Waterfalls and Revolution: Mexico’s Roberto Barrios

Posted on September 12, 2015

The big attraction for me to visit Roberto Barrios in Mexico’s Chiapas state wasn’t the waterfalls, it was to see the Zapatistas. The autonomous community near the Mayan ruins of Palenque is one of the strongholds of Mexico’s Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which burst onto the internal scene in 1994 on the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect.


Marcos and Erubey guided us to the waterfalls in Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Marcos and Erubey guided us to the waterfalls in Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The movement, which continues to advocate for the indigenous in this poor region that borders Guatemala, has a knack for garnering international attention and was a favourite cause of Rage Against the Machine.


Although the turmoil and violence of the 1990s struggle has diminished, the state remains off the beaten track for most tourists who come to Mexico in search of sun, sand and surf.


Roberto Barrios waterfall. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Roberto Barrios waterfall. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

To enter Chiapas, our G Adventures tour group had to pay a road “toll” to a group of men who had laid a log and several large rocks across the road near the Zona Arqueológica Palenque. They only let us through after we promised we were coming right back — our empty van did anyway.


Two days later, after exploring the incredible Mayan ruins, we travelled to Roberto Barrios in a 15-seater on a well-kept highway that twisted up above the dense jungles and an active quarry, offering magnificent views of the misty hills beyond.


The first sign you’ve entered the autonomous territory is a white road sign – blink and you’ll miss it. Since we’re no longer obliged to follow Mexican rules of the road, our driver tells us, we’re allowed to clamber up onto the roof of the van for a 360-view of the sights.


The land is lush and dotted with fields, cattle and the occasional home, which become more numerous as we enter the village proper. Once we’ve stopped, the van is surrounded by men and children who haggle with our tour guide over the cost of visiting the falls that day. It’s been raining a lot in Chiapas during this time so the waterfalls are engorged with runoff. There will be no photos of tranquil, clear green waters this time.


Follow the Leader

On the count of 3. Preparing to jump with the boys at the waterfalls in Mexico's Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

On the count of 3. Preparing to jump with the boys at the waterfalls in Mexico’s Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

As part of our arrangement, we’re led Pied Piper-like by Marcos and Erubey down the jungle paths to several waterfalls. Joining them are a gaggle of their young friends who race ahead, dart out from behind trees and gently throw rocks at us to get our attention.


No girls follow us. The only interaction we have with them is outside the van when they implore us to buy some homemade snacks and colourful woven bracelets. They don’t smile and they don’t bargain when it comes to their wares. They’re obviously smart cookies.


We settle down next to the main waterfall and enjoy a few drinks as we watch the boys yank off their T-shirts and shorts to jump into the churning water. Two of our group brave the current and jump with them off a tree branch.


An EZLN protest sign on the road to Mexico's Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

An EZLN protest sign on the road to Mexico’s Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Inside of swimming to the banks of the river, the boys sprint along the lip of the lower waterfall, leaping back into the water at the last second with impish grins on their faces for the camera. It’s terrifying the first time you watch them do it, until you realize they likely do it every day.


Marcos, Erubey and their chums, who range in age from seven to 14, buzz around us like teasing flies. Everything we do is ridiculous to them. After all, being a tourist is pretty silly a lot of the time. Look at their big backpacks and their expensive hiking boots!


Running along the lip of a waterfall in Mexico's Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Running along the lip of a waterfall in Mexico’s Roberto Barrios. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Our visit didn’t afford us much opportunity to tour the community, to see the church or the school. It was very much an in-and-out operation. Not speaking Spanish also made it difficult to learn more first-hand about Roberto Barrios and the way the Zapatistas run their territory.


The only visible trace of the EZLN we saw was a banner slung along the roadside calling for justice in the 2014 death of José Luis Solís López (a.k.a. Compañero Galeano), an education worker with the Zapatistas.


At this point, the area is unspoiled by the usual tourist trappings and amenities and we didn’t see another soul from outside. Roberto Barrios is well worth the trip if you’re driving or can find someone willing to take you.


Ride on the roof top if you can!

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Newgrange: A Passageway to Ancient Ireland

Posted on September 9, 2015

Cosy is not the word that would normally spring to mind when discussing a prehistoric mound — especially one that contained ancient human remains . . . and some (regrettably) newer ones. But the Neolithic burial site known as Newgrange in the midst of the bucolic Irish countryside feels safe . . . comforting even.


Set on a grassy hilltop near a bend in the River Boyne, the oval-shaped structure softly rises above the rolling farmland dotted with sheep, cows and yellow fields of canola. Access to the site is controlled by the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre and the cost of a vistor’s pass starts at €2.


Ireland's Newgrange burial mound is more than 5,000 years old and remains a mystery. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Ireland’s Newgrange burial mound is more than 5,000 years old and remains a mystery. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

As the Irish will proudly tell you, this structure is older than the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge. First discovered in 1699, it took more than 250 years before it was properly excavated and much remains a mystery.


Not nearly as famous as those ancient marvels, the site is best known for the precision of its builders in aligning a gently bending 19-metre passageway with the rising of the sun on the Winter Solstice, bringing light deep inside to the dead before the longest night of the year begins each December.


Above the doorway to the Newgrange burial mound is the "roof box," which enables the sunrise to enter on the Winter Solstice. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Above the doorway to the Newgrange burial mound is the “roof box,” which enables the sunrise to enter on the Winter Solstice. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The passageway the sun travels is narrow by today’s standards but rather than creating a claustrophobic effect, you feel hugged by the giant ancient stone slabs as you edge towards the burial chamber.


At the end, the passageway opens up to reveal a corbelled (or vaulted) roof that will take your breath away. This structure, as our guide tells us, remains watertight to this day — an estimated 5,000 years after it was built. An amazing engineering feat by the builders of this site who had no mortar to bind the stones together.


Off this main chamber, where several people from our tour group easily stand together, are three smaller chambers where ancient remains were placed.


Before entering the mound, our guide had given us the standard ground rules when visiting historical sites with an odd addition: DO NOT leave the ashes of your Uncle Ted or Grandma Lucas behind. (Seriously, who does these things? It’s an archaeological site for gawd’s sake!) Although there are no visible bones or cremated remains, modern ashes destroy the integrity of the site.


We’re also told archaeologists are not in agreement on what Newgrange was built for, or even what it housed. It’s possible, our guide suggests, that the site was once filled with gold like other hoards found in Ireland.


Being Ireland, folk tales also suggest burial mounds like Newgrange may be the home of faeries.


Let the Light In

Everyone who visits the site also has the opportunity to enter the annual lottery for the 100 spots available to be inside for the Winter Solstice lighting. The ancient light effect is achieved by a “roof box” — really just an opening in the stone — above the doorway to the tomb.



For those of us not lucky to be there for the solstice, our guide recreated the experience using an electrical box. It’s incredible seeing the light travel down the passageway until it comes to the burial chamber resting on the basin stones where the remains of the dead were placed. All is silent as we watch the light travel towards us in the dark.



The tri-spiral pattern is deeply etched on the massive boulder located at the entrance to Newgrange. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The tri-spiral pattern is deeply etched on the massive boulder located at the entrance to Newgrange. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Walking back into the sunlight makes the white quartz stones fronting the mound even more dazzling as your eyes adjust to being back in this world again.



The exterior of Newgrange, which stretches 76 metres across and 12 metres high, was “reassembled” in the mid-20th century with these stones found scattered about the site. It’s a reconstruction that remains controversial to this day.


One thing time doesn’t seem to have touched is the mammoth stone that guards the entrance, deeply etched in a repeating tri-spiral pattern. The design, which is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever tried on any “Celtic” inspired jewelry, is repeated on stones located along the perimeter of the structure, as well as inside the mound.

In fact, I highly recommend a walk around the mound. Not only is it stunning but the landscape surrounding it is beautiful. Like so many ancient sites in Ireland, life continues around it. Sheep gambol on the Hill of Tara, cows munch on grass just steps away from the priceless high crosses at Monasterboice, and the recently deceased are buried next to ancient forefathers in graveyards across the emerald isle. The past feels very present as a result.


Small stone markers outside the burial mound at Newgrange in Ireland. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Small stone markers outside the burial mound at Newgrange in Ireland. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Newgrange also hasn’t been ruined by the hordes of tourists who flock to better known sites in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. Although you don’t dawdle in the mound, the tour doesn’t feel rushed. You actually get to truly experience the site. The air is clean, there are no screaming children and no souvenir hawkers.


The ancient dead can actually get some peace.


If You Go

Newgrange is a great day trip from Dublin.


For those who want to sit back and enjoy the scenery (and have limited time), I’d highly recommend taking the Newgrange & Hill of Tara tour offered by Mary Gibbons Tours. The cost is €35 and includes all entrance fees and hotel pickup. It’s a small group and she is hands down the best tour guide I had my entire time living in Ireland.


If you drive to Newgrange, there is also the possibility of visiting Newgrange’s sister mound called Knowth.


Visitors are advised to come early in the day since access to these sites is strictly by bus only from the visitor centre.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Roman in Vienna

Posted on August 7, 2012


Bronze lions pull a rotund Marc Anton Gruppe in an Arthur Strasser statue located outside The Vienna Secession building. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Vienna . . . personally, I didn’t like the Austrian capital when I visited in the spring of 2010 and I usually fall in love with everywhere I travel. It was too perfect with its oversized baroque buildings and wide boulevards celebrating a vanished empire that never really accomplished much.


One has to wonder really about the size issue in Vienna — even the statues of Archduke Charles, the Duke of Teschen, in Heldenplatz and Empress Marie-Theresa in her namesake square near the city’s Museum Quarter are gigantic. Bigger than most statues of important persons in other, more impressive European cities.

Now granted, the archduke was considered a great general and a thorn in Napoleon’s side and the empress is one of the few female rulers from the 1700s. But her statue in particular is not flattering. The 19-metre-high artwork, topped with a six-metre high bronze of the empress, weighs an estimated 44 tonnes and makes her ass look huge! But I digress.


One building that thumbed its nose at the rest of Vienna when it was built in 1898 was the Secession Building, located on Friedrichstrasse. Known as the Temple for Bullfrogs by haughty Viennese at the time, it was a place for the city’s up-and-coming modern art painters, sculptors and architects to shine, including Gustav Klimt (whose Beethoven Frieze is the museum’s biggest draw), Joseph Maria Olbrich (who designed the building), Max Kurzweil, Otto Wagner, and Koloman Moser.


Located outside the Vienna Secession building, is a bronze statue by artist Arthur Strasser called Marc Anton Gruppe. Designed for the Paris World Exposition in 1900, the sculptor portrays Marc Anthony, the heroic supporter of Julius Caesar and doomed lover of Cleopatra, as a slothful general pulled by lions in a Roman chariot as the historian Plutarch had famously described him.


Experts have suggested the statue is a commentary on the excesses and conservatism of Viennese society at the close of the 19th century. One thing is for certain, the statue and the Secession building are a cheeky way of cleansing the palate after viewing the city’s overwrought architectural confections.

Touring Vienna is sort of like eating an entire meal of linzertortes and strudels at Demel, the city’s famous pastry shop. Delicious but nutritionally empty.

Strasser’s creation also reminds viewers of Vienna’s Roman past, which can still be glimpsed in the ruins found in Michaelerplatz. Unfortunately, most people take little heed of the archaeological site and focus on the impressive and ornate buildings that ring the square, including the entrance to the Hofburg.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Český Krumlov

Posted on July 12, 2012

The journey to the medieval town of Český Krumlov did not start off well. Our guide failed to show in Prague after a night spent chasing the green fairy leading to a revolt among the new additions to our tiny tour who were threatening to go rogue and take off to Vienna on their own.

