cabin and then made our way to the gym on deck eighteen. It is fully equipped and helps you feel less guilty for the enormous quantities of food you are inhaling. An hour of this was enough to slake our guilt for the day.

Dinner in the DaVinci dining room was lively. We shared the table with couples from Virginia, Wisconsin and Ohio. Calamari, black bean soup, Red Snapper filet and Rocky Road Iced Cream did a good job in reversing the effects of our gym visit.

We decided to take in the entertainment in the Princess Theater. A talented pianist, by the name of Kyle Esplin a native Scot, much entertained us in the musical style of Jerry Lee Lewis. The man has talent. It was a great show. Yawning at the 11:30 P.M. hour, we made our way to the cabin to read and retire.. The ship had weighed anchor during dinner. We were headed for a small firth at the top of Scotland, Invergordon, just north of Inverness.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011- Invergordon, Scotland

We arose later this morning at 8 A.M. Our tour wasn’t scheduled until this afternoon, so we had the morning to goof off shipboard. We hit the gym, for an hour of weights and stationary bikes, to help stem the caloric tide. Then, we had a late breakfast in the deck 15 Horizon’s cafe. The place always seemed to have a crowd anytime that we entered. Maybe it is the ambiance of sitting 18 decks high over the ocean and surrounding countryside that entices a longer and leisurely breakfast.

Early this morning, the ship had entered and berthed in Cromarty Firth in the far North of Scotland. We were looking forward to seeing some of the rural beauty of the brae-covered hills.

We idled on the deck promenades and whiled away a quiet morning in the firth, reading for a time on our balcony and enjoying the cool air and beautiful surroundings. Back home, the Eastern seaboard was sweltering under 100 degree temperatures.

The Princess Theater on deck 7 was our rallying point for the afternoon tour. Crew members led us down to the disembarkation ramp and we exited the ship and mounted up our bus. Driver Colin McDonald and guide Edith Ross would be our hosts for the afternoon.

The bus drove along the picturesque Cromarty Firth. It is one of five fjords in the area. “Firth” is the anglicized equivalent of the Norwegian term “fjord.” The area had served as a massive Naval staging area during the Second World War. Now, a floating oil rig sat idly out in the firth, waiting for repairs. The North Sea Oil boom, supplying its rigs and workers, had provided a brief economic spurt for the area.

Edith gave us a profile on the surrounding area. Ross and Sutherland Counties, in the far North of Scotland, are a “protected Zone.” Dolphins, seals and many species of birds are protected from all hunters but natural ones. Salmon fishing is very popular in the area. The production of Scotch Whiskey, at the large Glenmorangie distillery, also provides many local jobs. The distillery produces over four million liters of good Scotch yearly. Wheat, oats and barley, grown in local fields, are the main ingredients for this much desired nectar.

We traversed several local hills and dove up along Dornoch Firth, enjoying the scenic and nearly empty countryside. This is rural Scotland at its prettiest. We were headed up into what the tour called the “highlands” and the locally famous “Falls of Shin.” Conversations with local residents later told us that this area has but minor hills. The real highlands” are in North Central Scotland. They are traversed by what they call “class B & C” roads, not really suitable for huge landcruisers of the tourists’ groups. The scenic venues, from the movie “Braveheart,” would have to remain something we would imagine in the far away hills.

The bus passed through the scenic village of Alness. The buildings are of Edwardian design, and made of brown sandstone. Many floral baskets hung from the lampposts, giving the small town color and charm. The road signs are in both English and Gaelic. The area shares their heritage with Ireland, just a few score miles across the Irish Sea.

Edith showed us a patch of “tatties” (potatoes.) I think it was the first time I have actually seen the fabled tuber in the raw fields, though I have eaten it all of my life. Tatties and “Haggis,” a sheep’s stomach, lined with oatmeal and other delectables, are the local favorites for dinner. Edith  also solved another riddle for us, that of the “painted sheep.” The shepherds apparently paint the underbelly of the male rams. When the rams mount the females, they leave a painted spot on the ewe’s back, indicating that the animal has been “serviced,” an important component of animal husbandry. After that explanation, I now look at the painted ewes somewhat differently, the hussies.

These lower highlands are composed of sandy soil that is still water laden, creating a “highlands bog” of sorts. It makes for difficult road construction. The natives call them “floating roads” because of their tendency to rise and fall with differing weights traversing them and climactic conditions. There is also a fierce little bug called the “Michie” that causes much aggravation to residents during rainy seasons.

The guide told us of a condition with which we were much familiar. Like their Irish Cousins after them, the Scottish peasants had been “displaced” by the Duke of Sutherland in the 1700s. It was a mass exodus to clear the land and make it more suitable for large scale agriculture. The ancestral Duke of Sutherland had owned much of this area of Northern Scotland and been among the wealthiest gentry in Europe at the time. We were to see the ancestral manor, perched over a high cliff, later in the day.

The dispossessed Scots had emigrated, in starving thousands, to Canada, Australia and the United States. It was not a bright spot in Scottish history. But, their descendants thrive in many Scottish enclaves around the world. We had come upon many such colorful settlements in Nova Scotia, Canada and in the Western Carolinas of the U.S.

The hills here are seeded with second growth conifers. The original woods having been long ago been removed for lumber and firewood. There were  sheep aplenty and the fields lush and ripe with grains. We arrived at the tourist area of Shin Falls. It features a large caravan park (camping area) and a tourist outpost that sells food, all manner of tourist baubles and bric a brac. The main attraction, after descending a series of steep and slippery steps, is a small falls area in the local stream. During the salmon run, whole schools of the red fish “climb the ladder” of the Falls here, in their journey to lay their eggs upstream. We saw none today. A few wader-clad fishermen were trying their luck near the Falls. The rest of us stood looking at the small falls and wondering what we were doing here and if we were really that gullible to come this far to stand around a small falls in a river and pretend that is a momentous natural attraction.

We had cappuccinos and wonderful scones, with clotted cream and jam in the tourist center. We shared a table with Jim and his wife Jo from Oxford. We had met them at dinner a few night back. We had tried a sip of the local Nectar (whiskey) and talked about its virtues. It gave me the idea to pick up some of this noble drink when next we stopped.

On the way down from Shin Falls, we passed Sutherland Manor. It is a three-story, Georgian-style manor of brown sandstone, with 365 windows looking out from the venerable home. The Sutherlands had ruled the area for hundreds of years like a feudal fiefdom.

Royal Dornoch village was our first stop. The brown sandstone Cathedral here dates to the 13th century. In curious juxtaposition of historical eras, the current local point of pride is that pop star Madonna had had her son Rocco christened here.

The flowers hanging from many of the buildings in the village, are eye-catching and restful to look at. We wandered the town for a brief few minutes, stopping in a small store for a fifth of Glenfiddich. We were in Scotland and I meant to salute it properly later on our Balcony.

The day was waning as we motored through the quaint village of Tain. It had been chartered by Saxon King Harold of Essex in the mid 11th century. History is a present and everyday state of mind in these parts.

As a last bit of cultural information, Edith talked about the horrendous taxes here in Scotland. Gasoline sells for almost $9 a gallon. Home taxes are very steep. All of the UK was finding that their very generous social and medical programs come with a precipitous cost and societal effects that troubled the average working citizen.

The bus rolled ship side, just after 6:30 P.M. We were among the last to board her before she got underway. We had a quick shower and headed off to dinner in the DaVinci dining room. We were seated with ‘Trish” from Southern California and Roy and Rita from Boston. Trish’s cousin and room mate had unexpectedly bailed out on her in Edinburgh, heading home for California, homesick.

