Blog Posts Tagged ‘Europe’
HARO, Spain—Juan Muga peers through his black horn-rims as he pours red wine into the tall stemmed glass, then swirls it about.
New to wine tasting and seated next to a part owner of one of Spain’s noted wineries, I presume that Muga (pronounced MOO-gah) is studying this sample for clarity or color.
But without so much as sniffing the wine, he pours it into a jug, then tilts the newly opened bottle to refill the glass.
Swishing the wine was simply to clean the glass “so there is no smell left from the dish washing,” Muja tells me.
This is one of the lessons I learned touring three wineries in Spain’s acclaimed La Rioja province. An hour in the educational Oenology Center in this busy city filled in a few blanks.
The simple sign on a balcony says wine is for sale here.
La Rioja boasts more than 200 bodegas, a generic word used to mean a winery’s production facility, warehouses and even retail stores.
Winemaking in Spain dates to the Roman occupation 2,000 years ago. La Rioja, in the northeast, is a huge valley between two mountain ranges and irrigated by three rivers.
To maintain quality of production, a powerful provincial agency that was Spain’s first for wine production establishes rules such as the maximum number of grape vines per acre and the maximum amount of wine (18.5 gallons) that can be produced from each 220 pounds of grapes.
There are three distinct sections of La Rioja: The best for grape-growing are Alta and Alavesa in the west and north, where Haro is; the other is Rioja Baja.
Production facilities range in size from that of a multicar garage to the multistory bodegas such as Muga’s, one of more than a dozen large wineries in Haro.
Before they are harvested, however, specific areas of grapes have been sampled for 15 factors, including acidity and sugar content, to determine when the grapes are ripe enough to be picked. Because Muga is a large producer (about 1.2-million bottles annually), only 50 percent of the grapes used come from its vineyards. The rest are purchased from farmers.
A worker rolls a barrel through the wine aging room at the Muga bodega.
The most commonly used grape of six varieties grown in La Rioja is the tempranillo, favored for its bold taste in red wines. The most common of the white grapes is the fruity-tasting viura.
When the harvested grapes are brought to the big wineries, the stems are removed and the grapes are placed for 10 to 14 days in oak casks to begin maceration, the dissolution of the grapes into liquid. This product is then pressed, and the skins and seeds are filtered (a high-alcohol form of schnapps or grappa is made from this). Yeast is added to the grape juice to boost its alcoholic fermentation.
A number of bodegas place this liquid, called must, in stainless steel vats, which are cooled to an optimum temperature by running water through exterior jackets to slow the pace of fermentation. But other wineries, including Muga, keep all the chemical activity in oak casks.
The smaller casks hold about 58 gallons, the big casks about 4,160 gallons. The oak comes from Kentucky and Tennessee or from France; the French wood is said to lend a spicy taste to the wine.
The advantage of oak is that the fermentation and aging occur more naturally (the wine is said to be breathing through the wood) and the liquid absorbs some flavor from the oak. To better maintain consistent tastes, barrels are discarded after about 10 years.
Traditionally, the Spanish aged their wines in oak much longer than other winemakers. The long time in wood and bottle made the wine easier to drink when it was released for sale. Today, there is more variety in aging.
Wine is 85 to 90 percent water, but it contains an astonishing amount of other ingredients: three kinds of alcohol, phosphate, chlorides, sodium, magnesium, several acids and even vitamins B1 and riboflavin.
As it ages, wine is shifted between smaller casks, to remove sediment. This transfer can be done by pump or by draining from a higher barrel to a lower one, which is called racking. “Racking takes much more time, but when it is aging, the wine does not like the pump,” Muja told me.
After some months, either a chemical or egg whites are added as the wine is pumped into the giant casks. Albumin in the egg whites bonds with the most bitter tannin in the wine and creates a sediment. After about 30 days, the wine is drained from the large casks, and the sediment is left behind. (Casks are regularly washed to flush sediment.)