In the midst of all the drama and hand wringing, all I knew was that I was going to make it to this magical little spot in the heart of the Czech Republic’s South Bohemia region. I had to see its delicate fairy tale castle that looked like it had leaped to life from the pages of  a Brothers Grimm children’s book.

Luckily, an Aussie travelling with us decided to take matters into her own hands and we figured out how to make it to the UNESCO heritage site on our own.

Cesky Krumlov

Český Krumlov’s castle tower in the Czech Republic. The construction of the six-storey tower, which features painted murals and architectural details, dates back to the mid-13th century. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Getting There: Through Fields of Gold

Český Krumlov is off the beaten path and still relatively unknown to North American tourists compared with other European castles and medieval centres. Getting here from Prague is easiest by bus but I highly recommend the four-hour, 200-kilometre train ride through the bucolic countryside.

The train, which costs 261 CZK or less than $13 US, is certainly not luxurious and requires changing to a second train at Česke  Budejovice, which is less comfortable (wooden seats, no bathrooms), about three-fourths of the way there.

To book tickets on the train or bus, click here. The website is available in Czech, Dutch and English. For more information on travel options, visit Frommer’s.

Cesky Krumlov

The church tower of St. Vitus as seen from the Český Krumlov castle tower. The church dates from the mid-1300s. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

One note about catching trains in Prague, be sure you’re at the right train station. There are several and they are sprawling in size. My friend and I needed to be at the main Hlavní nádrazí station but wound up instead at a crumbling Communist-era station located at the opposite end of the massive railway lines in this part of the city because of miscommunication with our taxi driver.

We almost didn’t realize our mistake in time because no one at this particular station seemed to speak English, including the ticket lady who simply waved us away and refused to even try and help, and I don’t speak Czech. It was a mad dash down the street with our backpacks bouncing when we finally figured things out on our own.

Why I love the train is that it’s possible to stand the entire journey, if you want, with your head out the train window watching the odd ancient castle whizz by on a faraway hilltop or be dazzled by the brilliant yellow of rapeseed (canola) blanketing vast fields. This journey is one of my favourite in Europe.

Fairy Tale Castles and Historical Nightmares

Český Krumlov’s almost 800-year history is tangled in the roots of several wealthy families, most notably the Vítkovcis, Witigonens and Rosenbergs, who grew the small trading settlement, which dates back to at least 1240, into a bustling medieval centre along a sharp bend in the Vltava River. Old Town, which is recognized by UNESCO, contains 300 protected medieval buildings, as well as the stunning castle, which is the country’s second largest.

Cesky Krumlov

Take time to wander along the twisting cobblestoned streets in Český Krumlov’s Old Town. The medieval Czech Republic town is a UNESCO heritage site. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The beauty of the town hides a dark past, which most tourists are completely unaware of. Its beautiful medieval buildings saw action during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and its townspeople were ravaged by the plague in the early 1680s. Its borderlands location has also led to ensnarement in the territorial disputes of its neighbours. At various times it has been part of the Bohemian kingdom, the Habsburg Empire, Czechoslovakia, the Third Reich, the Warsaw Pact, and now the Czech Republic.

In 1938, the picturesque town was part of the German annexation of the Sudetenland by Adolf Hitler. He celebrated his triumph by giving a speech in the main square here.

After the Second World War ended and American forces liberated the town (with little damage to its historical buildings), the longtime German residents of Český Krumlov would pay a heavy price. Seventy-five per cent of the town’s inhabitants were forced to leave by the Czechoslovakian government, as Rick Steves points out in his Prague & The Czech Republic guide book, in retaliation for the Sudetenland annexation and Nazi atrocities in other parts of the country during the war, including the liquidation and razing of the village of Lidice.

The official website for Český Krumlov offers a rather sanitized description of its German residents leaving, merely stating they were “expelled.” It doesn’t mention the German property was “nationalized” even though the families had lived here for centuries in some cases.

Cesky Krumlov

The church tower of St. Vitus as seen from the top of the Český Krumlov castle tower belfry. The church dates from the mid-1300s. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

To get an idea of how polarizing the war remains here more than 60 years later, check out the bust of Edvard Benes, Czechoslovakia’s second president, in the Ruze (Rose) Hotel. When the owner put the statue on display in 2004 it met with immediate outrage because of Benes’ role in the German deportation, according to The Prague Post.

The Iron Curtain closed on Czechoslovakia in 1948 after a successful Communist coup and 20 years later Soviet tanks invaded Český Krumlov and Prague as part of a crackdown on reforms sweeping the country. The country would remain under the thumb of Moscow until 1989’s Velvet Revolution, which also heralded renewed interest in preserving the beauty of this town.

Cesky Krumlov

A bear cools off in the Bear Moat, which is located outside entrance to the “little castle” in Český Krumlov. Bears have been a feature at the castle since the 1700s. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

162 Steps

Holding on to the makeshift rope bannister reminded me of how I had gotten “roped” into this situation. Our guide, mostly recovered from his tangle with absinthe in Prague, wanted to make up for the debacle of the day before and had insisted on paying for me to join him and two others in climbing Český Krumlov’s 13th-century bell tower.

I accepted his offer because the fee is surprisingly low here — about 50 CZK or less than $2.50. In general, I refuse to do these viewing climbs at European tourist sites because they’re such a total rip off. And, I don’t really care for heights. Not really.

To get inside the castle, we needed to pass over the moat where the bears are kept. The two bears seemed happy in the enclosure, which dates back to the 1700s, as they frolicked in the water and rested on nearby rocks.

I can’t imagine they were ever used as a security measure at the castle. It’s more likely they were the result of that aristocratic pastime of collecting exotic and deadly animals for amusement.

The interior of the 13th-century tower, which is attached to the quaintly named “little castle,” is dark with 162 wooden steps winding up, up, up to the Renaissance belfry where an open area offers a 360-degree view of the old town below, which is so well preserved it’s hard to believe it was in a serious state of disrepair just 20 years ago.

Cesky Krumlov

The breakwater in the Vltava River as seen from Český Krumlov`s castle tower belfry. Boating on the river is popular with tourists. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

With a bird’s eye view, it’s possible to see the town’s other competing tower — the church spire of St. Vitus, built under the orders of Peter von Rosenberg in the late 1300s, as well as the frothy waters of the Vltava River as it tumbles over a breakwater.

A number of tours are available at the castle but I felt like wandering through its five courtyards on my own. It wasn’t crowded when I visited in June but do keep in mind about a million people troop through here each year.

Beautiful Fakes

The trompe l’oeil painting on the walls of the tower is remarkable. It almost fools the eye at first glance.

First designed by Bartoloměj Beránek in 1590, the frescoes were restored in the 1990s. Lonely Planet describes them as rather psychedelic, others may see them as a bit garish given we’re not used to seeing old monuments and sculptures with their original paint jobs.

To me, the rounded tower at Český Krumlov looks like the carnival has come to town with their magnificent tents and collection of curiosities from the far corners of the Earth.

Cesky Krumlov- Castle Courtyard

The beautiful paintings on the interior castle walls at Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic are breathtaking. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Beránek’s artistic achievements followed on the heels of Gabriel de Blonde who created wall paintings in several castle rooms, as well as in the third courtyard of the castle. His master work wraps around you as soon as you walk through the arched entryway into the courtyard.

The mellow yellow tones and splashes of muted red give the painted bricks and columns a 3D appearance in this warm space that feels incredibly intimate and protected even though it’s open to the elements. Mythological warriors and goddesses from ancient Greece and Rome are painstakingly painted onto the stone walls and seem to peer down benevolently on the crowds that pass by below.

Cesky Krumlov

Wall paintings on Český Krumlov’s castle almost fool the eye with their 3D details. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

It’s hard to believe these painters could have created such massive works in an outdoor climate on the dizzying heights of the walls of a castle and tower. It also couldn’t have been an easy job to restore them, especially hanging over the steep drop from the tower into the river.

That they remain today for us to gaze upon shows how beautiful they were — no matter the renovations over the centuries and the changes in style and taste, the families who controlled the castle left them alone.

Cloak Bridge

Adding to the beauty of the sprawling castle complex is the Cloak Bridge, which looks like an extremely fancy New Brunswick covered wooden bridge built on top of a Roman aqueduct and painted in Wedgewood blue. The three-storey arch stretches over a moat on the western side of the Upper Castle and was built in the 1700s to connect the castle with the gardens and Baroque Theatre.

Cesky Krumlov-Cloak Bridge

The Cloak Bridge is constructed over a castle moat in the Czech Republic’s medieval fairy tale town of Český Krumlov. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Don’t Miss

After your visit, walk back across the little bridge crossing the Vltava River and enjoy a delicious Czech beer at one of the many restaurants that hug the riverbank. My one experience eating at one of these establishments was not pleasant — the service was lousy, the food was salted beyond belief and the offerings were overpriced.

It is, however, a wonderful spot to while away an hour while watching the tourists madly paddling by in their kayaks and boats while gazing up at the rocky promontory the castle is built into.

For a quick snack, try a cinnamon trdelnik pastry for 40 CZK ($2 US) at one of the quaint little shops in the Old Town. It’s the perfect thing to walk around with while wandering into the wooden toy stores, puppet museums and art galleries.

Cesky Krumlov

A beautiful little shop in Český Krumlov’s Old Town. The medieval Czech Republic town is a UNESCO heritage site. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

I particularly liked the Replicas of Historical Glass shop at Castle Steps no. 11 where you can pick up beautiful medieval, Renaissance, and modern glassware, which Bohemia is renowned for.

I picked up a replica blue goblet covered in glass bubbles from AD 200 for about $13 US and and a pharmacist’s glass covered goblet. The storekeeper was lovely and packed the glass so well it survived another four weeks of backpacking in Europe and a flight home to Canada!

A day and a half in Český Krumlov is plenty of time to see the bulk of the sights, which is what I did, but I regret that I didn’t have time to sit in one of the tiny restaurants in the Old Town and listen to local musicians into the wee hours of the morning, or spend time wandering around the interior of the castle.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Belfast: Murals Remembering ‘The Troubles’

Posted on June 27, 2012


Graffiti helps turn Wall No. 1 into a political statement and work of art. The so-called peace line divides the Falls (republican) and Shankill (unionist) roads at Cupar Street in west Belfast. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

It was smiles all around today as Queen Elizabeth II, the 86-year-old monarch of the United Kingdom, held out her gloved hand to shake hands with Martin McGuinness, former IRA commander and current deputy first minister in Northern Ireland.


The historic handshake, unthinkable even a year ago when jaws dropped as the Queen visited the Republic of Ireland, symbolized a final reaching out across the great divide that ripped Northern Ireland apart in a three-decades-long conflict known as ‘The Troubles.’ More than 3,500 people died as republicans (Catholics) and unionists (Protestants) struggled for political control in a bloody campaign of bombings and tit-for-tat shootings that shattered families and stunted the country’s economy.


A mother pushes her baby stroller along the Solidarity Wall on the Falls Road, located in a republican area of Belfast. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Both of the Queen’s visits underscore the tremendous changes that have occurred here since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Members of Sinn Féin, considered the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), now share power with the unionists in Northern Ireland’s government. It’s an unusual compromise given the republicans want a united, independent Ireland, while the unionists want to retain a political relationship with England. As such, the ongoing peace process remains bumpy at times with sporadic outbreaks of violence but the larger peace, miraculously, has held.


Yet, 14 years later Belfast remains a city divided. Barb-wire topped walls, so-called peace lines, criss-cross the city providing a physical barrier between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. Colourful murals continue the propaganda war by exhorting Protestant and Catholic communities to never forget the lives lost by their sides in the conflict, while promoting the justness of their cause.