Crab meat and asparagus appetizers, Caesar salads, a red snapper filet and cherries jubilee made for another memorable repast. A glass of Mondavi cabernet accompanied the pleasant meal. After dinner, we wandered across to the Princess Theater. A talented pianist, by the name of Ray Cousins, was playing a “tribute to Frank Sinatra.” Ray had apparently worked for Sinatra, in Las Vegas years back. He entertained us with some memorable tunes from “Old Blue Eyes.”

It was late, but this was our only time in Scotland. Back in the cabin, I opened up the GlenFiddich and drank a hearty toast to an estimable land of people from whom some of my own had sprung.

Thursday, July 21, 2011- Aboard the Crown Princess in the North Sea, headed south for Belfast, Northern Ireland.

We were up early at 8 A.M. The sun had risen at 5 A.M. this far North. It was 50 degrees out and the seas were calm. We were 1,000 miles north of Southampton, as the ship made its way through the Oriskany Islands. They were dark, volcanic and brooding looking off on the horizon.

The gym on deck 18 was our first stop. We spent an hour hitting the weights, treadmills and stationary bikes. We were losing the caloric battle but still trying valiantly to stem the tide.

At breakfast, in the Horizons lounge, we sat with Maggie Stuart from Glasgow. She is a nurse and chatted amiably about her lovely city and the culture and mores of her people. Although both charming and pleasant, her thick Scottish burr made half of her speech unintelligible to me. I nodded in the right places. I hoped and tried to carry on an intelligent conversation. My own Great Grandmother had hailed from her city in the 1870’s. A poor serving girl, with the undistinguished name of Elizabeth Smith, there was little chance of tracking down her origins when we visited there.

In our cabin, we read for a time. The Kindles are wonderful in that they store dozens of books in the small plastic wafer that weighs but a few ounces. Then, we watched that magical movie “Avatar.” I much enjoyed the segue into the future after walking so much through the past these last few weeks.

        A leisurely lunch and an extended nap made for an extremely enjoyable day, ship-board. A late afternoon sample of that estimable nectar, Glenfiddich had us in motion for dinner. It was another “formal night” at dinner. Everyone would dress in their finest to parade the main promenades in a floating version of the “Easter Parade.” Confident that I had two shoes this time, we dressed and headed out for the evening. We stopped in the very crowded “Crooner’s Lounge” and enjoyed a drink amidst the other nicely decked out passengers. It really is nice to see people dress up after being in “pools scruff” or traveling gear all day.

       8:30 P.M. found us in line at the DaVinci dining room. We were seated with a charming Canadian Couple. They hailed from the far North of Quebec, near the border of Nova Scotia and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In that we live on the border of Canada, we had a lot in common and were able to talk with them about Canadian politics and the relative merits of their parliamentary system versus the U.S. presidential format.  A lox and prawn appetizer, salmon bisque, Spicy Tiger Prawns and an English Toffey Ice Cream made for another enjoyable repast. Who knows when we would dine like this again?

       After dinner, we retired to our cabin to read and enjoy the waning light of this Northern climb. It was still light at 10:00 P.M. and cool, blessedly cool. Our next stop would be in  Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Friday, July 21,2011- Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The ship had berthed at the Belfast docks overnight. We arose at 7 A.M. It was 53 degrees, sunny and crisp out. From our balcony, we could see the activities of a busy commercial port. The Harland & Wood ship repair yard seemed hard at work. The Titanic had been built here. The Union Jack flew from various flag poles. A band of Irish pipers were playing dockside. We heard and enjoyed them play the stirring tune of “The Gary Owen” and the more plaintive appeal of “Danny Boy” (Londonderry aire- to the Northern Irish)

We breakfasted in the Horizons cafe with couples from California and Arizona. The talk was friendly, as we all readied for our day in Northern Ireland. The area had been a war zone for much of my lifetime, until the early 1990’s peace accords. I was anxious to see a city that I had watched on television for decades. Our group met in the Princess Theater and then walked down the gangways to our bus. We were touring the scenic Antrim Coast and the legendary “Giant’s Causeway” today.

Driver Greg and tour guide Emily greeted us and we were off. Emily briefly explained the evolution of Northern Ireland and the partition of its six counties in 1922 from the 26 counties of Eire to the South. A recent plebiscite had shown that 60% of the voters in Northern Ireland still favored allegiance to the Crown over unification with Eire to the South. Another vote is scheduled in two years.

Agribusiness is a major source of commerce in the north, after ship repair. Barley, wheat and oats supply the makings for good Irish whiskey. Sheep, woolen products and cattle for beef are the other economic mainstays.

As the bus careened north along the motorway, we could see Lough Neagh in the distance. The large Loch touches five of the six counties and is a source of eels for food. It’s not my taste, but to each their own. Patches of potatoes, both queens and reds, reminded us that this is after all Ireland with its green, green grass, sheep and friendly people.

It was a 90 minute ride to the North Coast. Emily did her best to fill us in with cultural chit chat. She and her colleagues had a name for the chatter, “MMBA’s” (mindless minutiae of bugger all.”) Still, it kept our interest up. We stopped at a high promontory along the Antrim coast to look out upon the ocean. The dark visage of Scotland lay just 20 miles across the Irish Sea. Since ancient times, fishermen and other merchants had traded across the sea with their Gaelic cousins.

Beneath us, along the water’s edge, we could see the thin rope bridge that led out to a small island. The fishermen use it and the tourists love to walk out on its shaky expanse and be photographed there. It is scenic and beautiful Ireland at its best.

The bus traversed the Antrim coastal road. We enjoyed the visage of a very blue Irish sea and the dark expanse of Scotland just at the horizon. On a sunny day, the view along the coast is incomparable. Finally we pulled into the very large complex that is the “Giant’s

Causeway.” A good sized Inn sits atop a rise of green land that is about two hundred feet above the sea below. The actual formation, that is called the Giant’s Causeway, is a series of basalt columns that had been pushed from an ancient  volcano into the sea. The cool seawater had fractured the basalt mass of rock into a tight collection of octagonal columns that looks like a man made causeway extending out into the sea. The surrounding cliffs are craggy and erose with that dark volcanic appearance that is eerie at sunset and in the early morning.

        We got off the bus into a virtual sea of other tourists from everywhere. Some of them were from the Princess. Others were from various land cruisers on tours of one sort or another. We walked down the steeply sloping roadway towards the sea. A shuttle bus was available for those who were unable to make the walk.

        It was about a 3/4 mile walk to the sea. Along the way we were treated to the very blue ocean crashing upon these dark volcanic rocks. The coast of Southern California is similar in appearance. A procession of other pilgrims was walking in both directions, enjoying the sun and sea of a beautiful day oceanside.

At the bottom of the hill, we came upon the first rock formations. They are geometric in their octagonal shapes. Your mind does a shift, wondering at the precise nature of the rock shapes. It is easy to see how the early inhabitants made up so many stories about a giant walking across these stones to Scotland after an old enemy. The Irish do love to spin a yarn and this place had inspired many.

Tourists were scrambling all over the various rock formations with cameras snapping all around us.  We did the same, smiling for posterity. The cool ocean air was invigorating and the warm sun made you feel glad to be alive. The scenery here would never tire you. We saw the path ahead, leading up another quarter of a mile to a bluff along the sea, but we didn’t think we had time to pursue it. I can see why you would want to stay at an Inn here and wander the cliffside trails for a few days.