Ultimately, the wine is bottled and kept in climate-controlled warehouses, another step in aging that varies.
In La Rioja, the wine-production agency dictates how long vintages must be maintained in cask and then bottle to qualify for one of the three classifications of red wine. Until the bottled wine reaches those requirements, the agency will not issue the labels that attest that each bottle has met the aging standards.
The basic requirement is at least one year in the cask, two in a bottle. This wine is classified as crianza. The aging increases, up to the requirements for the top of the line gran reserva: a minimum of two years in the cask, then three in the bottle before release.
Juan Muga’s father created the current winery in 1968. The narrated tour of Muga’s production facility stopped by racks of individual bottles behind a fenced enclosure—Muga’s cellar. The guide noted that “Wine is a living thing, and after so many years, it is softer on the palate and more complex in the nose.”
But he cautioned that there is a limit to its improvement: “After 40 to 45 years, (wine) is no longer alive. The best thing you can do with a bottle of wine is to drink it.”
Co-owner of a large winery his father founded, Juan Muga suggests ignoring the old adage about drinking red with meat, white with fish.
The temperature around the private stock is kept at 55 degrees, but Muga said that in your home, it is more important to keep the temperature consistent and the bottles out of light that can cause wine to lose flavor.
Nor is it mandatory to gently cleanse the palate between wines at a tasting; for our sampling, Muga and I munched on spicy sausage as well as bread.
As for the old standard of red with meat, white with fish, Muga said that “most people don’t like too complex a taste, whether the wine is with fish or chicken. Whatever tastes good is okay.”
If you go
The tourism office in Haro, the wine capital of La Rioja, has English-speaking staffers who can provide a list of 20 area bodegas, their locations and tour options. But even wineries that do not have tours usually welcome drop-in visitors and will sell bottles.
The tourist office also has city maps in English that locate the bodegas, prime restaurants and hotels, and major churches.
Beyond the Rutas del vino de la Rioja pamphlet—three routes to dozens of bodegas in the province—the tourism office can also provide maps for visiting historic church structures, castles, small towns and the areas in which Europe’s greatest collection of dinosaur footprints are found, more than 5,000 tracks. For this last, you will need some command of Spanish to find the tracks.
For more on the province, go to www.beronia.org/pueblos.htm, which is in English. Also look at the national government’s site, www.tourspain.org.
For the province’s wine information, go to www.lariojaturismo.com/turismo_enologico/index.php. The Muga site is www.bodegasmuga.com/eng/home_eng.html.
Long before it was separated into the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, this island was occupied by dozens of contentious tribes. Jealous and aggressive, they were often embroiled in battles against one another, or a few of them might briefly join forces against another tribe.
The ivy-covered ruins of Ballycarberry Castle overlooks Doulus Bay near the town of Cahersiveen on the Iveragh Peninsula. Researchers say some form of residence was there in 1398, but this castle probably dates to 1569.
Consequently, for protection of at least their august selves the ruling chieftains, later minor royalty, would have built castles in which to live.
Occasionally, in the previous century, a surviving castle here or there was restored and opened to the public. One of the most popular is the landmark for a medieval theme park, the Bunratty Folk Park. It is about 11 miles from bustling Limerick, about 10 minutes from Shannon Airport.
Though some ancient artifacts serve historians, this one serves tourists.
The main building, dubbed the castle, is an accurate recreation of the main tower of a castle built in the 1400s. Beyond it is a series of real and authentically recreated buildings that portray late 19th century village and farm life.
The castle is furnished with pieces from the 15th and 16th centuries, but the reason most people pay the admission fee is not to admire the museum pieces but to attend the medieval banquets held twice a night during the summer tourist season.
From among the 140 or so diners at each meal, the hosts select a man and woman to play the lord and lady of the manor. Talented locals act as the butler – actually, the master of ceremonies – and as the serving wenches. A harpist and a violinist provide music, as background for the eight-wench chorus and also fine solos.