There may be peace but true integration — and trust — in Belfast and Northern Ireland has yet to occur.

Mother, did it need to be so high?


When there’s trouble, a yellow gate closes off Wall No. 1, which divides the Falls (republican) and Shankill (unionist) roads at Cupar Street. The so-called peace line was erected in 1969 after riots in west Belfast. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

With a sound that married the sudden crack of gunfire with the distinctive tinkling of glass breaking, the ball bearings crashed into the asphalt running along Wall No. 1, an almost 14-metre-tall “peace line” that divides the infamous Falls (republican) and Shankill (unionist) roads in west Belfast, shattering the mid-morning quiet.


I had wandered down Cupar Street away from the rest of our tour group to get a closer look at the sturdy yellow gates that close off the wall, when the unseen culprit fired the projectiles over the imposing concrete barrier into the Shankill side.


Startled, I whirled around, sure the ball bearings had landed near my friend Alicia. It was only later when we were chatting over coffee that I found out they had landed very close to me. In all likelihood it was a bored teenage prankster rather than someone making a political statement. Luckily, no one was injured. Projectiles fired over these walls are not uncommon. In fact, houses that abut the wall on the Falls Road side have protective nets on their roofs to prevent damage.


A sectarian message stands out among the scribblings left by visitors in support of the Northern Ireland peace process. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

It was our welcome to Belfast’s oldest peace line. Erected after a devastating riot in 1969, it has the dubious distinction of standing longer than the Berlin Wall. And it’s not the only one. Estimates on the number of these walls in the city varies widely from 20 to almost 100. Others are scattered throughout Northern Ireland. What’s surprising is that with the peace, local residents are in no hurry to tear them down.

Since the signing of the peace agreement in 1998, Wall No. 1 has become a canvas where visitors offer messages in support of peace and graffiti artists create thought-provoking works of art along its more than 800 metres. But not all the messages are peaceful.


One of the most poignant murals on the Wall No. 1 peace line in Belfast shows a young person peering through an imaginary hole in the wall to the Shankill side. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Setting Boundaries

Belfast is a city rich in visual codes warning Protestants or Catholics they’re not welcome in a particular neighbourhood or on the opposite side of the street. Along with the peace lines and murals, the presence of tricolour and Union Jack flags or simple painted roadside curbs (red and blue for Protestant areas, for example) are warnings best heeded.


In fact, some outright warn of violence if the boundary — often unseen by outsiders not privy to the ins and outs of the conflict — is crossed. One of the most obvious warnings is a huge mural on the side of a row house in the Sandy Row area in south Belfast. A painted masked gunman points his weapon directly at oncoming cars in the intersection.


The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 but the murals of Northern Ireland remain. In Belfast, a mural warns motorists that “You Are Now Entering Loyalist Sandy Row: Heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters. (By Jennifer Robinson)

Fear of crossing these lines remains palpable for the Irish. I travelled twice into Northern Ireland when I lived in Dublin last year — once with some young Irish university mates from the republic and the second with a tour company based in the republic.

In both cases, my Irish friends and the tour driver were visibly nervous travelling through the Protestant neighbourhoods of Dublin because of their licence plates. It was a dead giveaway they were from the republic and therefore, in all likelihood, Catholic.

We didn’t encounter any problems on my visits but the tour company once had one of their buses set on fire in Belfast (the driver swore it was because of the plate) and Irish families all seem to know someone who was hassled or had their vehicle vandalized while visiting the North for the same reason. It may all sound a bit ridiculous. It’s not when you’re riding in a vehicle with three grown men who are on the verge of panicking. It would make anyone nervous.

Visiting the Murals: Shankill Road


It’s impossible for residents, including children, to miss the murals and their messages in the Shankill Road area. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

We jumped into the delightfully worn London-style black taxi around 4 p.m. on a cold January day in Belfast’s main shopping district for a tour of Belfast’s famous murals depicting ‘The Troubles.’ Our driver, who quickly pointed out he was a Protestant, wasn’t one of the official black cab guides the tourist books recommend but he would take me, my classmate Jess and her husband Matt wherever we wanted for less than £20 — a veritable steal. Other taxi companies can charge this much per person for the usual 90-minute tour.


The drive to the Shankill area as the day’s last light was slipping away was a sobering experience. Adding to the foreboding ambience was a heavy fog, thickened by the burning of coal and peat for warmth in the city’s crowded row houses.


The Shankill murals, which are some of Belfast’s most photographed, are largely in the middle of a housing development where children’s toys litter tiny lawns behind fences and dogs are let loose to do their business in the common green spaces. The brightly coloured gables recall historical battles fought by Protestants, including the 1809 Battle of Talavera in Spain, as well as historical figures such as Oliver Cromwell and King William III of Orange, who defeated the Catholic forces of King James at Ireland’s Battle of the Boyne in 1690.


A number of protests by paramilitary prisoners, including hunger strikes took place in the notorious “H” blocks at the Maze, also known as Her Majesty’s Prison Maze. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The messages of the murals varies from those with a more peaceful tone to Cromwell’s, which offers this chilling quote, “. . . There will be no peace in Ireland until the Catholic Church is crushed.” They are part propaganda and part outdoor classroom. Given few Catholics would wander into this extremely unionist neighbourhood, it’s clear the messages of these murals is aimed at an internal audience. The message: Don’t forget the struggle and our sacrifices. Ever.


One of the most eye-catching murals is bright orange and depicts the notorious “H” blocks used to imprison convicted paramilitary members at Her Majesty’s Prison Maze from 1971 until it closed in 2000. However, the standout is the one that teaches viewers the differences between Protestant paramilitary groups. It looks like a page torn out of a creepy children’s colouring book. At the top of this mural is painted quite possibly the most famous of all the figures in the Belfast murals: the camouflaged and masked Ulster Freedom Fighter ( UFF) member looking through a gun scope.


This portrait of an Ulster Freedom Fighter is the Mona Lisa of the Irish murals — his eyes are said to follow you wherever you go.


The masked UFF member is part of a large gable mural that features the different types of unionist paramilitary groups. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Back out on the Shankill Road, our driver stopped what seemed like every few metres to point out memorials to Protestants killed in the tit-for-tat bombings that occurred in pubs, homes and businesses in the area in the 1970s. One of the most famous sites is that of the Bayardo Bar shooting and bombing by the IRA in 1975 that left five dead. Unionist paramilitary forces responded with deadly force in Belfast and other communities. The language of the memorial pulls no punches: “In memory of five innocent Protestants slaughtered here by a Republican murder gang.”


Our driver, who was a lovely patient man, clearly wanted to impress upon us the Protestant point of view of the ‘The Troubles,’ which The Lonely Planet guide for Ireland points out has been difficult for the unionists when dealing with tourists unfamiliar with Ireland’s complicated history. I appreciated his efforts, lives were indeed lost on both sides, but at times his clear bias was disturbing.


A well-tended memorial remembers the five people killed in an IRA shooting and bombing at the Bayardo Pub off Shankill road in 1975. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Visiting the Murals: The Falls Road

Visiting the Falls Road as dusk settles on Belfast with a skittish Protestant cabbie in tow is an experience I’m not likely to forget. As we wandered along the peace line and then onto the Falls Road proper he shadowed us in his black London taxi cab (a sign he warned us that he was a Protestant in a Catholic area. So many signs!). I was never sure he wouldn’t just drive off and leave us, anxious to escape back to his safe neighbourhood where I imagined his wife had a hot supper waiting for him.


There is a sadness walking past these murals and remembering all the lives lost on both sides of the divide. Along the Falls Road, the paintings rail against the horrible oppression of the Catholics in Ireland by their British overlords, while at the same time offering hope that the injustice cannot last.


This belief is expressed best in the mural of Bobby Sands that depicts the Catholic hero of The Troubles smiling as a dove breaks free of its chains. The 27-year-old, who was an Irish volunteer for the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Member of Parliament, died in 1981 while on hunger strike at the Maze prison. His mural promises that “our revenge will be the laughter of our children.” Sands was portrayed by actor Michael Fassbender in the 2008 film Hunger, just one of several award-winning films made in the last 20 years on the conflict in Northern Ireland.


A mural along the Falls Road in Belfast remembers Bobby Sands. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

In the summer of 1970, the Falls Road became a flash point in the nascent days of ‘The Troubles’ when a house-by-house search for weapons erupted into a gun battle between the British Army and republican forces in the working class Catholic area. The riot and shooting led the British Army to impose a curfew. Over the next 36 hours, four civilians were killed, dozens were wounded and hundreds were arrested. The incident is memorialized in a mural speaking to the bravery of the Catholic women in the area who stood up to the troops.


Placing the Irish conflict in a larger international context is the purpose of the Solidarity Wall along the Falls Road, which draws sympathetic attention to similar nationalistic struggles around the world, including the fight by the Palestinians and Basques for their own homelands. There is also a beautiful rendering of Picasso’s Guernica, which he created in response to the horrific aerial bombardment of the town during the Spanish Civil War.


The Solidarity Wall on the Falls Road, located in a republican area of Belfast, contains a number of murals focusing on territorial struggles by the Palestinians and the Basques. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

When I visited the Falls Road area for the first time on that foggy January night, the road wasn’t terribly well-lit and its sidewalks were largely deserted. It was a different story when I visited during the day in March when several large double-decker buses brought tourists in to snap photos. It’s hard to say what people learn when they visit.


To me, the Irish are a bit like elephants — they never forget. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where a battle that happened more than 300 years ago is talked about like it just happened yesterday. History sometimes feels like a shroud here, smothering out a true peace where both communities freely intermingle with no threat of violent repercussions. But then again, I come from a country in danger of forgetting its history entirely.


Someday soon I hope the majority of the sectarian murals in Belfast will be painted over and the peace lines torn down.


If the Queen can meet with a former member of an organization that murdered her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Martin McGuiness can shake hands with the head of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, which he witnessed shooting to death 14 innocent citizens in Derry during a civil rights march, then maybe Northern Ireland can begin charting in earnest a vibrant path for its future that remembers that past but isn’t held hostage to it.


In 1970, the British Army imposed a curfew in the Falls Road area of Belfast after a gun battle with republican forces. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


A mural along the Falls Road in Belfast protesting the treatment of the Irish immigrating to England in search of work in the 1960s. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


A disturbing mural in support of the Palestinian conflict twists John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s classic song for peace, Happy Xmas (War Is Over) along the Solidarity Wall on the Falls Road, located in a republican area of Belfast. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Belfast: An Impressionist View of City Hall

Posted on June 25, 2012

Belfast-City Hall

Belfast City Hall, which opened in 1906, is located in Donegall Square, in the heart of Belfast city centre. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Sometimes a bad jiggle of the arm when taking a photograph can create something unexpected. Belfast City Hall in all its classical style grandeur and copious use of marble represents the city’s boom time at the beginning of the 20th century when its dockyards were turning out massive ships, including the doomed Titanic. The good times would not last.


As such, the building stands out in a city filled with crumbling brick buildings in its core and drab apartment towers that line the main motorway. Belfast is not a stereotypically pretty city but it is interesting.


Tours of Belfast City Hall are available for free from Monday to Saturday in the late morning and afternoon. But to be honest, if you’re only in Belfast for a short period of time, it’s far more interesting to visit the murals along the Falls and Shankill roads, tip back a pint in one of the city’s fine old-fashioned pubs, or visit the newly opened Titanic Belfast museum.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Hawaiian Sunset at 13,796 feet

Posted on June 22, 2012

My teeth can’t stop chattering. I’m in Hawaii and freezing while watching the sun go down above the clouds on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island. We’re at 13,796 feet (that’s more than 4.2 kilometres up, for us metric folks). The air is thin, the landscape is out of this world and the view is spectacular.