The walk back up the hill reminded us of our age, but it felt good. We sat along the wayside at intervals, to enjoy the crashing surf on the dark rocks below us. Your eyes could drink in this visage forever. Finally, we returned to the top and the swarm of tourist around the Inn. A small ice cream stand was under siege. The gift shop was wall to wall people. We saw and said hello to John and Susan from New Jersey and then walked the cliff path, enjoying the view. A bus load of Spanish teenagers were singing and carrying on like all kids their age. They were happy to be her and young and alive. Good for them!

After an hour, the bus returned and we filed into our seats glad we

had come here. Emily directed the bus a few miles down the picturesque coast road to the small seaside town of Port Rush. This is a seaside resort that the everyday Irish come to. We exited the bus and walked along the harbor front. Small fishing craft lay at anchor in the protected harbor behind a breakwall. The beach area was flush with small children running hither and yon. The ocean temps were but sixty degrees, but people were swimming and wading in the cool surf.

A miniature amusement park, above the beach, offered rides and games for the smaller people. Ice cream stands did a brisk business. The area looked both prosperous and happy.

We walked down Main Street, eyeing the small shops. Most are of the “beachy” variety, trinkets and beach bric a brac. They were all busy though. We found a small cafe named “Morelli’s” and sat down for some good coffee and those delightful scones with clotted cream and jam. It was becoming a favorite of ours. Then, we found an internet cafe and tried to send a few messages into the ether. The service was “dial up” and as slow as molasses.

The walk back was enjoyable. Lots of people were here on vacation. They all seemed as happy as families could be at the beach on a sunny day in July. It was a far cry from the war torn visage of Ireland a few decades back. It was good for me to see this.

It was mid afternoon and the day was waning. We had a ninety minute run back into Belfast ahead of us. We saddled up and headed in. Emily did her best with MMBA to entertain us. We enjoyed the very green visage of a rural Ireland from our windows. The bus made good time and Emily decided to give us a brief glimpse of the City of Belfast.

The hundred year old City Hall and adjacent Victoria Square here are solid and impressive. Statues, flags and memorials draw people to the square for all manner of celebrations.  The waterfront and downtown area had been heavily bombed during W.W. II. Many of the buildings here are of newer construction. Belfast, like much of Eire, sits on a sandy bog. The bedrock is 90 feet below the surface. It called for some creative engineering solutions. They don’t always work however. The city had erected a large statue and monument to Victoria’s consort Prince Albert. The foundation had started to slip beneath it and it now tilts discernibly to one side, making it the local version of the leaning tower of Pisa.

The fortress-like edifice of the main police station, with its fifteen- foot fencing, is one of the sole reminders of the “troubles.” I had seen this building on television for years. It was a grim reminder of a time of strife in Eire that is hopefully now past. We didn’t get to see “bogside” the Catholic enclave, but I could see the Irish tricolor flying above a tall building in the distance. The old loyalties die hard among the Irish.

The bus carted us back through the Harland and Wood shipyards and other repair facilities to our dockside berth. A light rain fell at 5:00 P.M. as we sat on our Balcony and enjoyed a dram of Bushmills that I had purchased along our route. Hey, this is Eire! What did you think, I would be drinking a pepsi?

We cleaned up for dinner and headed off to the Michelangelo dining room. We were meeting John and Susan from New Jersey. Sylvia, an English woman and her husband, whose name I never got because of all the chatter, joined us. We had a mushroom tort, oyster soup, filet of salmon and some Bavarian Chocolate cake, washed down with a Mondavi Cabernet. It was a memorable repast like the others.

After dinner, Mary and I rode up to the “Skywalkers Lounge” on deck 18. The views here, out over the ocean, are inspiring. The place didn’t open until 10 P.M. though and that was too late for these pilgrims. We repaired to our cabin where I sampled another dram of Bushmlls, just to make sure I had the taste down. We read for a time and then retired on a cool night in Ireland. The ship had left her berth during dinner and was headed across the Irish Sea to Greenock, the port of Glasgow, Scotland.

Saturday, July 23,2011- Glasgow, Scotland

The sun was already shining at 5:45 A.M. as we arose to greet the new day. It was 53 degrees and cool outside. The great ship was making her way up the Firth of Clyde on her way to Greenock, the ocean port for Glasgow. We made ready for the day and then breakfasted in the Horizon’s lounge on deck 15. The green hillsides of the Firth are pastoral of visage and restful to the eyes. We enjoyed them over a leisurely cup of coffee.

We gathered in the Deck seven Explorer’s lounge to meet for our day tour of Glasgow. The ship had berthed at Greenock as we met. The group descended to the shore gangway and we walked onto the dock. Scottish pipers, in kilts and full regalia, were playing to entertain the cruise ship passengers. Touristy or not, it is a picturesque and much welcomed touch for our arrival.

Jim, our driver, and Ludtka our guide, welcomed us aboard the bus. We set off. Ludtka gave us a brief history of the area. The River Clyde ship builders had been preeminent in their field. The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth ocean liners are among many others that had been built in the 30 odd ship builders here along the river. There are but a few left, BAE Systems and The Ferguson ship builders. They do mostly ship repairs now. The industry had fled here and Belfast for places where cheaper labor is available. Just across the Clyde, a Trident submarine base still operates.

In the 1700’s, Glasgow had been one of the chief importers of tobacco, grown in the Americas and distributed to the British and European markets. Along with iron and steel production and ship building, tobacco had given the area its economic base.

Glasgow was to become a pleasant surprise for us. The ornate Victorian architecture and the charm of the red sandstone buildings from the 19th century, are captivating to the eye. The City looks comfortable to live in.

City Hall and George Square are charming. Statues of a very young and equestrian Queen Victoria, Robert Peel, after whom Policemen had been called “Bobbies,” James Watt, the developer of the Steam Engine and other worthies are memorialized here. Hanging baskets of flowers and green lawns mark the Square as a wonderful gathering point for all of Glasgow.

We stopped for a brief visit to the Glasgow Cathedral, the Church of St. Mungo. He had been a 6th century religious cleric who had founded a religious community here. The aging, red-sandstone church is a  built on two levels, like the Church of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy. The architecture is charming. To its rear, we could see the varied and ornate headstones of generations past. Behind the church is the old Royal Infirmary. In these Halls, Joseph Lister had tested and perfected his theories about germs and antiseptic treatments.

In the square, between these buildings, we looked up and saw a sign with the City’s unique seal. A bird on a tree, a fish with a ring and a bell. I am sure we were told the meaning of this quaint seal, but it is lost to me in the retelling. We reboarded the bus and drove through the quaint old city. Jim drove along Rottenrow, across Macleod St. and down past the old seaman’s hall at 100 Duke St. The tales these streets could tell are without number.  High Street and Gallowsgate took us to Glasgow Green, one of the many green parks of the city. The aging bulk of the restored “Peoples Palace” charmed us, as did the Victoria Monument in front of it, donated by the folks at Royal Dalton China. We passed by the towering Trafalgar Monument and made our way into the city’s west end, through the business district along the Clyde River. A graceful “Arc Bridge” crosses the Clyde here. It has a bend in the suspension cables, so the locals humorously call it the “squinty bridge.”

The Finniesten area is one of old slums cleared for urban renewal. I thought then of my great grandmother, Elizabeth Smith. The poor had lived in this section in the 1800’s. She was probably among them, though I have no way to check on that. Suffice it to say Lizzie, you are remembered this day by one of your own who came back to commemorate you.