The only utensil for the diners during the courses of soup, meat and vegetables is a knife. The meal itself would move along swiftly except that, between the servings, the butler makes jovial announcements, the chorus sings and musicians play.
Of course, the recently anointed lord and lady are included in some of the frivolity, and at least one other diner will be mocked – but in good fun.
Most of the music played would have been heard in these halls when they were new. But the night I attended, another newer and more familiar song caused one of the young singers to wipe away tears: the lament sung by parent to son, the Londonderry Air, or Danny Boy.
If you go
The Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet has two seatings a night. The castle is just off the N18 highway – the Limerick/Ennis Road.
For more information and to make reservations, go to www.shannonheritage.com/Entertainment/BunrattyCastleBanquet.
The lesson to know before hand: You CAN get there from here, but more slowly.
Ireland has about 54,000 miles of paved road, but less than 100 are classified as highway. Most of the rest is two-lane, rural roads and on these you are bound to find yourself behind tractors or large trucks.
So remember that you can’t go anywhere quickly. Distances on road maps do not equate with the sort of driving times learned in the United States.
The Irish Republic’s traffic engineers are more than just fond of roundabouts — what we call traffic circles. They seem to be more frequent than gas stations. When approaching a roundabout, learn to slow down, always yield to the traffic coming from your right, point the hood ornament to where you need to go and accelerate.
Of course, actually understanding where you need to go is another matter:
Any time you approach a roundabout, or an intersection from which you may need to turn, swallow your Interstate pride, slow down or pull off — on the left side of the road — to decipher the basic roundabout sign. This is a whole or partial circle – the “round’’ – with spokes projecting to the outside. Those are your choices of exits from the roundabout.
The spokes will at least be labeled with road numbers, possibly also road names. You must know which of these you want to turn left on before entering the roundabout. Then you simply assert your right to whatever lanes you need within the roundabout to reach that exit spoke, use your turn signal and leave quickly.
If the confounding signs or traffic cause you to miss your exit, remember these solutions:
/ If you are still in the roundabout, you will be circling toward your preferred exit again, so this time prepare to leave.
/ And if you have already taken an incorrect exit, realize there almost certainly is another roundabout a few miles down the road. Enter that one and circle all the way through, until you can exit back toward the direction that brought you to this second roundabout. Then, understand in advance of the upcoming roundabout which is your correct exit and when you will need to be in the left-most lane to use it.
It takes some getting used to — just as you have to remember to look to the right when leaving a parking lot.
DINGLE, Ireland — All five bar stools are occupied this spring afternoon in Dick Mack’s, a pub of some acclaim in this village at the western edge of Ireland. Yet untouched on the bar are pints of beer just served to new customers.
Two of them, women in their early 20s, ignore their beers and start to sing in fine voices Will You Go, Lassie, Go. The other three at the bar, all men, join in the song that mentions the heather that covers much ground with tiny purple blooms.
“Written by a Belfast man, that was,” one of the men informs me and the others when they finish singing.
Without any signal, the young women begin a sweet version of Down In The River to Pray, a gospel hymn heard in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The men quickly join this song, too.
After the gospel number, everyone finally reaches for a glass of beer. A couple more customers wander in, get their pints and go stand behind a low wooden counter that is parallel to the bar and a few feet away. Behind this counter are shelves and cubbyholes filled with cobbler’s gear, boots, metal taps for shoes and a pair of “Wellies,” the rubber boots every farmer owns.
The fields are a patchwork quilt, stitched together by walls of stones.
Though Dick Mack’s has been a pub a long while, it was also a leather worker’s shop. “They stopped that more than 10 years ago,” a man at the bar tells me. “No one has leather soles on their shoes anymore.”
Just then, a man in his 20s pulls a black flute from his jacket and starts playing a traditional Irish tune. As soon as he finishes, another man takes the flute, and he begins to play.
The flute’s owner goes to the wall and takes down a bodhran, the hand-held drum that resembles a large tambourine. The man cannot find the traditional knobbed stick to thump the bodhran, so he expertly uses his thumbs.