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

The Subaru Telescope, located on the summit of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, is an 8.3-meter diameter optical/IR telescope operated by Japan. (Photo by J. Pennington)

The Hawaiians consider Mauna Kea,or the White Mountain, one of the island’s most sacred spots where shrines, burial sites and the largest and best preserved adze or stone axe quarry (dating to about AD 1100) in the Hawaiian islands can be found. The goddesses Poli‘ahu (snow) Lilinoe (mist and fog) and and Li–hau (cold chill) dwell here, according to Hawaiian legends. The summit also hosts the world’s largest astronomical observatory, with telescopes operated by 11 countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom.

Together, they make the volcano a place where ancient spirituality and cutting-edge  astronomy have co-existed peacefully since the first telescope was built here in 1968.

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

The sun sets over Japan’s Subaru Telescope and the twin domes of the W. M. Keck Observatory on top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. (Photo by J. Pennington)

We arrived at the summit approximately four hours after we set out from the Waikoloa beach resort area along the coast. The sun sets rapidly here, with prime viewing lasting about 30-45 minutes. It’s eerily quiet, with only the sound of whirring motors as the telescopes open their bay doors to peer beyond our universe to study faraway stars and planets. Discoveries made here include: a black hole with the mass of 3.6 million of our suns, dwarf stars and a family of planets ringing  a normal star — the first located outside of our own galaxy. The telescopes are generally not open to the public.

Off in the distance, a group of adventurous skiers are standing at the top of one of the many cinder cones that surround the summit. The fading sun has turned the mound into a sugary pink dessert confection with curvy ski carvings providing the decoration. It is possible to ski and surf in the same day on the Big Island in January and February. However, the snow cover is shallow and shaped into jagged peaks and rocks are an ever present concern. There’s also no chairlifts or T-bars so what goes down must come back up under its own power; not an easy feat when the atmospheric pressure is 40 per cent less than at sea level.

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

It is possible to ski in Hawaii on the cinder cones that surround the summit of Mauna Kea, However, the snow is thin, the ground is rocky and it’s a long, hard walk back up the slope! (Photo by J. Pennington)

Visitors are warned to move slowly and drink lots of water both before and after their visit to the summit. Pregnant women, scuba divers who have dived in the last 24 hours, the obese, and those with breathing or heart troubles are strongly advised not to travel to the summit. You’ll also want to dress warmly in layers,  including a winter jacket, as temperatures drop below freezing as the sun goes down.

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

Obviously, these guys didn’t get the memo about wearing winter clothes! Tourists pose for photos at sunset outside one of 13 internationally funded telescopes located on the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. (Photo by J. Pennington)

Commercial Tour vs. Going it Alone

Given that most people come to Hawaii to enjoy the beaches and avoid the cold at home, deciding to trek to the top of Mauna Kea is an unusual and relatively expensive choice to make. A number of small-scale certified commercial tours will take you to the top from Kona or Hilo for less than $200 US. The trip usually includes a meal along the way, cold weather gear, along with an informative guide/driver to showcase the flora and fauna of the region, as well as its history. The Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station maintains a comprehensive online list of permitted tour companies.

Mauna Kea’s recent history is almost as interesting as the ancient volcanic eruptions that formed it approximately two millions years ago. The volcano is located in the midst of the historic Parker Ranch, one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States. Cows were introduced to the Hawaiian islands by British Captain George Vancouver (the explorer my home Vancouver, BC, is named after), who presented them to King Kamehameha I in the late 1700s. The slopes of Mauna Kea were once richly forested, however the cows destroyed these native stands as they rapidly multiplied, leaving behind the scrub land seen today. What they didn’t destroy, the settlers did.

The lower slopes also provide a training area for the U.S. military. When we visited, soldiers were training at the Pohakuloa Training Area for eventual deployment to Afghanistan. The area is the largest training ground in Hawaii and has been used by the military since the 1940s. As you climb higher, the grassland gives way to a rocky, red Martian landscape. In fact, this area was also used by American astronauts to train for the Apollo lunar missions.

It is possible to drive there on your own with a 4×4-wheel-drive vehicle (do not attempt in a regular car!) but rental companies will not provide you with a vehicle if they know you’re driving it on the rough and twisty Saddle Road (Route 200) and the incredibly steep Mauna Kea Access Road. Honestly, pay to go on the tour. It’s hairy enough driving up during the daytime. Driving back down in the dark, especially with an inexperienced driver who is unfamiliar with the area, is a bad idea. And did I mention the invisible cows?

As a bumper sticker we purchased at the local visitor information centre explains:

Most of the Mauna Kea Access Road below Hale Pohaku is open range, and the cows frequently cross the road. Dark colored cows are often invisible in darkness and/or fog. Use extreme caution and drive very slowly in this open range.

Humu’ula Ranch Sheep Station

A great way to break up this long and nerve-wracking drive is to stop at the abandoned Humu’ula Ranch Sheep Station near the 28-mile marker on the Saddle Road. Sheep were first raised and sheared here in the 1860s but were phased out about 100 years later.The scale of the operation was huge. According to the Ala Mauna Saddle Road Interpretive Project, an estimated 23,000 sheep grazed here in the early 1900s.

Having a picnic lunch among the rusted Quonset huts and sagging wooden wool barn and house is incredibly peaceful. While stretching your legs, take a look at the herds of cattle owned by the Parker Ranch and the white communications towers off in the distance. It looks like the towers are controlling the cattle! This is also a perfect vantage point for taking shots of the white mantle of Mauna Kea’s summit.

There are hiking tours available on Mauna Kea for adventurous souls who are fit, hardy and not scared of altitude sickeness. Just be sure to get back before dark!

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

The abandoned Humu’ula Ranch Sheep Station, located near the 28-mile marker at the junction of Mauna Kea Access Road and Saddle Road, is a wonderful spot to stop for a picnic lunch. It is unbelievably quiet and beautiful here. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

Vegetation stands high over the scrubby grass at the Humu’ula Ranch Sheep Station. (Photo by J. Pennington)

And Just Like That. Poof. The Sun Was Gone

At the summit, the eyes play tricks on you. Perhaps it’s the altitude but it looks sometimes like you’re at sea level gazing out at the white surf. In reality, you’re looking down at a frothy cloud cover. No wonder the ancient Hawaiians considered this place the home of gods.

Like your breathing, time slows here until all of a sudden, poof, the sun is gone. The beautiful pinky and violet light deepens first to blue, then a last minute spasm of golden yellow turns the colour of a blood orange. And then, she’s gone. Slipping beneath the faraway horizon and the earthly realm hemmed in by the clouds below.

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

The sun glitters high above the clouds on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

The last rays of daylight fade to blue and then black at almost 14,000 feet at the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Watching the sunset is soon replaced by the best stargazing you’ll ever enjoy. (Photo by J. Pennington)

Hawaii-Mauna Kea

The last pink rays of daylight fade to blue and then black at almost 14,000 feet at the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Near the top of the photo is a tiny fingernail of the moon. (Photo by J. Pennington)

When You Wish Upon a Star

After the sun sets, visitors are invited to stargaze at the Visitor Information Station at the Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, located below the summit at 9,300 feet (2,790 metres). The centre is the mid-level altitude acclimatization spot used by visitors and scientists on their way to Mauna Kea’s summit. It’s recommended visitors stay here for at least 60 minutes.

The night sky is so clear on Mauna Kea you’ll see the constellations like you never have before by looking through the station’s high-quality portable telescopes. For example, all three stars are clearly visible on Orion’s Belt. It is virtually impossible to view Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka at lower altitudes now because of air and light pollution now, our guide informed us.

Using a green laser pointer that doesn’t interfere with the high-powered Mauna Kea telescopes, the guide pointed the constellations out to us, along with Venus and faraway stars. I have to admit I’ve always been interested in astronomy but can’t for the life of me pick them out on my own in the sky. Finding constellations to me is like looking for the picture in those puzzle pictures that were so popular in the 1990s — I never could and I hated them.

Up here at night is a different world. Scientists and workers in the visitor’s centre are not allowed to use halogen lights or regular bulbs found in flashlights. In the visitor’s gift shop, tourists shop for souvenirs (the aforementioned Invisible Cows bumper sticker is a perennial favourite), along with munchables under red light, like in a photo darkroom. Whoever runs this shop has a great sense of humour. The candy here is all space related so you’d better like Milk Way and Mars bars.

To keep the observatories on Mauna Kea functioning properly, the Big Island uses low-pressure sodium (LPS) lamps for its lighting. The yellow-orange lights, along with red lights, don’t scatter in the atmosphere like more common blue lighting. For more information on light pollution, check out this study by Richard J. Wainscoat from the University of Hawaii.

Don’t Anger the Gods!

To ensure the best experience possible on Mauna Kea, please follow these health and safety guidelines and remember to respect the mountain as a sacred spot for Hawaiians. Our guide recounted one story about a man from San Francisco who visited Mauna Kea more than 20 years ago and decided to take back a rock as the ultimate souvenir of his experience there, even though he had been warned repeatedly not to because it would anger the goddesses who reside there. He took it back to California but didn’t keep it for long. It arrived back to Mauna Kea with a simple plea of “Forgive me.” He was convinced his transgression in taking the rock had contributed to the devastating 1989 earthquake there.

Boxes full of these rocks are often returned to Hawaii by those who have learned their lessons. So take heed!

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Coney Island: Fighters, Freaks, Hotdogs and History

Posted on June 20, 2012

Coney Island

Coney Island has survived fires and changing public tastes throughout its more than 130-year history. But residents, business owners and Coney fans worry a recent surge in redevelopment will sound its death knell. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The famous Wonder Wheel rose slowly from the fog as the F train crawled towards the Stillwell Avenue station. Its cars swung empty in late September, abandoned for yet another winter season as tourists and urban denizens returned to reality in the Big Apple. On the boardwalk, one concession stand after another sat shuttered — some like Cha Cha’s, the “Home of Wild Women and Wise Guys,” seemed destined for the history books after their leases weren’t renewed.

But like a phoenix, Coney Island and its motley assortment of independent shops, amusement parks and solitary museum officially opened its seven-day-a-week season last month on Memorial Day weekend. There is no doubt its collection of freaks, carnies and business owners are fighters.

Coney Island

The eatery Paul’s Daughter has existed on the Coney Island boardwalk for more than 50 years. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Cha Cha’s has reopened in a brand new spot on Surf Avenue, while Paul’s Daughter and Ruby’s were granted eight-year leases after years of uncertainty. All three eateries were part of the Coney Island 8. The longtime mom-and-pop operations were threatened with eviction after an Italian company Zamperla USA took over management of the land from the city and moved to spruce it up with more family-friendly offerings that can operate year-round. Zamperla also operates Luna Park and Scream Zone, two of the area’s amusement parks.

It would be a shame to lose these older establishments with their world famous hotdogs (Coney Island created them, after all), clam bars, cotton candy, fried dough, and funnel cakes. But what is even more disturbing is the attempt to make Coney Island respectable.

Part of the lingering allure of this place, and really all carnivals, is the seediness, the transient nature of the short summer season, the sticky sweetness of a short-lived summer romance, and the colourful characters who keep the rides and rigged games going year after year. There’s an old timey magic about. It’s a connection to the historical past and our childhoods. At the carnival, anything seems possible.

A Visit in a Foggy Wayback Machine

When I visited Coney Island, everything was shuttered for the season and an impenetrable fog enveloped the board walk and theme parks. Over the course of its summer season, hundreds of thousands of visitors trundle over the famous wooden (and now plastic in sections) boardwalk and consume copious amounts of hotdogs and beer.