The far west end is a tonier part of Glasgow. The University of Glasgow, with all of its charming, red sandstone and ivied buildings, sprawls across the district and enhanced by the picturesque KelvinGrove Park. Engineering and ship building are important elements of the curriculum.

Nearby the University lay our next stop, The Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

The massive three-story edifice is constructed of red sandstone in the Victorian style. Crenellated bastions and turrets bedeck its roofline in charming array. We entered and spent an hour in this wonderful art gallery. The central atrium is two stories high of space lined by galleries in a large rectangle. Down each of several corridors are an eclectic array of exhibits that hold your interest. Great paintings by Dutch and Italian masters wait for you in the upper galleries, along with works by Monet, Millet and Titian. A sculpture by Rodin seemed right for the long gallery hall.

In curious modern juxtaposition, and hanging out over the atrium, is  an array of painted face masks that startles you. A replica of a W.W.II Spitfire, hanging from the ceiling, seems somehow proper in its place. We saw and enjoyed Claymore Broadswords, suits of armor from several counties, interspersed with a stuffed elephant and other wild creatures. The curators had laid out their exhibits in an eclectic array that both startled and amused us. It felt like we were walking through someone’s very old but very orderly attic. We were absolutely charmed by the place.

The museum glaze soon set in, even in so interesting a gallery as this one. We repaired to the first floor cafe and enjoyed some good coffee and those delightful scones with clotted cream and jam. Now we have to figure out how to get this delightful treat back home:)

The museum was filling up with students and other tourists as we left. Admission is free and a visit here is a worth the time.

On the way back to the ship, we passed through the Clyde Tunnel. Traffic into the city was at a standstill. The Glasgow Rangers were playing this afternoon and the city loved its “Football Teams.” (soccer to Americans) We drove along the Clyde. It is a tidal river and at low tide, the only navigable channel is the one that had been dredged through its center. The rest t of the river becomes a gooey mud flats until the next high tide.

We arrived back at the dock and walked through security. A Scotch distillery exhibitor was handing out drams of the nectar. Why not? The sun was over the yard arm someplace on the planet. It tasted like malt with a breath of peat and heather. Not a bad way to end the day with a dram or two of this.

Aboard ship, we had lunch with a couple from 1,000 Oaks, California and chatted amiably about our tour and theirs. This too is one of the more attractive features of cruising, sharing a meal and touring experiences with interesting people. After lunch, we repaired to our cabin. I wrote up my notes and we settled in for a delightful two hour nap. Life is good.

Five P.M. found us in the deck 18 gym for a one hour workout. We were struggling mightily with the caloric battle, but determined to at least wage the battle.

The ship was pulling away from the dock as we sat on our cabin balcony and watched Scotland drift behind us. I sipped an estimable  nectar of Glenfiddich as we motored up the Clyde. I thought then of Lizzie Smith leaving here so long ago. She must have been a formidable woman to leave here for a far America and a hoped for future. Bless her for taking the initiative. I raised a glass to her memory and to all of the Scots. They are a hearty and much admired breed of rugged individualists, whom I much admire. Should Auld acquaintances not be forgot, right Robbie?

We met Mike and Kathy MacDonald for dinner in the Davinci dining room. Mike is a Pediatric Diabetes researcher and Physician. Kathy is a computer, hi- tech person. They live in the Madison, Wisconsin but winter near us in Bonita Springs, Fl. We had met them a few times before on the ship and enjoyed their company. Hal and Linda, from Colorado, and Dave & Judy, from New Jersey also joined us. It was a lively dinner conversation. A Crab pastry appetizer, gazpacho, salmon filet, and chocolate pie, washed down with Mondavi Cabernet, made for a great meal. We enjoyed the evening.

It had been a long day and we were tiring. We repaired to our cabin to read and retire. It had been a wonderful visit to a very charming city in Western Scotland. We were glad that we had come.

Sunday, July 24, 2011- Liverpool, England.

We were startled awake at 5:10 A.M. The glassware on the table top had slid across the tilted surface making a racket. The Ship’s Captain came on the intercom, throughout the entire ship, reassuring passengers that everything was okay. We found out later that a local pilot,  in steering the great ship into the approach for Liverpool, had cut a corner a little too swiftly, causing the ship to list precipitously. Cabin stewards made the rounds asking if anyone needed help and cleaning up any mess created by the sudden shift. The swimming pool had dumped a load of water on deck fifteen, making a mess. It was quite a commotion for this early in the morning. I guess some crew member’s butt will be in a sling by day’s end.

The Horizon’s breakfast area was abuzz with chatter from the passengers about the incident. It was a break from the routine and thus of interest to everyone. We had our breakfast and gathered in the Explorer’s Lounge for our four hour “Beatle's Magical Mystery Tour.”

The bus stopped at the nearby Albert Dock on Liverpool’s waterfront. It is a small marina surrounded by a restored rectangle of factories that hover above a first floor level of shops, boutiques and cafes. We had to wait for twenty minutes or so until the “Beatle’s Experience” opened up. It is a first floor museum with a collection of posters, Beatle's memorabilia, acoustical recordings and everything you ever wanted to know about the Beatle's.

The guide got tickets for us and we entered as a group. Like a complacent herd of sheep we wandered in a pack, stopping at each site to listen to the audio accompaniment of that particular site. Recordings of each of the Beatle's, their managers and all thing pertaining to them were of interest to the dedicated fan. Posters of the Yellow Submarine, Sergeant Pepper’s album and other bric a brac brought back for us the colorful history of these four Liverpool lads. Their emergence on the scene in the U.S. in 1964, had been a cultural tidal wave that I still remember fondly. The Ed Sullivan show featured them playing “I want to hold your hand.” Teenagers screamed and carried on in excitement. It was an event that eclipsed even the near mania of an Elvis sighting. And now 46 years later, Sir Paul McCartney still performs.

Our guide was knowledgeable in Beatles’ lore. He detailed the young group’s emergence from the obscurity of Hamburg, Germany clubs and their meteoric rise to superstardom. The “Mersey beat” had rocketed to the top of the charts.

From the Beatle’s experience museum, we drove a few blocks over to the restored site of “The Cavern.” It is a performance club in a basement at 10 Mathew St.  After the Beatles’ breakup, the group had relinquished their spot as top of the musical heap. The Cavern club, site of so many top performers, had been abandoned and the site filled in for future development. After John Lennon had been killed, a new interest in the Beatle emerged. The club was excavated and restored to its original appearance. Small in size, the underground grotto, with a very same stage, had hosted most of the greats of rock and roll since the early 1960’s. Outside and above ground, the name of every group who had ever played here is etched on a brick in the building’s facade. There too is a life sized bronze statue of John Lennon whom all of us had out picture taken with. The Cavern even now had a good crowd of other tourists like us, some having an early pint in a toast to the Beatle's.  On weekend evenings the place still rocks to the sounds of other groups seeking their time in the sun. I felt even irreverent using the W.C. and thinking of all the famous performers who had stood here before me.

After the Cavern, the bus took a leisurely ride through Liverpool. China Town here is prominent. The Liverpool merchants had a strong relationship with Shanghai going back to the 1870’s. The huge and ornate Chinese gate that spans the entrance to China Town, is weirdly beautiful.

Near the restored waterfront we could see the sparkling new exterior of the Liverpool Museum. It had just opened a few days before and was crowded with Liverpool’s finest enjoying their new attraction. The “streaky bacon” appearance of the White Star Shipping lines building  is a local attraction. That and the two “Liverbirds,” mythical birds and symbols of the city. They sit facing in opposite direction atop one of the Waterfront buildings.