It is not quite 4 in the afternoon. The pints of beer largely are being ignored in favor of upholding this pub’s tradition of impromptu music.
Outside on the sidewalk, dark gray stars have been painted, a la the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The stars bear the names of celebrities who have stopped in at Dick Mack’s: actors John Mills, Julia Roberts, Timothy Dalton, Robert Mitchum.
Also painted there are the names of some who might have led the singing: Dolly Parton and Paul Simon.
Though the pub/cobbler shop dates to 1899, the earliest settlers on the Dingle Peninsula arrived about 6,000 years earlier.
They probably had been sailing along the western edge of the European continent when they came ashore, because this peninsula juts 40 miles into the Atlantic from the southwestern edge of Ireland, and it is the end of Europe.
“The next parish is Boston,” says Timothy Collins, repeating a common joke based in fact.
Collins was a policeman on the 8-mile-wide peninsula for 35 years, and he now leads archaeological tours. There were few tourists to guide until the last quarter of the 20th century.
It was in 1970 that master director David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter was released. It is about a romantic triangle complicated by World War I animosities, and it takes place on the peninsula.
Lean’s film crew spent a year on the Dingle, constructing an authentic village from tons of newly quarried granite. Cinematography filled with spectacular landscapes began to draw tourists way out to the Dingle. Even now, many can recall the overhead shot of Sarah Miles on a stretch of vacant beach, a beach that Collins points out to the tourists piled into his minivan.
Though Dingle Harbor still receives ships returning with catches of herring, sole, cod, lobster and salmon, tourism has become more important to the economy. The town’s year-round population of about 1,400 at least doubles during the summer.
“In 1970, we only had one hotel, no B&Bs, and the only visitors here were archaeologists,” Collins recalls.
“Now we can only hope that Ryan doesn’t have a granddaughter!”
What the stones have to say
Visitors don’t need a guide to take the breathtaking coastal road, often high above the Atlantic, to view the settings of Ryan’s Daughter and the 1992 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman film Far and Away. But travelers probably will want someone like Collins to explain some of the estimated 2,000 ancient stones and structures left by the earliest settlers.
Pieces of granite are everywhere.
In the towns and villages of west Ireland, they often were used to make walls that have since been covered with stucco and painted in a rainbow of rich colors.
Outside the villages, the stones are stacked in countless miles of knee-high fences that divide farmers’ fields. Circles of granite remain as Bronze Age stone forts, dating 3,700 years.
The ruins of an ancient stone ring fort partially date to the Bronze Age.
Standing stones — upright pillars — were inscribed as far back as the fourth century A.D. with Ogham, a series of straight lines forming the letters of an alphabet now long-dead. In many places, huge slabs of stone were positioned upright to support a capstone, creating rudimentary tombs 5,000 years ago.
And just a few centuries ago, more pieces of granite were stacked to become farmhouses and barns, workers’ humbles cottages and nobles’ castles.
All the stones have stories to tell.
Guides and researchers such as Collins discuss the rise and fall of ancient peoples, their religions and writing forms. The narrative often winds to modern day.
Halting the minivan, Collins gathers his passengers by two upright stalks of reddish sandstone to discuss their Ogham carvings.
Various standing stones might have told stories of a chieftain or served as directional posts. Now, however, he wryly observes, “they are mainly cow-scratchers,” against which wandering cattle rub themselves.
A road past history
The coastal road, designated R559, is a scenic drive even without the stone artifacts. It winds through crossroad villages, past a few two-room schoolhouses built in the early 1900s. These schools usually have “20 or 25 children and two teachers,” Collins says.
The minivan passes familiar-looking highway signs, except that the wording is in Gaelic. Tag Bog E, which is pronounced “toe-g boe-g eh,” literally means “Take it easy,” Irish for “Please slow down.”
Western Ireland is the stronghold for Gaeltacht, pronounced “gwail tawkt,” which is spoken and written Irish. Some schools here are conducted entirely in Gaelic.