In the haze on that late September morning, you could sense the ghostly imprint of all those visitors, reaching back to Coney’s amusement park start in the 1860s. Visiting a place usually teeming with life when it’s empty is a surreal experience.

Coney Island

The Grill House is one of the Coney Island 8 that didn’t have its licence renewed on the boardwalk for the 2012 season. Instead, the owner has moved the location to Stillwell Avenue near Scream Zone. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

It reminded me of going to my 100-year-old elementary school one morning super early with my mom, a school teacher. The odd forgotten hat hung from coat hooks in the hallway and prized artworks fluttered from the walls. You could hear faintly the babble of voices excited to head to the playground and the stomp of snowy boots on the rubberized stairways. I kept looking behind me, sure someone was there in the dark. But I was very much alone.

Coney Island

Fog as thick as pea soup keeps away the sunbathers except for one lonely soul at Coney Island. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

It was much the same in Coney Island. The fog had smothered the screams from the Cyclone and dampened the smell of cotton candy but it was still there, permanently etched into the bones of the place. Smears on the boardwalk told of spilled hotdogs and dropped ice cream cones (and the tears resulting), while on the empty beach I could imagine the throngs of 19th-century sub worshippers with their sun parasols and ridiculous bathing costumes. For a real glimpse, check out these vintage photos from the New York City Municipal Archives Online Gallery.

The subway was eerily empty for the last few stops before Stillwell. The couple I disembarked with quickly disappeared on the wonderfully named Surf Avenue. Perhaps, they had seen nothing was happening and simply gotten back on the train. Perhaps.

Bring out the Freaks

The first sign you’re in Coney Island, aside from sightings of the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel from dirty subway windows, is the Coney Island Museum. Keeping the carnival freaks at the forefront here is Coney Island USA, a non-profit organization that operates the museum and produces the Creepshow at the Freakshow and the annual Mermaid Parade, set this year for June 23. They even offer a sideshow school where wannabe sword swallowers, human blockheads, fire eaters and snake charmers can hone their craft by learning from the best.

Coney Island

The Coney Island Museum is located at 1208 Surf Avenue in a historic building that once housed a restaurant. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

According to their website: “Coney Island USA was founded in the belief that 19th-century American popular culture gave birth to a democratic cultural golden age, unique to this country’s history and indispensable to its future.” Coney Island is the antithesis of high culture. Entertainment here was and is firmly grounded in the tastes of regular blue-collar Joes and Janes. It’s tacky but it’s also authentic Americana. Everything about the Coney Island Museum makes me wish I’d had the chance to visit the area during the height of its popularity at the dawn of the 20th century.

For example, the museum features a cosmorama marking the burning of Dreamland on May 27, 1911, billed as “New York’s second most devastating disaster.” This bizarre theme park – too strange, politically incorrect and downright dangerous too survive nowadays — featured Lilliputia where three hundred midgets lived; a daily demonstration where 2,000 people pretended to put out a six-storey blaze; re-enactments of the Boer War, the San Francisco fire, the destruction of Pompeii, and the Galveston Flood; not to mention an exhibit of premature babies saved by the new technological wonder of baby incubators. WOW! And admission to the museum is only $5!

For another glimpse into Coney Island’s strange history, visit the Coney Island History Project’s exhibition center at the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. The exhibition — which is free — includes historical artifacts (an original horse from the legendary Steeplechase ride and a “fairy whip” car), films and photos, including an exhibition until July 1 of Abe Feinstein’s work entitled 50 Years of Coney Island Photography. Their website also includes a wonderful section called Ask Mr. Coney Island. It caters to residents and tourists who have visited the area and includes historical photos and interesting facts.

For example, I had no idea there used to be a giant elephant hotel here. Seriously. Known as the Elephantine Colossus, the seven-storey, 45-metre-tall hotel burned down in 1896. No doubt the place was a firetrap. If they truly want to revitalize Coney Island, why can’t they bring back the elephant hotel?

The Rides

Along with gaping wide mouthed at the freaks, the other way residents and tourists have walked on the wild side at Coney Island are the death-defying rides. One of the oldest amusements still in existence is the Cyclone. The wooden roller-coaster,which opened in 1927, is located on the former site of the world’s first roller-coaster — the Thompson Switchback Railway, built in 1884.

Coney Island

The Cyclone at Coney Island. According to legend, a man who hadn’t spoken in years got his voice back while screaming during the terrifying ride in 1948. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The Cyclone has an interesting history. According to legend, a man who hadn’t spoken in years got his voice back while screaming during the terrifying ride in 1948. Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh is often credited as saying the Cyclone “was more thrilling than his historic first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.” However, the ride also has a tragic history (although for the millions that have ridden it, the numbers of fatalities are incredibly low):

  • In 1985, a man died after he was struck on the head while standing up during the ride.
  • A similar incident occurred three years later when a maintenance worker also stood up while the ride was operating.  He fell to his death.
  • In 2007, an 80-year-old man died following surgery to repair a neck injury he allegedly suffered on the ride. His family sued the city, which currently owns the coaster.

Historian and author Jeffrey Stanton has written that roller-coasters like the Cyclone were so popular at Coney Island in the 1920s and 1930s that “lines reached three to five hours long . . . During July heat waves, tempers flared, and when the foolish dared cut in line, several murders were recorded.”

Coney Island

Deno’s Wonder Wheel looms over Coney Island in the fog. At almost 100 years old, the Ferris wheel is an icon of the area and fuses the past with the present. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The safest and oldest ride at Coney Island is the aforementioned Ferris wheel known as Deno’s Wonder Wheel, located off West 12th Street. Built in 1920, the 45-metre-high wheel is a historical landmark with a perfect safety record even during a New York City-wide blackout in 1977, according to the park’s website. For just $6 a ride, the view of Coney Island must be spectacular from the top, especially on a perfect day in July when close to a million people visit the area.

And, for the first time in 30 years, new solar powered lights will illuminate the beautiful Ferris wheel at night. The lights are being placed on the wheel’s 16 swinging cars but there’s no word on whether the lights have started working yet. Keep your eyes peeled!

For the 2012 season, three new rides were also added at Coney Island’s various amusement parks. They include: Boardwalk Flight, which swings riders 30 metres into the air and out over the boardwalk, a go-kart track called Coney Island Raceway (both located at Scream Zone) and the MegaWhirl at the new Steeplechase Park.

A Desolate Boardwalk Empire

On a quiet day when the amusements are shuttered and the fog is thick, the boardwalk still has a magical quality. The crunch of scattered sand gripping footwear on the weathered wood and muted conversations almost exclusively in Russian are the only distractions from the silence. I became aware as I walked of how Coney Island is more than a summer escape, it’s also a community filled with highrises and low slung stores as you inch closer to Brighton Beach.

Coney Island

Friends contemplate the fogged in beach along the boardwalk at Coney Island. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Recently, New York City voted to replace the wooden planks with a cheaper mixture of plastic and concrete in a five-block area despite a boisterous protest by residents and Coney Island lovers. The city is spending $30 million to renovate the 3.7-kilometre walkway. So, if you’re in New York this summer, be sure to venture out for a walk on these 89-year-old planks. Imagine the stories they could tell.

Already, designers have snapped up some of the old planks to create one-of-a-kind furniture and Ruby’s Bar is using it to freshen up its interior. At least it’s not simply being thrown away. Change is inevitable and sometimes it’s for the good. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I was able to visit Coney Island before all the old buildings and sights are lost forever. Go in the fog, it’s a more melancholic experience.

Here are a few more photos from my visit to Coney Island:

Coney Island

A lone cyclist peddles along the famous Coney Island boardwalk in the dense fog. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


Coney Island

Deno’s Wonder Wheel looms over Paul’s Daughter in the fog at Coney Island. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Coney Island

Nathan’s Famous operates the annual International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The brightly coloured gates of Luna Park at Coney Island. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

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© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Best Bookstore in Dublin: Hodges Figgis

Posted on June 12, 2012

Hodges Figgis

Hodges Figgis is one of Ireland’s oldest bookstores. Founded in 1768, it is currently located on Dawson Street in the heart of Dublin’s bustling city centre. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

One of Ireland’s greatest gifts to the world has been to literature. James Joyce, Bram Stoker, Frank O’Connor, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde, the list goes on and on. A great way to pass an afternoon or two in Dublin is to stop by Hodges Figgis, the country’s best bookstore, and peruse its huge array of Irish novels, plays, poetry, and historical works.


Located at 56-58 Dawson Street, the shop is a thing of beauty. As soon as I laid eyes on it from the top of the #10 double-decker bus, I was smitten. The outside is dressed in traditional hunter green and gold with beautiful curved windows showcasing the latest wares or featured authors scheduled to give in-store readings.


Founded in 1768, Hodges Figgis has moved at least three times in its history. It is such a fixture in the Dublin landscape that Joyce even referenced it in his massive novel Ulysses. Inside, are three floors jammed with a fantastic selection of books. Don’t miss the basement and its bargains. It’s a great spot to pick up the classics and non-fiction paperbacks.


I always imagined — and hoped — bookstores looked like this when reading about the Victorian era. As a student in Dublin, Hodges Figgis became my refuge and a lifesaver in the scramble for materials to write essays when the James Joyce library at University College Dublin failed to have key texts in its holdings (which was often). It not only contains an amazingly curated selection of top Irish and international fiction and non-fiction, it also has a friendly, relaxed vibe inside. And the staff are knowledgeable and friendly — they know their sections like the backs of their hands.


I don’t know what it is about this bookstore. I’d walk in looking for something, say Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and walk out with a couple of Graham Greene novels, Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship and Tim Butcher’s Blood River. It was my own personal Kryptonite. All those euros carefully saved . . .


I think the other amazing thing about Hodges Figgis is that it takes reading seriously. You can still find your guilty pleasure novels here that can be devoured in an afternoon but the store seems to pride itself on introducing great authors to those casually browsing. The prices, even with the exchange rate, are still cheaper for Canadians hit hard by higher prices and taxes at home. And, British publishers make cooler book covers. They just do. It’s also nice to shop in a store not overrun by American paperbacks on display.


And for those sticking around in Dublin for a while or with lots of room in their suitcases, the store offers a savings card. For every €10 spent, you get a stamp in your booklet and when you reach the tenth stamp you get €10 off your purchase. I can’t tell you how many of these paper booklets I went through when I lived there last year.


The only negative about Hodges Figgis is its computer search system, which must be conducted by an employee in store. If you don’t know the exact title, author or ISBN number it’s nigh impossible to find books on the subject you’re looking for. The store also doesn’t operate a website.


If you’re looking for an antiquarian bookshop in Dublin, just around the corner on Duke Street is Cathach Rare Books. To be honest, I never dared enter this charming shop. To do so would have been dangerous for a student on limited funds! Instead, I would drink my coffee and stare in the window at the first editions by James Joyce, Yeats, as well as colourful children’s books. For those unable to make it to Dublin any time soon, Cathach does offer an online shopping option for armchair travellers who love to read.


I’d love to hear from anyone else out there who loves Hodges Figgis or has another Irish bookstore they’d like to recommend!

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Vancouver: A Walk in Pacific Spirit Regional Park

Posted on May 22, 2012

Endowment Lands

Plagiomnium venustum moss covers low lying branches in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Park. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The only sound is the pitter patter of raindrops on the leafy canopy overhead and the muted calls of birds hiding somewhere in the lush green growth. In Pacific Spirit Regional Park, the stresses of urban living drop away as you plunge deeper and deeper into this urban slice of West Coast rainforest.


