Friday, April 14, 2017

My first trip to Wales!

Back in December, I celebrated my birthday with a trip to the UK, where my parents were staying. I've been to north-west England a ton of times, but this was Jules's first visit somewhere other than London (and Edinburgh, if we're talking UK), so we aimed for a blend of old favourites to introduce to him and new places for me.

Hence my very first trip to Wales! It seems strange I've never been before, since my family has Welsh ancestry on my father's side, and Wales is really not far from where my parents are from. Plus it has some pretty cool features - like the Snowdonia national park (which we didn't go to, but got close enough to see the Snowdonian mountains), and more castles than any other country in Europe (if you count Wales as a country, which it's not really, but over 600 castles is still very impressive).

And it was to one of these castles, Caernafon, that we headed for my first taste of Wales. Caernafon is really impressive. It's pretty huge, seems fairly intact in terms of the stones, although not as far as whatever was inside is concerned, and has an amazing location by the sea and mountains. And we were super lucky with the weather, as you can see.

View from the town side

Caernafon as it currently stands was built from 1283 under Edward I of England, as a way to keep the Welsh down, man. Edward took the pretext of rebellions in Wales to wage a war of conquest against the country, which was previously divided between a largely independent (although feudally linked to the English crown) Welsh principality and spheres of Anglo-Norman control. After Edward's war and the construction of the castle, it was captured in 1294 in a Welsh rebellion and besieged at the beginning of the 15th century, but subsequently things calmed down in Wales and it lost its strategic importance and fell into disrepair over the centuries.

On the battlements
I'm not good enough at mountain-spotting to tell if one of those is Mt. Snowdon, but it's a pretty view in any case

The large circular bit in the middle is where Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in 1969. The first Prince of Wales, Edward I's son (later Edward II) was supposedly born in the castle. Legend has it that Edward I promised to give them a prince born in Wales, who spoke not a word of English - and fulfilled it with his baby son. (It seems that this bit is bogus though, even if Edward II was born there.)

Me in the courtyard and Mum and Dad on the battlements

View from the towers of the River Seiont

Caernafon is known for having polygonal, rather than round or square towers. It was intended to be particularly impressive as a symbol of English power in Wales, with a design perhaps inspired by Byzantine or Roman examples.

A dragon sitting on top of a war memorial
Cute painted houses seen from the castle

 Afterwards, we grabbed a light lunch on the square in the photo above. I was mildly surprised that the staff working in the café spoke Welsh. I have known at least one Welsh-speaking Welsh person before, but it was kind of cool to see it in action as a working language, rather than something just taught in school or something. About 19% of the population of Wales said they could speak Welsh in the 2011 UK Census.

Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd. Anfonwch unrhyw waith i'w gyfieithu, everyone!

Thursday, March 30, 2017


On my last day in Sicily, I decided to make the trek out to the town of Cefalù, about an hour by train. According to the internet, Cefalù was a cute town, with a nice beach and, of course, the last of the great Arab-Norman edifices in the region. Unfortunately, the weather was grey with occasional showers, so that ruled out the beach, and the Cefalù cathedral is definitely the least impressive of the buildings I saw. It looked pretty bare online, but I thought it might have hidden treasures. But, yeah, most of it is plain, with really just the apse covered in mosaics. After the splendours of Monreale and the Palatine Chapel, it was a bit of a let down. The outside is pretty, though. 

The famous Christ Pantocrator
 I didn't stay inside too long, there just wasn't that much to see. So I headed next door for more cloisters. Again, these were slightly disappointing after the beautiful Monreale cloisters. What there was to see in the cloisters was nice enough, but only half of the pillars survive. Even worse, the other half were destroyed during World War II. That sort of thing particularly gets my goat. It's one thing if something fell into ruins back in the 15th century or something, and another thing entirely when you think it survived some 800 years only to be destroyed so recently. As frustrating as this is, on the bright side, there has been a lot of restoration work carried out in recent years, and as part of this project, you can look online to see detailed photos and explanations of all the capitals. Since I couldn't remember what all the carvings meant, this is what I did for the photos below.

"Capital with acrobats"

"Capital with fabulous creatures and birds of prey'

"Capital with griffin, lizard and lion". I assume this toothy fellow is the lizard, enjoying a bite of lion bum
Since the weather wasn't nice enough to go to the beach or sit outside, and I was getting a bit too tired to wander around the city or look in the many small shops, I caught the train back to Palermo and pretty much just sat around (thankfully, it wasn't raining there) until it was time to get the bus to the airport. The last day of any trip is often a bit tricky - either you have to get to the airport at a time that doesn't really allow for sightseeing, or you end up hanging about uselessly with no hotel room to retreat to. I had left my suitcase at the train station for convenience, so at least I didn't have that worry, but it was a bit of a flat end to what was an overall lovely trip.

Outside the Martorana

Some extra photos of the "fountain of shame" I didn't have space for before

So voilà, that was Sicily! I really enjoyed it! It's a big island, so this definitely made me think I'd like to come back and see more of it, from the ancient temples and Roman villas, to Mt Etna to the Aeolian islands. It wasn't nearly as daunting as I'd been led to believe, and although you'll meet more non-English speakers than in, say, Rome, I didn't have any particular communication problems and got around to all the sights on foot, by bus and by train with no issues. A good reminder that there is still a "brave" solo traveller hiding inside!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Sicilian scenery

So, with all the wedding excitement and a lot of redundancy stress at work (I start a new job next week!), I never finished my Sicily posts. I know, you've been waiting on bated breath this whole time.

Monreale, as you may remember, was another amazeballs Arab Norman cathedral. Like the Palermo cathedral, you are also able to go up on to the roof for some nice views down into the cathedral and also a panoramic view of the surrounding landscapes.

It's always a special feeling getting a sneak peek from a different point of view

After navigating through the inside of the cathedral, you emerge to a view over the cloisters

Up close and personal with the roof architecture

Standing in the roof guttering

I had the roof mostly to myself, but a passing American couple were kind enough to take my photo on the stairs

View of Palermo on the way up to the cathedral from the bus stop
After the cathedral, I had lunch in the sun, which started out quite pleasant and quickly turned terrible as the guy next door whipped out an angle grinder. The restaurant owners must have paid him to take a lunch break just as the tourists started trickling in.