The University of Liverpool sits in the tonier West end of the city. The Liverpool Art Institute here had been the starting point for John and Paul. They had written many of their early songs here and in the home of John’s aunt, nearby.

We drove down “Penny Lane” and stopped for pictures under the street sign. Then we did the same for “Strawberry Fields.” We drove by the  “shelter in the middle of the roundabout.” “Rita the meter maid” and “Eleanor Rigby” on a gravestone are all items from local Liverpool. To a Beatles’ fan, they are like a trip to Mecca. We saw the home of John’s Aunt, where he had lived most of his early years. John had lost his Mother at an early age as had Paul. I thought then of “Mother Mary” and you begin to understand why these tunes had so much emotive power. They were real for the Beatles’ and came across that way to listeners. The bus driver was playing Beatles’ tunes on board. All of the aging passengers were singing along, memories from decades past, careening through their psyches. The specter of a bus load of sixty and seventy year olds singing “Yellow submarine” and other iconic tunes would be comical to watch had we not all looked like we enjoyed it so much. Gone briefly were the intervening decades, as we sang lustily of a time long past.

The driver narrated the long history of the Beatles, their origins and meteoric rise to stardom. There is always ironic humor involved.  One of John Lennon’s aunts had not liked the loud music. She reportedly said, and John later had the phrase framed in a plaque, “That playing a guitar well is all fine and good, but its not like you could ever make a living at it.” Famous last words.

From the suburban comfort of the Beatles’ homes, we drove back to Liverpool, passing the enormous Anglican Cathedral there. It is of dark red sandstone and massive in size.  The bus let off ship side. Mary and I decided to take a walk through the area on our own.

The entire length of the Mersey River here has been renovated. A large river walk led us over to the Albert Docks area. Along the way, we passed the newly opened Liverpool Museum. It was crowded with citizens enjoying the new facility. Nearby, sits the well known “Tate Gallery, “ that of London Fame. It was featuring an exhibit of a wonderful surrealist named Rene’ Magritte, whom I much admired. We were running short of time however and hurried on. At the Albert Dock’s complex, we found and sat down in a small cafe, to enjoy some of those wonderful scones with clotted cream and jam. A decent Cappuccino accompanied the scones.

Then, we walked towards the central downtown shopping area. It features a large two-story, open-aired, pedestrian walkway loaded with shops and cafes. We walked for a time enjoying the cool sunny day and people watching like everyone else. Then we decided to try and find the Cavern again by ourselves. After a few blocks, we espied the new Beatles’ hotel. It is named a “Hard Day’s Night.” Along the first floor exterior facade are four life sized statues of the fab four. Nearby, we again found Mathew Street and the entrance to the fabled “Cavern.”  Once again we descended the several flights of stairs to the dingy interior of the fabled mecca of rock and roll in Britain. The place was aswarm with young and old, several enjoying pints and everyone taking all manner of pictures. It is an experience in and of itself just to sit here and think of the many famous musicians who had performed here over the years.

The day was waning and we were tiring. Using Boy Scout skills, we navigated our way back to the ship on the Mersey and climbed aboard. We read for a time and then enjoyed some of that lovely Glenfiddich while sitting on the balcony. Dockside, hundreds of Liverpoolians had gathered quayside to gaze on the great ship. We were the attraction du jour. As the great ship eased away from her berth, hundreds of local citizens waved at us like we were old friends that were leaving forever. It was a pleasant cruise down the Mersey towards the Irish Sea. Tomorrow, we would be in Dublin, Eire. Once in the Irish Sea, we settled down for a wonderful nap in the late afternoon. Life is good.

        7:30 P.M. found us in the Wheelhouse Lounge. We were enjoying the great vocals of a group called “Indigo.” The lead singer is from Cork, Eire. The rest of her group, from Albania. We much enjoyed them. For dinner, we were meeting Mike & Kathy MacDonald, from Wisconsin. We settled into the Davinci Dining Room to enjoy some good conversation with them and a couple from New York City. The Eggplant Parmigiana, pasta fagiola, shrimp and Tiramisu were all wonderful, washed down  with a glass of Mondavi Cabernet.

         We had a last drink in the Sky Lounge on deck # 18 before returning to the cabin to read and retire. It had been a full and interesting day.

Monday, July 25, 2011- Dublin, Eire

We arose at seven A.M. It was a cloudy and cool 58 degrees out. The great ship had berthed in Dublin’s commercial port early this morning. We could see and hear the busy hum of containers being shifted to and fro in the port. The busy port and tourism account for much of the economic base of Dublin. Unemployment is a high 14% in the area. The Celtic Tiger had come and gone. Times are hard here.

The Horizon’s lounge was our breakfast venue. We sat with an 80 year old couple from Palo Alto, Arkansas and traded anecdotes and personal histories,

From the Deck seven Explorer’s Lounge, we walked down the gangway onto the shores of Eire. Celtic Bagpipers were playing some lilting tunes at this early hour. I always enjoy seeing them and listening to the plaintive wail of the pipes.

The bus drove us along the Liffey River that bisects Dublin. We saw the heart tugging sculpting of “The Leaving” here.  Several ragged, skeletal beggars are portrayed walking on the wharf and getting ready to board one of the awful coffin ships that would take those who survived to America or Canada. A full scale model of the “Jeannie Johnson,” a ship used in that time era, is berthed here as well. She is a source of local pride. Her claim to fame is that while crossing the Atlantic, she had never lost a single passenger to plague or disease.

A series of fifteen bridges crosses the Liffey here and splits the city into two discernible communities, one considerably better off economically than the other. The Vikings had first settled here, along the Liffey, in the 800’s. Britain’s King Henry IV had come in 1169 and stayed until the Brits were asked to leave in 1922. The intervening years, until Independence in 1922, had not been good to the native Irish.

The bus made its way across the Liffey and through downtown Dublin. We were headed for Trinity College to see “The Book of Kells.” Trinity College had been founded in 1592, by Queen Elizabeth I, as a means of educating good Protestant lads and keeping them away from the “Popish “ influence in foreign schools. It is made of gray granite stones and sprawls across a considerable expanse of Dublin, with its very green commons and leafy surroundings. The area around it is always awash with students and visitors.

We stood in line, outside of the Library wherein sat the Book of Kells, for about an hour, awaiting our turn to enter. When we left the line was even longer. The first section of the exhibit is a print and picture diorama, on paste-boards, that detail the inception, construction and interpretation of the four Books on exhibit. The manuscripts are written on Vellum (Calfskin) using a variety of inks. Four monks worked on each page. Each had a different task. Some drew the script, some painted the illustrations and others completed the fine details of the page. A detailed index of the elaborately drawn letters, and what each means, is necessary to read the finely crafted Latin script.

Started in the 800’s by Irish Monks, the two sections of the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh and Book of Dornoch narrate the four gospels of the new testament of the Bible. They are elaborately illustrated with pictograms of birds and animals and people in vividly bright colors. Each of the lines of script is immaculately inscribed with flourishes and curley cues that needs help in translating the ancient Latin script.

The four books are kept under glass on a small table. The compartment is climate controlled to protect the ancient manuscripts. Like everyone else, we crowded around the small table and studied the books in the dimly lit room. Only a few pages are actually on display, but we each in turn marveled at the fine detail, ornate drawings and splendor of a work created some 1200 years ago by a small band of Celtic Monks in an era that we call the Middle Ages. The Books are impressive by anyone’s standards.