Located less than an hour from downtown Vancouver, the 763-hectare park encircles the University of British Columbia and the tony neighbourhoods surrounding it. Less busy than its sister Stanley Park on the downtown peninsula, the park is popular with joggers, dog walkers, cyclists, and horse riders but not to the point where the trails are clogged and the natural ambience is lost.


Overhead, tall cedars reach for the sun while on the forest floor downed logs swim in carpets of green moss and ferns hug the banks of streams stained like tea. As you wander along these trails, the din of the nearby highway fades to a comforting hum and the rustle of birds darting through the trees takes over. The keen eyes of trained birdwatchers will soon spot woodpeckers, hawks, bald eagles, owls, and blue jays.


Even though the trails get muddy, I prefer to walk through here when it’s raining, which in Vancouver is most of the time. I do recommend walking through on both rainy and sunny days since the park changes quite dramatically depending on the light.


I like to trek along the Clinton, Salish and St. Georges’ trails located off Southwest Marine Drive near the sign for the Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club. The #41 bus towards UBC practically stops at the yellow gated entrance (the Kullahun Drive stop), making it super convenient for those unfamiliar with the area. Free roadside parking is available along Southwest Marine Drive. A loop of these three trails will take just over an hour if you amble along with a canine companion.


For a map of the park and its 33 trails, click here. I’d print this map out if you’re eager to do some deep exploring. The trails are marked but some of the signs are faded and it could be easy to get disoriented. Luckily, most of the people you meet in the park are friendly and will likely help you out if they can.


Main entrances to the park are located at Camosun Street and the start of Southwest Marine Drive, as well as along 16th Avenue. For those looking for a good hike that cuts through the heart of the park, try taking the Clinton trail from Southwest Marine Drive, then Sasamat to 16th Avenue. On the way back, try the Huckleberry trail, which starts at Discovery Street and Imperial Road, until it hits Sasamat. The Sasamat trail is super quiet and follows a gentle grade that will take you through trails surrounded by towering trees and wild tangles of raspberries.


The park also includes a 180-metre boardwalk over the Camosun Bog at 19th Avenue and Crown (poorly marked and not worth the trouble to find) and a 7.8-kilometre-long beach trail that hugs the rocky shoreline of Point Grey. Nestled among these beaches is the infamous Wreck Beach, Canada’s largest, legal clothing optional beach. The seals aren’t the only ones sunning themselves on the rocks. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!


Here are some photos from my recent daily walks with Tikko, a Portuguese water dog:


Endowment Lands

Trees bend over the trails in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park creating a canopy that protects walkers from the rain and harsh sunlight. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Endowment Lands

A giant slug munches his way through the undergrowth at Pacific Spirit Regional Park. The day before he was on top of a log, the next day underneath it. He’s taking the slow food movement to heart. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Endowment Lands

High up in the forest canopy a mysterious crook in a tree is spotted in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Endowment Lands

Getting to the root of the matter. An overturned tree exposes its gnarled root system to passersby in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Endowment Lands
A Clinton trail marker in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Endowment Lands

Bark rippled and blackened by fire in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Endowment Lands

Branches turn upwards like a candelabra for mythical forest creatures in Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Towering above Ireland: The ruins of Monasterboice

Posted on May 21, 2012

The lonely sentinel of the Monasterboice ruins rises above a patchwork of green fields where Holsteins lazily graze. The rounded tower, which at 28 metres is one of the tallest in Ireland, was built more than a thousand years ago and is still in remarkably good shape despite a Viking takeover in 968 and a devastating fire in 1097.

Located in County Louth near the town of Drogheda, the site was founded in the fifth century likely under the leadership of St. Buithe, a disciple of the St. Patrick. Today, Monasterboice remains a hauntingly spiritual and peaceful place with only the sound of the wind, the lowing of cattle and the cries of birds pinwheeling ‘round the tower breaking the silence.

Admission is free to Monasterboice, which can be easily found off the M1 highway on the way from Dublin to Northern Ireland. For directions to the site, click here. It’s a great stop to break up the trip and is one of the best spots I visited in Ireland where you can experience history from the Dark Ages first hand.

It is often forgotten — though the Irish do like to remind us — that Ireland and its Christian monasteries were one of the few bright spots during the period after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is ancient sites like Monasterboice where Irish artisans, writers, scholars and monks kept knowledge and learning  alive for all of us despite the threat of savage Viking attacks. In fact, Monasterboice did fall under Viking rule for a brief spell. They were later resoundingly trounced by Donal, the Irish high king at Tara.

Visitors are able to mill around the small site to their heart’s content but entrance to the tower, which is missing its top cap, is forbidden.

I visited the site in mid-morning with my friend Alicia. I can only imagine how spooky it would be by moonlight, especially all alone.

By day, it is a charming little graveyard and like many other ancient burial sites in Ireland, it also contains the graves of those who have more recently passed. Take for example, the well tended final resting place of Matthew McCullough, beloved husband of Mary, who died in 1850 at the age of 34. It’s fascinating to see all the generations, hundreds of years apart, buried together in one spot.

In addition to the tower, the monastic ruins also feature giant Celtic crosses erected in the ninth and 10th centuries and church ruins. The first cross visitors will encounter upon entering the site is Muirdeach’s Cross, named after an abbot who oversaw Monasterboice until his death in 922. Weathered panels on the massive cross, which stands more than five metres tall, feature scenes of Christ’s life and crucifixion, as well as Adam and Eve and the murder of Abel by Cain. For more information on the individual panels, click here.

The West Cross, which at 6.5 metres is the tallest in Ireland, is located near the round tower. Although not as old as Muirdeach’s, the religious panels on this cross have not fared as well and are harder to decipher.

For almost 700 years, Monasterboice was an important religious centre. It fell into decline when the nearby Mellifont Abbey was built in 1142.

Here are some of my shots from Monasterboice:


The west side of Muirdeach’s Cross silhouetted against the Irish sky. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


Muirdeach’s Cross stands in the forefront with the almost 30-metre-tall rounded tower of Monasterboice in behind. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


Birds pinwheel around the top of the ancient 28-metre rounded tower at Monasterboice in Ireland. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


The east side of Muirdeach’s Cross features scenes from the Last Judgment. In the centre of the cross stands Christ holding a cross and rod. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


Weathered figures on an ancient Celtic cross at Monasterboice in Ireland depict Eve (far left) handing Adam the fated apple in the Garden of Eden. Next to them is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain with a club. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)


Monasterboice also contains the graves of those who have more recently passed. Take for example, the well tended grave of Matthew McCullough, who died in 1850. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Big Apple Intern: Living at The Webster (aka The Spinster)

Posted on May 15, 2012

The Webster Apartments, nicknamed the Spinster by my husband, has changed little since it opened in 1923 in Hells Kitchen, sandwiched between 9th and 10th avenues on 34th Street.

Men are not allowed above the ground floor and are forbidden from staying overnight in this New York City institution founded by Charles and Josiah Webster to provide a subsidized, genteel home for young women getting their start in the Big Apple. The Websters were first cousins of Roland H. Macy, whose namesake department store — still billed as the world’s largest — is located just down the street.

Nowadays, the Webster is home to hundreds of women who flood into the city every summer to work — often for nothing or next to nothing — in internships at some of the most prestigious foundations, arts institutions and businesses in the United States.

But it’s also home to women who live at or near the poverty line. In fact, one legendary resident, now in her 80s, has called the Webster home since arriving in the city in the 1960s.

Getting into the Webster is not easy. At least, it wasn’t for me. I needed my own Miracle on 34th Street!

The Webster

Just down the street from The Webster are the Empire State building, Macy’s, Penn Station, and Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

When I learned I had been chosen as an intern by the William J. Clinton Foundation last spring, I immediately tried to get in touch with the Webster after it was recommended to me by Julie Becker, the head of the foundation’s internship program.

The attraction of the Webster was twofold:

1.) It was a 30-minute walk to where I would be interning in Midtown;

2.) It was a single room — meaning I could work in peace on my master’s dissertation whenever I needed to; and

3.) It was an incredibly low $285 weekly for room and board!

If you’ve ever tried to find a place to live in the Big Apple for the spring and summer, then you understand how time was of the absolute essence in this matter. Competition is fierce, especially for room and board in the heart of Manhattan at that bargain price!

There were, however, several challenges:

At the time, I was studying for my master’s at University College Dublin in Ireland and had the time difference working against me, as well as the fact the staff at the Webster don’t use email or web-based application forms to communicate with potential guests. In fact, all correspondence is typed on an electric typewriter.

To be considered as a tenant, I had to first call and ask them to FAX(!) me a room request form. The foundation also had to write a letter on my behalf to prove I was an intern and not being paid for my services, which enabled me to qualify for the Webster’s $285 weekly rate, and I had to send a cheque for $50 US as a room deposit.

Of course, this meant I had to mail my room request form, the foundation letter and the cheque from Ireland to New York.

A further wrinkle for me was that Irish banks don’t sell traveller’s cheques (too many cases of fraud) and of course I had no personal cheques with me in Ireland since I had no reason to use them there. Aha! I thought. I’ll send a $50 US bill instead.

Not so fast. My efforts to send the letter priority post with the bill inside were thwarted by a matronly Irish postmistress who insisted on visually inspecting the contents. Money can’t be sent this way from Ireland to the United States because of terrorism concerns, she claimed in a dismissive manner. (Damn you IRA and Osama bin Laden!)

Eventually, I just sent the entire package with the cash by regular mail at the famous General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. It was much cheaper anyway and arrived in New York just three days later.

Of course, those three days meant the difference between getting in and not getting in.

In a panic, I had to settle for more expensive accommodation through Educational Housing Services at their 1760 3rd Ave. location. This turned out to be a blessing — I roomed with two wonderful women, Gretchen and Megan, and had the opportunity to walk every morning down Museum Mile into Midtown. Nothing beats that 60-minute walk down Fifth Avenue!

In mid-August, I finally moved into the Webster when my accommodation on 3rd Avenue ended. In two days, my dissertation was due and I still had 14,000 words to write!

Flustered, hot and panicked — that’s how I arrived at the Webster. The clock was ticking. I needed to get to my room ASAP and pound out my thoughts on my trusty laptop in order to pass my final paper in on time.

But the staff at the Webster are old fashioned and don’t like to be rushed when they’re explaining the house rules. I was practically dancing as the lady behind the counter droned on and on. At one point, I asked a question about accessing the Internet, interrupting her. She looked at me and I could tell I had derailed her whole rehearsed speech. I immediately apologized for “interrupting her flow,” which made her and the other lady behind the counter crack up. Thank God, she let me go then.

But alas, the lady with the gravelly smoker’s voice who showed me to my room wanted to give me a tour. I can’t tell you what a Herculean effort it was to convince her I could find my own way around eventually. But right now I needed to work!

When researching the Webster, I had read quite a few negative reviews online about the staff. In my case, they were wonderful. They are true New Yorkers — gruff, no-nonsense types with hearts of gold. And after I had made them laugh, I could pretty much get away with anything. A sense of humour really does go far in this world.

The Webster

The Webster has changed little since its founding in 1916 to provide housing exclusively for women. Weekly rates for room and board are among the cheapest in New York City. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The rooms at the Webster are a good size for a person who doesn’t intend on spending much time there. It is New York after all.

There is a sink, telephone, desk, chair, large closet, and a twin bed. Bathrooms and showers are shared and are just down the hall. The building also has laundry rooms, two TV rooms, a computer room, musical room (complete with piano), a large cafeteria, backyard garden, and Art Deco-styled private rooms on the main floor named after fabled stars from Hollywood’s golden era (think Valentino, Dietrich and Garbo) for entertaining guests.