On the inland side of the road are the gentle slopes of 1,600-foot Mount Eagle, dotted with beehive huts –dome-shaped, stone, one-room places. There is also the occasional graveyard and, everywhere, grazing sheep.
There are 23 monastic settlements on the peninsula, but perhaps the prime attraction from the early Christian era is the Gallarus Oratory.
Dating between the seventh and ninth centuries, this is a perfect example of the corbel, or dry-stone, construction: Relatively flat rocks were placed atop each other in the shape of an inverted boat, so rainfall followed the slanted rocks down and away from the building. The interior of the tiny church is dry, despite an average rainfall on the Dingle of 80 inches.
The Oratory is usually the last stop on Collins’ tour. But the peninsula offers dozens of other sites easily located with a good map.
And so my trip to Ireland had begun with song, but at other times, I heard the stones talking.
If you go
PLANNING YOUR TRIP: If you prefer to drive yourself, check car-rentals before leaving the U.S. – this is usually cheaper than hiring at the airport.
But plenty of tour operators will be glad to coddle you as they move you about. These companies can group folks who share interests in walking tours, horseback riding, seeing pubs, visiting gardens, viewing castles, staying in cottages, playing golf or just eyeing the well-publicized sights.
For all sorts of information – tour operators, lodgings, attractions – go to the government’s fine web site, www.discoverireland.com/us.
KELLS, Ireland — Ireland’s ancient past whispers from its ruins, fallen remnants of war and religion, fragments of communities that flourished centuries ago.
Quiet here, at Kells Priory. So quiet you can hear the sheep tear the grass as they graze. Birds flit about the massive stone walls, chirping and tweeting.
Birds and sheep only, where once hundreds of people lived and worked and prayed. But those throngs have been gone for about 450 years. They left crenelated walls encircling the shells of several buildings, with guard towers marking the corners.
Amid the chunks of fallen stone, dandelions and smaller flowers dot the grass. Walls of buildings that may date to the 12th century reach so high that windows have been cut on six levels.
Livestock were kept in a wide courtyard bounded by the outer walls. Archaeologists report that the fragments still standing define a mill, an infirmary, a brewery. Over there was a graveyard, over here are cellars, above are the arched windows of a large chapel.
Kells Priory is little visited now because of its isolated location, about 9 miles from Kilkenny, a bustling town of about 23,000. But the Kells is almost a ghost town. On this Wednesday in May, I have all the ghosts, their buildings, the sheep and the birds to myself.
It is far different at the dramatic Rock of Cashel, urban Kilkenny Castle and the wooded, former monastic village that is Glendalough. Also ancient sites, they must have better press agents, for while their stories are different from that of the Kells, the other places are not more intriguing, to anyone with an imagination.
Ireland is filled with such centuries-old places, remnants of successive invasions and notable religious developments. They give us clues to life when inland settlements grew up in the shelter of castle walls and monastery towers, and simple people eked out a living from the soil or tending livestock, bartering among themselves and with passing traders.
The stone walls that monks and royalty built protected the inhabitants from the arrows and battering rams of invaders and combative neighbors. The briefest of looks at other worthy destinations:
/ The Rock of Cashel is one of Ireland’s most photographed landmarks, for two reasons: The ruins are in an excellent state of partial restoration, with work progressing as governmental funds are allocated, and the site is spectacular.
When construction started early in the 12th century, the bishop-king of the region set Cashel (it means stone fort) atop a limestone hill that suddenly juts about 200 feet above surrounding plains. Cashel’s round tower, church and castle buildings make for a striking and much-visited scene.
/ An undistinguished village nestles below the Rock of Cashel, but a true town surrounds Kilkenny Castle, making its riverside location less imposing.
Originally the site for a castle started in 1172 by the great Norman leader Strongbow, this structure was renovated several times and now resembles a 17th-century chateau. The interior rooms open for touring have been refurbished in a Victorian motif. The No. 1 tourist site in this ancient town, the castle draws about 345,000 visitors a year — and uncounted hundreds of locals on pleasant days, to picnic and loll on its grassy laws..