From the crypt, we climbed up the stairs to the College’s “Long Library.” Two stories of those wonderful old “stacks,” with wooden moveable ladders to reach the higher volumes, were piled with texts from the last few hundred years. They flank a series of glass cases which house exhibits from the Library’s past. A giant seven-foot human skeleton stands ready for inspection. Medical paraphernalia, musical scores and all manner of records from a few hundred years stand ready to interest the casual observer. Eire’s oldest wooden harp is displayed here. It was reputedly fashioned in the 1500s. The original musical score for the Londonderry Aire (Danny Boy) was of interest to me. It was composed in the 1790s. The Harry Potter movies could have filmed any number of scenes from this quaint old Library.

We were on a tight schedule, so we hurried back to the bus. Our next stop was Dublin Castle. The original central keep had been constructed in 1204 by England’s King John, of Magna Cart fame. He must have been a nasty character. A fire had leveled much of the keep in 1684. The current castle dates from that period. It is a quadrangle of stone, turreted walls that surrounds a cobbled stone courtyard that is used for military formations. The two stories of apartments had contained the staterooms of government and administrative offices of the Crown when it had ruled Eire. A detachment of 200 soldiers had been assigned to the rear of the Castle for enforcement of the Crown’s decisions. The Castle holds a mixed appeal to the Irish. It is their display place on formal occasions, but the castle’s awful history in oppressing the native Irish during the last few centuries, still lurks darkly in the Irish consciousness. The keys of the place had been handed over to Michael Collins in 1922. That is about 15 years after the Irish Crown Jewels had disappeared from these mysterious precincts.

The tour guide escorted us to the entrance of the staterooms. A castle guide led us up a capered staircase to the entrance to the staterooms. Colorful emblems of the family crests, of Eire’s series of Presidents, bedeck the walls. It is another era for the castle. The textured arras along the walls, the deep carpets and twenty-foot ceilings are impressive. The Gold Harp, on a deep blue background, displays Eire’s new national emblem.

The formal dining is impressive with its red velvet panelling, mirrors along the walls, Waterford chandeliers and deep blue Donegal carpets over wooden, parquet floors. It had principally been utilized as a gathering and sitting room for women after formal state dinners, while the men lingered over cigars and brandy in the dining room.

Next, we entered the formal dining room. The lushly carpeted hall is empty save for the oil portraits of the former royal viceroys lining the walls. The English has shipped the formal dining room furniture back home when leaving the place in 1922. Perhaps it is left empty today as a metaphor of their passing.

The throne room is a smaller version of the others. Its principal furniture is an actual throne cushioned in red velvet. Victoria was the last monarch to actually sit on it during a visit in the 19th century.

Lastly, we entered “St. Patrick’s Hall,” the site of most formal proclamations of state from Eire. The cavernous ceilings shelter a richly carpeted room, adorned along  its walls with all manner of Irish flags and emblems. The Society of St. Patrick also meets here on occasions. It is an impressive formal hall for various state ceremonies and receptions.

After our tour of the castle, the bus ferried us to Kildare St., near the Grafton Street Pedestrian Mall. Those of us who wished to get off the tour and explore Dublin on foot were welcome to do so. Mary and I got off the bus and walked the few blocks over to Grafton Street. The pedestrian mall was awash with visitors, office workers and all manner of people who were having lunch, watching street performers or just enjoying the sunshine of a cool Irish day in summer.

        We espied the two-story bulk of Bewley’s Oriental Cafe. It is locally famous. We stopped in for Cappuccino and some wonderful scones with clotted cream and jam. The place was packed wall to wall. We sat for a time and watched the flow of people drift by our window table. It was quite a tableau of a modern and busy Dublin.

After lunch, we blended into the pedestrian stream and drifted up the Mall. A whole line of men, dressed in bright, orange spandex jump suits walked by us. They were advertising some communications company. No heads really turned in surprise. This stuff happens all the time in Dublin. A bronze and much

photographed statue of “Molly Malone,” with her cart of cockles and mussels, stands on one corner. The Irish, irreverent as ever, had any number of comments about the young fishmonger. Some called her the “tart with the cart.” Others had even more suggestive names for her.

We browsed several gift shops, looking for trinkets and souvenirs and then walked a few blocks over looking for the Celtic Liquor Store. Inside, several patrons were looking studiously at the very expensive bottles of Scotch and Irish whiskey. Drams of each were available for tasting. I sampled one or two and bought a fifth of Bushmills, for use later aboard ship. We were tiring with the day, so we found a nearby Starbucks and settled in with some rather enormous Cappucinos. We sat outside and watched the Dublin traffic, and all of its visitors from many lands, wander by. The people here are really the attraction in central Dublin and well worth the visit.

A few blocks over on Kildare, we found a shuttle that would take us back to the ship for $8 each. It is a nice amenity. As we boarded, a rather anxious man was asking the attendants if they had seen a confused older woman. His Mother, an Alzheimer’s patient, had given them the slip. I can’t even imagine handling that situation in crowded Dublin.

The bus took us back along the Liffey to the commercial port and the berth of the Crown Princess. We ascended to deck fifteen and enjoyed a slice of Pizza in the cool sunshine. Then we headed for the Princess Theater on deck seven. A group of Irish musicians, and a small band of Irish step dancers, entertained us with traditional ballads and dances. It was a nice touch to compliment our visit to Dublin.

After the performance, we retired to our room. I enjoyed that estimable liquid made by Bushmills as we watched the Irish Piers play dockside. The ship got ready to leave port. At 6:00 P.M. the ship started to gently glide away from the dock. Two passengers ran up to the ship waving frantically and hoping to board. We think they were entertainers.

The ship had gotten underway however and these two unlucky souls were left to their own devices. They must have known some people however. As the great ship glided through the harbor, we watched a police car drive the two late monsters to the pilot boat, moored nearby. The lucky duo boarded the boat. The small craft followed us until we were ready to put our pilot ashore. They then climbed aboard, much to the embarrassment of their colleagues and the general good natured derision heaped on them.

It had been a long and full day, so we dined late. at 8:30 P.M. We were seated with two very pleasant couples from Lancashire, near Liverpool. Although charming, the accent on one of the men was so thick it was hard for me to keep up our end of the conversation. The other gentleman was a chicken farmer whose agricultural operations produced over 160,000 chickens a year for British consumption. We enjoyed sharing cultures and dinner chat with them. A goat cheese soufflé, mushroom soup, orange roughy fish over spinach and a parfait for dessert, with Mondavi cabernet, made for one more of those memorable meals.

After dinner, we stopped by the Explorer’s Lounge to hear the group “Indigo” play a Beatle’s retrospective. The place was packed. We enjoyed the various tunes that we heard them perform. It reminded us of our visit to Liverpool. Beatle’s music is always fun to listen to. Neither of the two performers looked flustered from their late afternoon run after the ship:)

It was late and we were tired. We returned to our cabin to read (Blood of My Brother-James Lepore) and retire. Tomorrow we would be in Cork, home of many of my ancestors.