Above the tiny wooden desk is a mirror. Strangely enough this mirror was comforting as I dashed through my thesis. I’d look up every now and again and peer into my own eyes to see if I could see the desperation there. I could. I’m a newswire trained journalist. I thrive on pressure and a pressing deadline. In fact, I often can’t bring myself to write quickly without one. It’s a bad habit but I’m a total adrenalin junkie.

Although the Webster is a 13-storey building with 373 guest rooms, it is most often as quiet as church at night. Street noise in the summer is a bit of a problem but if you turn on the fan above the bed it’ll drown everything out.

Skylight Diner

The Skylight is open 24/7. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Another great thing about the Webster is that it’s almost directly across the street from a 24-hour diner. Coffee, cookies and grease at any hour — it’s a student’s dream. Fuelled with java from the Skylight Diner, I finished my dissertation with four minutes to spare. Talk about cutting it close!

The Webster is home to an eclectic group of people. The lobby is usually sprinkled with the young interns, a surprising number of which are from Germany, while in the cafeteria the longtime residents are most visible at meal times. Along with the house rules of the Webster are the unofficial rules of these older ladies.

The Webster

A typical room. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

I had the misfortune of breaking one of these invisible rules at chow time one night. I was starving after a long day at the office and plunked down my tray in one of the middle tables in the cafeteria that has a view of the garden outside. There was a key on the table, which I thought had been forgotten by the previous occupant.

I was digging into my meal when all of a sudden one of the shabbily dressed old-timers (or lifers) got up from a nearby table and approached. “Did you not see the key?” she demanded. “Umm yeah,” I replied. “Is it yours?”

“Yeah, it’s mine. I put it there to save the table for me and my friend.”

“OK,” I said. “Well, you and your friend are welcome to join me.” She grunted “no” and stalked away, unimpressed by my lack of knowledge about the mysterious ways of the Webster. It was a surreal and funny moment.

I felt like I was in a prison movie and had pissed off one of the inmates. I kept an eye out for a shiv fashioned out of one of the plastic soup spoons but none materialized.

In general, the residents are not friendly but they’re not usually unfriendly either. The lifers eat together, the newbies cluster together and the smokers hide out on the rooftop deck. I think the newbies don’t mix with the oldies because they secretly fear them — no one wants to be in their 50s and still living in a place like the Webster.

The best place to escape the concrete jungle and all the noise of living with a bunch of women is up on the roof. The top of the Webster offers an unblocked view of the New Yorker Hotel and the Empire State building. This is the place to watch the lights of New York come on as the sun sets. Aside from the cluster of smokers near the elevator, there’s usually no one up here. As a result, it offers the sensation of being wonderfully alone right in the heart of the city amidst the millions of people who call New York home.

Empire State building

The Empire State building glows in the fog as seen from the rooftop of the Webster. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Living at the Webster for a month and a half was a great experience. Although dealing with its outmoded ways was challenging and maddening in the beginning, by the end of my stay I was thoroughly charmed.

One of the best things about New York City, in my opinion, is that it is able to maintain these little gems of the past while being at the forefront of change. There is room here for everyone and everything. Where else could I get a perfectly typed phone bill for 15 cents, while paying $30 for a spotty Internet connection? Or pay — in cash — my monthly rent at an old fashioned brass banker’s wicket?

To enjoy the Webster and New York, I think you have to embrace whatever comes your way and roll with it. What an extraordinary place peopled with some of the oddest characters I’ve ever met. No wonder writers come here. I can hardly wait to return.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Giants of Hungary’s Communist Past

Posted on April 23, 2012

Whenever dictatorships fall, their monuments fall, too. It’s part of the heady celebration of liberation — the need to literally pull down these hated symbols that have for too long cast shadows across city squares and loomed over a country’s citizens.

But for history buffs, the destruction of these relics paying tribute to a dead political past is a true loss. More than 20 years after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed it is becoming increasingly difficult for travellers to find remnants of this recent history. In many cases what remains has been stripped of meaning. The vestiges of communism have lost their ability to evoke terror. Communism has become kitsch.

For example, in post-reunification Germany only a tiny portion of the infamous Berlin Wall remains standing (where you can watch tourists zipping by on Segways), poorly made Trabants have become weirdly hip and the deadly Cold War crossing Checkpoint Charlie is like an American theme park (complete with fake passport stamps for a fee). The most visible and largely unchanged reminder of the aspirations of communist East Germany is the incredibly ugly, but still functional, Berliner Fernsehturm, which towers above the hustle and bustle on Alexanderplatz.

A park in Hungary has taken a different approach. Forty-two pieces of Communist era public art tributes to workers, the party and its dear leaders were saved from the scrapyard in 1989-1990 and later put on display in Memento Park, located on the outskirts of Buda. For 4,500 Hungarian forints (approximately $20 Cdn/US), visitors can take a direct bus from downtown Budapest to stroll among the busts and giant statues of Lenin and Marx, as well as idealized figures of workers and soldiers, that once littered the Hungarian capital.

When I visited in May 2010, I was stunned by the artistic style of these figures after hours spent admiring classical Grecian marbles in the Louvre and Vatican Museum in Rome. The Communist statues are shocking in their simplicity and directness in calling on all who view them to pick up the rifle and follow the hammer and sickle. The eyes of one Soviet soldier are so scarily focused he’ll give you the willies.

Like the Communist state, all extraneous symbols and individualism have been stripped away. Features are crudely hewn from the stone and the hammer and sickle is everywhere. They are colossal, brutish, overbearing . . . and fascinating.

The park, which is primarily aimed at Western tourists, manages to successfully explore both the facade of communism and its brutality, particularly during Hungary’s crushed 1956 uprising when the toppling of the government led Soviet troops to invade, killing more than 2,500 Hungarians and forcing an estimated 200,000 to flee as refugees. Tens of thousands were also arrested and several hundred executed.

The importance of destroying hated symbols of a regime can be seen in the park’s recreation of the Communist Grandstand, which once stood in central Budapest.  During the October 1956 revolution, angry demonstrators pulled down the grandstand’s eight-metre-tall bronze of the feared Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin, leaving behind only the dictator’s boots.

Like Stalin’s boots, Memento Park lampoons communism (see the kitschy items in the tiny gift shop, particularly the CD collection of communism’s greatest hits) and terrifies with its authentic collection of black-and-white training films created by the Hungarian Ministry of Interior Affairs. These films, which have been edited into a montage for the park, were used to train secret police agents on the best ways to spy and report on their neighbours, hide listening devices and search homes, as well as intimidate and coerce others to spy for the regime.

Memento Park, which opened in 1993, is not the only site in Budapest that tackles the ghosts of Hungary’s Communist past. Another excellent site to visit is the Terror Haza Museum on Andrássy Street in Budapest, which I will write a blog post on at a later date.

Here are some photos from Memento Park:

The Buda Volunteers Regiment Memorial

An idealized vision of the Soviet state can been seen in the giant Buda Volunteers Regiment Memorial at Memento Park in Budapest. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Soviet Heroic Memorial

The Soviet Heroic Memorial in Budapest’s Memento Park. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Béla Kun Memorial

The Béla Kun Memorial in Budapest’s Memento Park. Kun, a Bolshevik Revolutionary, led the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Árpád Szakasits

Árpád Szakasits served as president of Hungary from 1948-1949. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Soviet Soldier

The scary-eyed Liberation Army Soldier is one of the most popular statues at the park. The six-metre-tall Soviet soldier has a hammer-and-sickle flag in his hand and a cartridge-disc machine pistol hanging from his neck. (Photo courtesy of Memento Park, http://www.mementopark.hu)

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Time to Retire Travelling Purple Chucks?

Posted on March 19, 2012

My Chuck Taylors have seen better days. They’ve pounded cobblestones in Dublin, concrete in Brooklyn and dusty blacktop in Fiji. Not to mention dance floors across Canada and Europe. They look tired and yet I still get compliments on them at the oddest times, like at human rights rallies in Vancouver, a laundromat in Amsterdam’s red-light district and high-end designer boutiques in New York’s Upper East Side. In fact, the older and more beat up they get the more compliments they seem to receive.

And, I’ve never met anyone else wearing them. How can that be in a world awash in cheaply made Converse sneakers from China?

I picked up these low Converses a decade ago with my friend Alicia on Toronto’s Yonge Street, once fittingly considered the longest street in the world.

An athletic store was having a sale: buy two and get the second pair for half price. I settled on the loudest pair they had – a shiny, satiny purple covered in delicate chinoiserie inspired flowers. Lish found a pair of chambray coloured hightops. We split the difference in the bill. I don’t know how often Lish has worn her sneakers, or if she even still has them. But my Chucks, well, they’ve seen a lot of action.

I think I settled on them that day in the store because they reminded me of a pair of the ugliest sneakers I’ve ever seen. My friend Brenda had a pair of knockoff hightops in bright orange satin. She wore them when we won a lip-synching contest singing Elvis’s Blue Suede Shoes in Grade 6. I know . . . we covered them in blue construction paper slippers but they kept slipping off anyway. I guess the judges overlooked the colour discrepancy.

Purple Chucks

Worn out purple Chucks have been around the world. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

Chucks are a great option when travelling. They’re light and they tend to look better the grungier they get. They also have an undeniable cool factor. No one thinks proper athletic shoes for walking long distances are cool. Never. They also have no support, leak when it rains or even approach a puddle, and tend to pinch me on my baby toes and rub my heels dangerously close to blisters if I’m not wearing the right type of socks. So, in a word, they’re perfect.

I haven’t always been faithful to them while travelling. I didn’t dare wear them while scaling the spiny, jagged tips of the a’a (ah ah) lava in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (I destroyed a pair of old Reeboks doing that). I also didn’t wear them on the Appian Way or on the chariot-rutted streets of Pompeii – sometimes comfort does win over looks. I preferred Birkenstocks for a while but their tough leather always cuts into my big toes. I also have a terrible habit of catching the lip of them on sidewalks and pitching into crowds.

Over the years, I kept thinking I would grow out of my Chucks before they would fall apart on me. I mean, how long can a person wear purple sneakers? But somehow I always seem to reach for them in the closet. The only other shoes that have come close recently are a pair of worn-in John Fluevog saddle brown BBC boots. The unusually harsh Irish winter in 2011 wore their soles down dangerously close to nothing.

Last year, one of the Chuck’s laces finally snapped on me when I bent down to tie them on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Amazingly, I found the perfect purple replacement laces, Mr. Lacey, in a nearby skate shop just off the main drag. Now, they are once again making alarming noises when I pull them tight. Finding those laces last year was a fluke. Will I ever be that lucky in laces again?

In Vancouver, I’ve seen vintage used Chucks for sale on Commercial Drive and it made me sad. Sure, they’re all broken down with their tongues hanging out and their laces crimped but who could have parted with such a personal item? Such a badge of personal identity? Did they grow up, move away or develop complicated foot problems?

By far the best experience I had with my purple Chucks came in that high-end designer boutique in the Carnegie Hill area of New York. In the small store window that I walked past occasionally while coming home from work in Midtown was a beautiful strapless dress with a tiny bustle in a mishmash of textures and prints in the most brilliant azure blues and acidy yellows. It was on sale.

When I entered the store of Koos Van Den Akker, the designer best known for his creation of the Cosby sweaters in the 1980s, the lovely Dutch saleslady had me in it in a flash. It was so gorgeous and grounding the look was my purple Chucks. I was ashamed of my footwear but the saleslady said: “Oh no, the sneakers are perfect. You must wear them with this dress. I can see you walking into a glamorous party here in New York wearing this dress . . . and those shoes!”