/ Kilkenny has grown up all around its castle, but the ruins of Glendalough (GLEN-duh-lock) sit in quiet splendor in a lovely valley.
Forests and brilliant yellow gorse form the backdrop, and a swift stream is one of the boundaries for the monastery, founded in the 6th century. It drew thousands of faithful over the centuries, until falling into ruin about the time Columbus was heading toward the New World.
Most of the original buildings are gone or are mere foundations, but Glendalough has one of Ireland’s great round towers (102 feet high), which were typical of the ancient Christian communities and served as bell towers, lookouts and landmarks for pilgrims.
Also at the site, a graveyard contains timeworn Celtic crosses, and nearby paths lead to two lakes, from which the site takes its ancient name. (It was St. Patrick who created the Celtic cross — combining the Christian symbol with the circle that Irish pagans used to represent the all-important sun they worshipped.)
As restful as its setting is, Glendalough suffers from its proximity to Dublin — less than 120 miles to the north – so that by noon on weekdays, it can be awash in irreverent schoolchildren on field trips and busloads of tourists.
Weekends, the site belongs to daytrippers out for a picnic in the country. Not such a bad way to embrace history.
For More Information
An excellent, nonprofit site focusing on historical attractions is at www.heritageireland.ie/en/
FALKIRK, Scotland — There was a time, a couple of centuries ago, when the best way to move people and freight across the land was on canals.
Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides, became the first nation in the world to dig intersecting cross-country canals. They connected the North Sea, near Edinburgh on the east, with the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles to the west of Glasgow.
That was in 1790, and the trip took most of a day, including the 6-10 hours to move through 11 locks needed to raise or lower the boats 115 feet.
But in the next century, an enhanced steam engine greatly cut the transit time — and also opened other routes, on land and sea. The railroad further reduced the need for canals.
Finally, widespread use of the internal combustion engine meant trucks and cars could take people and cargo much faster than could boats.
What had been a busy canal system was largely abandoned in 1933. In the 1960s, it was closed when two major highways were constructed through the canals.
But everything old is new again, and then some.
The national government spent the equivalent of $124-million to eliminate the need for the original 11 locks by creating the world’s first “rotating boat lift.” Opened in May 2002, it is named the Falkirk Wheel, after the middle-of-the-nation town where it was constructed.
The structure is futuristic in appearance, yet it uses an ancient law of physics to operate. Basically, a huge wheel is fixed to an axis, and on either side of the wheel are two boxes that hold water. Each box, called a gondola, is 70 feet long by 21 feet wide.
This is when Archimedes’ Principle comes into use. This states that an item placed in water displaces its own weight; thus one or more boats push out of the gondola an amount of water equivalent in weight to the boat’s weight.
The opposing gondola has the same weight, whether it is water only or also boats. A number of electric motors turn a cleverly designed series of gears that rotate both the large wheel and lesser gears that keep the gondolas level while the big wheel turns.
The gondola on the bottom is filled with water from a basin, and boats glide in before a water-tight door is closed behind them. The gondola at top opens onto an aqueduct that connects through a tunnel to the original, higher canal.
When both gondolas are closed, the wheel rotates — eerily quiet, considering the size of the structure. What was below goes up and what was up comes down.
When the big wheel’s half-rotation is complete, the water doors are opened and the boats glide out, to continue their canal journey in either direction. The cross country canal is about 68 miles long.
Since it opened, thousands of pleasure craft and more than 1-million visitors have come through the gates to watch it happen, with many of them booking rides on the 40-passenger tour boats kept in the basin.
The half-rotation takes about 15 minutes; the tour boats going up send their boats into the 330-foot-long aqueduct, which leads to a 475-foot-long tunnel beneath an ancient Roman wall. From there the tour boats enter a small lake, turn around and come back.