Tuesday, July 26,2011- Cobh, Eire (Cork)

The great ship docked in Cobh (pronounced Cove) Eire at 8:00 A.M. We were up and watched the ship secure her lines. It was cloudy and a cool 58 degrees out. Shore side, we could see the steep hillside, traversed by three local roads and a train track at sea level. The station lay just beneath us. Off in the distance we could see the spire of the local church and a small business district. Cobh is the ocean port area for Cork,

Since Queen Victoria’s visit in 1849, the area had been known as Queenstown. It is from here that the scores of “coffin ships” had carried the starving hordes of famine-Irish off to Canada, Australia and the United

States. Among them were many of my own. Old Emmanuel Martin had left these shores then. His first wife Annie had died in the passage, one of many thousands who died from the horrendous conditions in steerage on those ill fated ships.

Our walking tour of Cork was not scheduled until this afternoon, so we hit the deck 18 gym for an hour of weights and stationary cycling. Breakfast found us in the Horizons cafe’ afterwards. Then we got ready for the day. Tours were also leaving for Blarney Castle and the Waterford Glass factory, but we had visited them on an earlier trip. Kinsale, a seaside village South of here, is also worth a visit.

After we boarded, the bus made its way into Cork (Corcaigh in Gaelic, which means “Marshy Place.”) We passed one of those Martello towers, as we exited the small island upon which Cobh sits. They are stone, defensive towers, built in centuries past, to stand guard against raiding Vikings and other miscreants.

Cork had been founded in the 606 A.D., by St. Finbar, as a monastic settlement. In the 800’s, Vikings had taken control of the area. It was a small settlement on the banks of the Lee River. The city expanded over the centuries as a commercial port. It became a center for exporting butter in the 1700’s. Today, it is home to some 125,000 souls. The city’s emblem is a ship passing between two towers, designating a safe harbor.

Michael (Mick) Collins, one of the premier leaders in the Irish Rebellion, had hailed from Cork. It was also the place where an ambush had taken his life shortly after Independence in 1922.

The bus dropped us off near St. Finbar’s Anglican Cathedral. It is one of those lovely neo-Gothic masterpieces with roof gargoyles and ornately carved bas relief exteriors. Most of the great churches in Eire have confused histories in changing from Catholic to Protestant, depending upon the sweeping winds of change occurring in nearby London. Henry the VIII’s over-active libido had created a climate of religious turmoil that would last for centuries.

From St. Finbar’s we walked to the small bridge crossing the Lee and overlooking the downtown pedestrian area that is called the Grand Parade. It is here, along the banks of the Lee, where the Viking settlement had grown into a modern town. The Beamish and Murphy Breweries had also flourished here and provided much local employment.

On a small section of the Parade, there is a speakers’ corner where everyday Irishmen can publicly state their case in a thousand arguments, like they do at Hide Park in London. We walked on, enjoying the bustle of this small city in southern Eire. A very modern, enclosed market area, called the “English Market” was bustling with activity. Vendors sold produce, meats, fish, foul and all other fresh food stuffs in the collegial atmosphere of a small country market. In centuries before this, only the well heeled could shop here. The area had served as this type of venue since the early 1700’s. It is still commercially viable, only now everyone can shop here..

I noted several of the names of nearby businesses on their exterior walls, Driscoll and Carberry among them. They are that of my own. I felt the personal connection more and more as I walked these streets of Cork. I walked in the foot steps of those who had come before me and left during and awful time in Eire’s history.

We reassembled on the bus for the next portion of our tour, the Jameson’s distillery in nearby Middleton. The ride through the countryside is bucolic, very green grass, sheep and a pastoral visage that is restful to the eyes. As we drove into the distillery, we espied a very large copper vat in front of an attractive-looking, single-story, wooden building. Several buses were already parked ahead of us in the drive.

The guide led us into a small bar area and waiting room for the distillery. Shortly, a young tour guide took us in hand and walked us through the various stages of whiskey distilling. The Irish used a closed system of wood heating, in brewing their malt. It is repeated three times, giving the whiskey a smoother taste. It has none of the bouquet of Scotch, whose distillers use an open peat fire to give it the characteristic odor and taste of peat and malt, And, the Scots only distill their whiskey twice.

The tour was of mild interest. Afterwards, we were treated to drams of Jameson’s in the bar area. It is smooth going down and easy on the palate. In the gift store nearby, they had all manner of trinkets and gift sets of Whiskey on display. An 18 year old fifth of Middelton’s, one of Jameson’s premier vintages, would run you $200. Ouch !

The bus loaded us up and drove the 30 minutes back to the ship’s anchorage in Cobh, arriving after 4:00 P.M. In retrospect, we could probably have caught the train into Cork and walked the city on our own.

We wolfed down a slice of pizza on deck 15 and repaired to our cabin to chill out. Dockside, the Pipe Bands were belting out the Irish tunes with abandon. “Danny Boy,” “ Amazing Grace” and the Irish fight song “The Gary Owen” all echoed along the docks. Dozens of local citizens had gathered as well to see the great ship weigh anchor. We had more time to enjoy them because four knuckle-headed passengers had been imbibing in a Cobh Tavern and lost track of the time. For some reason, the ship waited for them before getting underway.

165 years ago my own had left this same dock area hungry, cold and frightened at what lay ahead. Some had died on the voyage. Others had made it to the far shores of Lake Erie, in America, and founded a clan whose roots still firmly hold in the far away precincts of a modern America. I was here to remember them. And the descendants of many thousands of others who had left here became my friends, neighbors and colleagues in the tight-knit, Irish-Catholic community of South Buffalo, N.Y. I sipped a glass of Jameson’s on ice and thought of these remarkable men and women of indomitable will, who had traversed an ocean with nothing but the clothes on their backs to make their way in a strange land far away. God Bless them every one, I thought. The martial music of the pipes stirred the emotions in me as the ship cast off her lines.  “We have returned to remember you,” I said and saluted the Pipe bands and the locals cheering and waving to us on this grand ocean liner, leaving from the tiny port of Cobh.

What must those poor people have been thinking as they sailed down the shores towards the ocean and an uncertain future? They saw these very shores, that I looked upon now, for what they knew to be the last time. “The Leaving” sculpting, that we had viewed along the banks of the Liffey in Dublin, came to mind. A smaller statue of Annie Moore and her two children sits on the Cobh dock, commemorating one of the first of the Irish immigrants to pass through the new immigration facility at Ellis Island in New York City.

As we cleared shore, Mary and I settled in to read and then prepped for a “formal night” at dinner. A first stop, at the Captain’s cocktail party, was a bust. These affairs are supposed to be given in appreciation for returning Princess passengers. We couldn’t even cadge a drink. We walked away muttering what a cheapskate the ship’s captain was in this cheesy affair. I suppose in retrospect, as we waited in line for dinner in our formal clothes, I should have remembered that my own didn’t have quite the same experience on their first night at sea when they left Cork.

We were seated next to Steve and Chris Kennedy from Stratford on Avon, in England. We had a lovely conversation about English films and movie memorabilia which their business specialized in. The crab parfait, tomato bisque and lobster tails were all wonderful. A macadamia soufflé for dessert, with Mondavi cabernet, made for a memorable repast. Jesus, the more I think of the contrast between what my own had experienced in their 1840’s voyage and what I now had, the more uncomfortable I felt. Well, hopefully they would have been happy to know that one of their own was  living a life that they never dreamed of. And one of their own who had come back to remember them.

The day was long and we were tiring with both the day and the voyage. It was near time to go home. We returned to our cabin to read and retire early. The great ship made her way across the English Channel, headed for France. We would anchor tomorrow off the picturesque island of Guernsey, an English Crown Possession.

Wed. July 27. 2011- The Isle of Guernsey - off the French Coast in the English Channel.