Alas, I didn’t buy the dress. It was beyond the means of an interning master’s student. But I still have the shoes.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dublin Parade Shows St. Patrick’s Day about more than Shamrocks and Beer

Posted on March 14, 2012

Smiling mischievously from behind his fake red beard, the young leprechaun shimmied up the traffic light, pausing every now and then to adjust his oversized green top hat and fluttering cape, as he claimed his perch high above the St. Patrick’s Day parade route. Below him on Dublin’s Lord Edward Street, the crowd decked out in Viking hats, tricolour wigs and painted faces remained oblivious to his presence as they waited patiently for the show to begin. Even the yellow-jacketed Gardaí failed to notice.

Every year on March 17, Dublin is a city transformed. The sad dinginess of historic O’Connell Street, replete with gaming arcades and American fast food outlets, is restored momentarily to its former glory by the presence of tens of thousands of celebrants from around the world who all want to be ‘Irish for a day.’ Even the dank waters of the River Liffey, often derided by the locals as the River Sniffey, take on a festive tinge with the underbellies of its many bridges exposed with green lighting and the republic’s flag whipping at attention on dozens of poles lining the quay. Unlike Chicago, there is no green dye here. Nor, is there green beer. And a real Irish pub, not one of those touristy traps, will not imprint a shamrock in the head of your Guinness.

The highlight of the day — the parade — is not the typical spectacle full of pomp and circumstance to celebrate a country’s national holiday. Instead, obvious displays of Irish pride are left to the spectators. Dubliners do it differently: think more travelling circus than pipe and drum bands and bland commercial floats.

The purpose of the parade, the second largest St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the world, is to showcase the artistic abilities of the Irish by using the county’s leading pageant companies, young performers, costume designers, and musicians. It’s a relatively recent invention, dating back to just 1996, that owes its existence to the influence of the powerful Irish diaspora and its parades in the Big Apple and Chicago. In Dublin, the parade is part of a four-day festival, running from March 16-19, which includes live music, street theatre, film, and races.

Each year, the parade is built around a theme.

In 2011, it was famed Irish novelist Roddy Doyle’s short story Brilliant, which explored the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in the worldwide recession of 2008 and the humiliating €67.5-billion ($89.9-billion) Irish bailout two years later by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. In Doyle’s short story, two children lead a pied piper-like charge through the streets of Dublin, enlisting the support of a friendly vampire along the way, to banish the “black dog of depression” over Dublin to bring the city’s laughter back.

This year, parade organizers have gone in a totally different direction — science. Using specially crafted contraptions and brilliantly coloured costumes, performers will animate and explore the questions children often ask their bewildered parents about the world. Questions such as: Why do we dream? How is a rainbow formed? What lives beneath the sea? How is electricity made? And, if the Earth is spinning, why don’t we fall off?

The focus on science weaves in nicely with the country’s desperate attempts to keep its reputation as a global high-tech hotspot, gained during the tiger’s boom years when Ireland attracted a number of big companies, such as Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Intel to its shores with low tax rates and easy access to the European Union market. Several of the companies remain in operation but high unemployment, higher taxes, an uncertain economy in Europe, and a flood of young people and skilled workers fleeing for greener pastures have eroded many of the benefits of staying.

Last year, my friend Alicia came to Ireland to visit me while I was studying at University College Dublin. Like 550,000 other people, we decided to trek into the city’s core to take in the parade and join in the party. We failed to heed the advice of the parade organizers and started off our morning late, exhausted from a late return from Cork the night before. Packed double-decker buses filled with partygoers made the delay even longer.

We smartly decided against trying to find our way through the crowds to O’Connell Street and instead settled, like the leprechaun, on Lord Edward Street where we secured a great spot near Dublin Castle and Temple Bar. (If you are running late, try for a spot like us further down the 2.5-kilometre parade route like Dame Street or Patrick Street). We even had time along the way to get our cheeks painted with shamrocks on Grafton Street for a few Euros each and then amble down the cobblestoned streets taking in the sights along the way.

For those who can’t stand for hours on end, there is the option of paying €60 for grandstand seating. The tickets, which can be purchased online from the St. Patrick’s Festival, guarantee dedicated seats, vantage viewing, live parade commentary, and toilet facilities. It’s a steep price to pay when it’s free viewing on the street, especially for international visitors dealing with an unfriendly exchange rate. It’s money after all that could be better spent at the pub afterwards, especially when pints of Guinness start around €4.50.

People watching is the best way to while away the time until the parade shows up. The getups are really something — like the entire contents of Carroll’s Gifts & Souvenirs’ has been thrown into the air and landed with no rhyme or reason on the good natured crowd. There is the woman wearing the super tacky Póg ma thoin (kiss my arse) boxer shorts standing on a stepladder, an older gentleman lighting his cigar dangerously close to his flammable green wig (made in China) and a Muslim woman wearing a pair of springy shamrocks from a headband resting on top of her headscarf. A sea of green greets the eye everywhere.

Flamingo Stiltwalker

A flamingo stiltwalker gets close to the crowd at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The parade itself is a surprise, filled with bizarre moments and jaw-dropping spectacle. You never know what will emerge around a corner. In less than two hours, we spotted quizzical wolves dressed in nightgowns and caps, human giraffes, Napoleon driving a lawnmower while towing a giant boot, a three-headed flamingo, a flaming phoenix, a black knight and his trusty stead, and a dragon. And of course, the black dog made an appearance as he was chased away by the children. The floats are a tangle of beautifully welded contraptions holding giant papier mache puppets that are driven by farm equipment, powered by bicycles or pushed along by costumed helpers. The choreography of the dancers is simple.

A crowd favourite was the flying pig. The size of a small car, the porcine apparition could reach out into the audience and peer down upon spectators. The pig operated like a sliding movie camera with a man working levers on a separate platform from behind to raise and lower it. Like most of the creatures featured in the parade, I couldn’t tell you how it fit in with Doyle’s story but it sure was fun to watch.

Quick as a wink after the last performer had sashayed down the street followed by a group of cyclists; the leprechaun shimmied down from his perch and magically melted into the crowd. The only person — other than me — that had seemed to see him was one of the stilt walkers in a giant flamingo suit. Perhaps, he headed back to the Leprechaun Museum just down the street . . .

Like clockwork every year after the parade thousands of thirsty spectators swarm into Temple Bar’s pubs and restaurants. It’s hard to believe only four decades ago Dublin was a dry town on St. Patrick’s Day and there was no parade on the bank holiday. According to bestselling Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, Dubliners who fancied a drink on the big day were forced to imbibe at home or travel to the city’s dog show, which for some reason had a liquor licence. I can’t imagine wanting a drink so bad I’d attend a kennel club show!

The secret to securing a spot in a Dublin pub on St. Patrick’s Day — other than luck — is breaking a large group into several smaller ones stationed at different areas along the parade route. Whoever scores the best seating texts the location by cellphone. That’s how Alicia and I wound up in a nice wooden snug on the second floor of Messrs Maguire’s pub with 10 of my Irish university buddies. Friends who had made it into town sooner had watched the parade on O’Connell Street just a stone’s throw away from Maguire’s. The place was jumping with live music and the pints were flowing.

Quite possibly the best things about a serious pub in Ireland are: the bartenders don’t give you attitude (unless you’re wasting their time), they take pride in a perfect pour and you never have to tip. If you can’t stomach the delicious darkness of Guinness, ask the bartender to add some blackcurrant juice to it, or try a local craft brew.

Dublin’s city centre is compact enough that it’s a great city to pub crawl in, especially on the twisting cobblestoned streets of the Temple Bar district. Keep in mind: Temple Bar is both a bar and an area filled with bars. The likelihood of getting into the bar Temple Bar on St. Patrick’s Day will require waiting in a long line-up. But there are plenty of other good spots nearby, including The Porterhouse (the city’s first pub brewery), Purty Kitchen, Oliver St. John Gogarty, and the Czech Inn.

Most of the pubs serve traditional Irish fare but if you want something lighter and faster, try a burrito at Pablo Picante (students get a discount!) or a kebab at one of the street vendors.

Three-Headed Flamingo

A three-headed flamingo joins the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

For those looking to explore outside Temple Bar and cross unusual and historical places off their lists, try the Dawson Lounge at 25 Dawson St. It lives up to its name as the smallest pub in Dublin — think slightly larger than a broom closet and a phone booth, or your aunt’s tiny sitting room. For the historical, there’s the Brazen Head — the city’s oldest pub, which dates back to 1198. Located off to the side of a steep hill on Bridge Street, the Brazen Head is not the cheapest place to buy a pint in Dublin but it certainly has atmosphere.

As the hours pass, the streets will become even more crowded and the revellers more inebriated. Dublin is a relatively safe city but care should be taken to travel together with friends. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd so try and know ahead of time where your group is meeting up.

Bank machines are often located outside on the street in Dublin and line-ups are even longer than usual on St. Patrick’s Day. If the idea of punching in your PIN among a group of drunk strangers makes you nervous, be sure to plan ahead and have cash in hand.

The cheapest and safest way to get home after a night of St. Patrick’s Day fun is by Dublin Bus. Short distance fares start at €1.40 and there are a number of stops close by the Temple Bar and Grafton Street shopping areas. There is also a late night bus service called Nitelink, which operates after the regular buses shut down. It costs €5 and operates Friday/Saturday morning and Saturday/Sunday mornings only.

There’s no need to drink on St. Patrick’s Day if you don’t want to in Dublin. The St. Patrick’s Festival holds a number of events throughout the city, including a guided walk in the footsteps of St. Patrick, a Father Ted festival (the classic Irish TV comedy) and a family architecture tour. There’s also St. Stephen’s Green to wander through, shopping on Grafton and Henry streets, or having a lovely cup of tea under the stamped tin ceiling of Bewley’s on Grafton Street.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Florence: Hercules and Cacus

Posted on August 9, 2012


A copy of Michelangelo’s David is bathed in the afternoon light in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria as the marble statue of Hercules and Cacus looks on from the shadows. (Photo by Jennifer Robinson)

The light in Florence is unlike any I’ve seen anywhere else. It is so warm this city always seems to have a golden glow.


I was too late to get into the Uffizi Gallery on my first day so I bought a ticket for the next day. Back outside, I whiled away my time gazing up at the statues dotting the Piazza della Signoria outside the museum. It was a perfect, cloudless day and the sun cast some interesting shadows.


This is one of my favourite shots from my time backpacking in Europe. I love how when I “dutched” the photo, it created a sense that the statue of Hercules and Cacus clad in shadows seems to loom over the innocent beauty of David who is bathed in an ethereal light. The cudgel of Hercules from this angle looks much more ominous than it does if you view the statue face forward in the piazza.


At the time, I didn’t realize I was capturing a tension between the two statues that has deep historical roots. Art historian Virginia L. Bush has said the brutal statue of Hercules and Cacus, created by Baccio Baninelli, was hated by Florentines when it was unveiled in 1534. It stands in sharp contrast to David, who represented “heroic virtue and civic liberty” to the city’s residents, as well as their “defiance of the tyrannical Medici,” argues the official Florence tourism website.


Another reason the Hercules statue was disliked in the 1500s was because of its appropriation by the returning Medici in 1530 as a symbol of their strength in triumphing over republicanism, represented by the vanquished fire-breathing Cacus.

This tiny outdoor space, therefore, represents duelling viewpoints on how Florence should be governed in the 1500s, as represented in the artistic meanings of its impressive statuary.

The piazza is a great place for people watching and scarfing down gelato while waiting for your tour of the Uffizi to start. For those with a camera, it’s also a perfect place for trying out different ways of shooting the statues that aren’t the obvious frontal views most people snap.

© Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jennifer Robinson and BulaHoop.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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