If you go
GETTING THERE: Several trains a day from Edinburgh and Glasgow stop in Falkirk; the ride takes little more than a half-hour. Phone your departure train station for the schedule.
The Falkirk Wheel is on a bus route from Falkirk’s Grahamston and High train stations. The No. 3 Red Line Bus, operated by First Bus, runs about every 15 minutes from stops near both stations to the Wheel site. Or, cabs can be hired at the stations.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go to
Even from the back seat of a tow truck, England’s Lake District is lovely.
Gentle slopes give way to steep hills, often faced with granite. Lush green meadows are stitched by stone walls, to corral the livestock. On a chill fall morning, horses wear blankets, sheep wear their sweaters-to-be, but cows don’t even wear bells.
What seems like a baker’s thousand of tiny villages blossoms along narrow lanes like so many spilled M&M’s. This bag was loaded with colors of slate gray, whitewash and ocher, but among them were occasional splashes of royal blue, crimson, emerald, lemon.
Village names are pastoral: Ambleside, Waterhead, Grasmere, Hawkshead, Windemere, Penny Bridge.
Window boxes, hanging baskets and trellises overflow with the richest palette of neon blooms. Stands of birch, oak and pine provide the curtains through which country mansions or an occasional castle turret peek.
Velvet hillsides lead to placid lakes that gave this region of northwest England its moniker.
Slanting sunbeams and gusts of wind make those waters glitter brighter than faceted diamonds in a display case. Gliding along, sailboats, kayaks, skiffs and sightseeing two-deckers offer panoramas of shoreside hotels, livestock and, always, the hills.
From the harsh, the smooth
The Lake District is England’s most mountainous area. It was carved by glaciers that retreated 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
The region is compact, measuring less than 35 miles by 35 miles. Yet it is rugged enough that most roads are merely paved country lanes. A motorist can’t glance at a map to casually calculate driving time based on distance.
But then, no one comes to the Lake District to be in a hurry.
This region so entranced William Wordsworth that the poet waxed lyrical about nature’s calming ways in many of his works, including the poem Daffodils.
This was during the Industrial Revolution, which was financing Great Britain’s 19th-century imperial reach. But Wordsworth and other writers convinced those who could escape the smoke and smell of London, Liverpool and Manchester to come north and take comfort from the landscape.
That led to the northward extension of railroads for passengers. Before, trains merely carted raw cotton, returning with about two-thirds of the world’s finished textiles, bound for the great ports.
Also nearly 150 years ago, the tourism infrastructure grew: Inns became hotels, taverns became restaurants. Earthen stagecoach routes were covered by pavement.
About that tow truck …
When mist scuds down the hills on an overcast morning, the landscape turns somber but still beckons. It holds out the promise of at least a history lesson — Vikings first worked this land — and a chance to find the perfect tea shop or warm fireplace in a pub, to escape the chill and meet the villagers.
Following a convention of travel writers in Manchester, to the south, I and two colleagues were touring the Lake District in a rented minivan. The rental agent had neglected to say that this Chrysler ran on diesel fuel.
Unfortunately, one member of our group did not see the diesel label on the inside of the flap cover of the gas tank. He pumped 13.5 gallons of unleaded gas – at $8 a gallon – into the tank.
We were barely a mile down the road when the engine sputtered, then stopped. By the time we hoofed back to the petrol station, we understood our mistake: Diesel engines can’t run on gasoline.
After several phone calls, the local Chrysler dealer told us that we had not killed the minivan, only its fuel filter. The dealer would make the repairs as soon as the flatbed wrecker he was displatching could reach his garage, 25 miles away.
Once the minivan had been winched up onto the wrecker, the three of us piled into its cab. Those hilly roads had never seemed so narrow, but the views, well, they were still charming.
If you go
GETTING THERE: There are direct flights to Manchester, about 80 miles south of the Lake District, from U.S. gateways.
STAYING THERE: The Lake District has a range of accommodations, though you’ll get a true flavor of the area if you book into a B&B, small hotel or pub. Most include breakfast in the rate.