We were up early on this last destination day of our cruise. The fog had drifted in among the islands, as we approached St. Peter Port on Guernsey Island. It was a cool 57 degrees out. We breakfasted in the Horizons lounge and gazed out upon the eerie fog that surrounded us. We were but a few miles from the Normandy coast of France and it always rains here. The ship dropped her anchor at 9 A.M. a few hundred yards from the St. Peter Port harbor. We would be tendered ashore today aboard the ships fleet of lifeboats.

The ship’s tender deposited us ashore near the main dock. We boarded a small, half-bus for our four hour tour of the Island. The 30 square miles of the island have an interesting history. It had been claimed by the French Duke of Normandy in 933 A.D. But, it had fallen to the English in 1204.It had remained a “possession of the Crown” since then. After that, its proximity to the French mainland had placed it in the forefront of the French and English wars for the next several centuries. Renoir had painted here. Victor Hugo had written ‘Les Miserables” in a small cafe on the island. Guernsey is also renowned for being the only part of England that was occupied by the Germans during WWII. Over 12,000 of the Hun had been stationed here for the duration.

The island of Guernsey has a reputation as a safe haven for off shore money, much like the Cayman Islands has in the Caribbean. The prosperity had spread to its people. Most of the homes along the shore sell for well into the six figure bracket. A million dollars doesn’t buy much hereabouts.

Our first stop was at an interesting oddity called the “Little Chapel.” Monks had fashioned here a small chapel made entirely of colorful pottery shards set in cement. The effect is similar to that of Spanish artist/architect Antonio Gaudi’s edifices, with colorful bits of stones flashing in the noon day sun. We filed into the small chapel. It would admit but one person at a time in the cramped quarters. We dutifully oohed and aahed at its unique construction. Then, we walked down the road to the gift shop to ogle the trinkets on sale there. In the field nearby, stood a few of those wonderfully comic “Guernsey cows” munching idly on the grass. A cool breeze made the scene a pastoral pleasure to view.

The bus continued on around the island. Administratively, it is comprised of ten different parishes, all of whom have their own church. St. Peters, St., Martins and the Forest are three of them that we passed through. The island is densely populated, with well-ordered homes. There are no shacks on this isle, I think. We were headed for the Island’s main Manor House, that of Chateau Sausmarez.

The Sausmarez family had built their first home here on Guernsey some 800 years ago. With a brief surrender, for two centuries in which in-laws had taken possession of the place, the family had maintained a residence in this home since its inception. The Sausmarez family has a history as old as most of Britain’s. One of their own had led a Privateering expedition across the world in the 18th Century, attacking French ships and enriching the family’s coffers immeasurably.

Today, it is a two-story, Edwardian Manor house with a series of oak paneled rooms and fading tapestries that bespeak of another age. We met the current owner, Peter Sausmarez, and then were guided through the mansion by an elderly docent. The aging portraits, bric a brac from across the globe and any number of naval artifacts all had a million stories waiting to be told. The daily tours helped pay the taxes on the ancient estate and manage its upkeep. It was a pleasant tour through a very old and very historic manor house with a nautical history of its occupants that would make a good film someday. Perhaps it had already.

The grounds of the estate sprout various exotic flowers and several interesting sculptings from prominent artists. We enjoyed the home and its grounds and then set off back to the dock.

The line for the tenders back to the ship was appreciable, so Mary and I set off on foot to wander the area immediately around the main dock. It was busy and filled with vacationers from everywhere. France is but a few miles from the island and a ferry draws people from Southampton in England. We drifted by many of the shops, window-shopping. We passed the small cafe named ‘Victor Hugo’s” and wondered if it were here that he had written “Les Miserables.”

A pedestrian walkway led back to a veritable warren of small shops. All are upscale and sell quality jewelry and clothing. There are no junk shops on Guernsey, if the prices meant anything. We found a “Costa’s Coffee shop” and sat down out front to enjoy some cappuccino and scones with clotted cream and jam. It felt good to sit and watch the stream of shoppers drift by. We had paid for our food in English Pounds and been given “Guernsey Pounds” for change. That is all well and good except our guide had advised us that no one, not even the English, will accept Guernsey pounds in exchange. That is a pretty nice racket for them to have going. We kept the Guernsey pound as a souvenir.

It was late in the afternoon and the ship was due to weigh anchor at 5:00 P.M. We caught a tender back to the boat and setlled in to our cabin to read and relax. A Bushmills on ice was helpful.  I wrote up my notes and we settled on the balcony, to watch the islands drift behind us as the ship weighed anchor and set off for Southampton, England. It had been a nice voyage, but we were ready to go home.

We dragged out our suitcases from beneath the bed and began to pack for the long trip home. Packing at this end of the journey is easy. You just toss everything into the suitcase. We needed to put tour bags outside the cabin door by 7 P.M. for pickup, so that they would be ready for us in the early morning, when we disembarked the ship. After accomplishing this task in short order, we cleaned up for dinner, selected the clothes that we would wear this evening and tomorrow and set our bags in the hallway. I found the cabin steward and thanked him in the way they most appreciate.

Our 8:00 P.M. dinner, in the Davinci room, was as good as any we had enjoyed so far. The ship takes care of you right to the very end of the voyage. We retired early after dinner, mindful of an early and long day

ahead of us. It had been both an interesting and enjoyable voyage, but we were ready to go home. We slept fitfully, thinking of all the many arrangements and connections that we had to make tomorrow on the 20 hour trek homeward.

Thursday, July 28, 2011- Southampton, England

We were up by 4:45 A.M. for our early departure. A quick breakfast, in the Horizons lounge, and we met in the Explorer’s lounge to ready for departure. At 6:15 A.M., our group was summoned. We walked down the ship’s ramp to the terminal port building and found our bags in the cavernous hallways. Then we found our bus outside. It would take us the 90 miles to London’s Heathrow Airport for the first leg of our flight back to the United States.

The bus ride was uneventful, but the traffic inbound to London was already building. It would get worse by the hour. We were glad that we had set out so early. At the airport, check in and security was uneventful. We found ourselves in that huge passenger depot of Heathrow’s main terminal. Passengers sit in a central area until a gate is assigned to their plane. Then, they all jump up and run like hell for their boarding gate. Trish, from California, hooked up with us. We all sat for a time at a Costa’s Coffee stand and passed away an hour or so. Then, strangely, I saw that our U.S air flight had been assigned a gate much before takeoff. Not questioning our luck, we walked the nearly 3/4 of a mile to the new international wing.

We passed through yet another layer of security to the U.S. air loading gate, where we sat until the plane boarded.

The flight back was long but uneventful. I watched a few movies, read a book for a while, and eventually we landed in Philadelphia. Customs for Americans is perfunctory. The line for foreign nationals was a mile long. We retrieved our bags from the carrousels and then had to walk through another line to deposit our bags. Then, we had to pass through security yet again. In that all the European flights were landing here within an hour of each other, the lines at the security gates were horrendous. We had a three hour layover, so it was no problem for us. Many around us stood stoically, waiting in line while their planes boarded and left without them. Never again land in Philadelphia. It is a passenger disaster.

Finally, we made it through all of the gates and found our departure lounge. We even had time for coffee. We soon boarded our Buffalo bound plane and drifted west through the New York skies until we touched down

in Buffalo. It was after 9:00 P.M. We had been on the road for nearly twenty hours and were exhausted. The cab deposited us at our Amherst abode. We dumped our bags in the living room, read some of our mail and then crashed dead tired, glad to be home.