We spent two nights in Hawkshead, near Lake Windemere. My companions stayed at the Red Lion Inn, dating to the 15th century, and I stayed in its sister lodging, the two-centuries newer Sun Inn.
My room was up 24 steps on seven turns of the staircase. My sloped-ceiling room could serve as the Keebler Elves Bridal Suite: The windows came only to my knees, and a beam crossed the bathroom just above the toilet. I’d stay there again.
Sun Inn Hawkshead, eight rooms; www.suninn.co.uk.
Red Lion Inn, 12 rooms; www. redlionhawkshead.co.uk.
I also stayed at the modern, upscale, 41-room Waterhead Hotel in Ambleside, on Lake Windemere; www.elh.co.uk.
For a full range of choices and event information, go to www.golakes.co.uk.
WHAT TO DO THERE: Plan at least three days to meander, enjoy the views, walk the trails and take in these attractions:
/ Poet William Wordsworth’s final years were spent at Dove Cottage. On the property is the two-room bakery/sales room of the acclaimed Grasmere Gingerbread Shop. It has used the same recipe to bake a spectacularly good treat since 1854. It ships around the world; www.grasmeregingerbread.co.uk.
/ Cruise on a lake. There are several options; for instance, you can get a 30-minutes-each-way trip between Ambleside and Bowness villages, then stroll.
/ If you love dogs — or sheep — head northwest to Cockermouth and the Lakeland Sheep & Wool Visitors Centre. Watch a border collie herd a small flock of geese (the dirt-floor arena is too small to move many sheep) and watch a New Zealand dog, a huntaway, race over the backs of some sheep, as it would do to reach the other side of a herd.
MANCHESTER, England — Situated among gently rolling hills about 185 miles northwest of London, Manchester was one of the outposts for Rome’s legions in the late First Century A.D. They stayed about three centuries, to be followed by Vikings, Scots and other Europeans.
It’s fair to say none of them would recognize the place now.
The development really started in the 17th century, when forward thinkers decided to import cotton from the New World to build Manchester’s textile business, according to docents in the city’s Museum of Science & Industry.
When the Industrial Revolution arrived in the 1700s, and steam power replaced water wheels, Manchester was launched.
A canal was built to bring the cotton from the docks of mighty Liverpool, 38 miles away. Manchester’s population roughly tripled between 1770 and 1800. Among the newcomers: mechanics and inventors, who understood Manchester could offer them work and pay for experimenting.
They developed machines to speed the processing of the raw cotton; it arrived in bales that still contained leaves and twigs from the ground of America’s South. The machines refined the cotton thread, then strengthened it before it was used in looms to create cloth. The museum docents demonstrate the processes on clattering machinery left from Manchester’s heyday.
The world’s first train dedicated to hauling both freight and passengers arrived here in 1830; that station, in rebuilt form, is one of the museum’s buildings.
Manchester became the de facto mechanical laboratory for the Industrial Revolution.
The bustling city’s roughly 100 companies turned out millions of square yards of cloth – an estimated 70 percent of all the world’s textiles. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli nicknamed it Cottonopolis.
To host the visiting monied crowd, huge hotels went up in the most ornate Victorian and Edwardian styles. City Hall, created by Venetian craftsmen and occupying a city block, opened in 1877 and is still in use.
There would be eventual decline — the city hasn’t produced a significant amount of cloth for more than a quarter-century. But oddly, it was a huge truck bomb, detonated by the Irish Republican Army in 1996, that led to the rejuvenation or rehabilitation of the city core:
The blast, which injured about 200, angered enough people with money that they decided to invest in Manchester’s future.
Now the lively town is home to an estimated 85,000 college students, Great Britain’s largest Chinese community after London’s, a bubbling cauldron of pop music creativity (everyone from Herman’s Hermits to Morissey and the Smiths), an acclaimed symphony orchestra, and a vibrant arts scene.
And then there’s world-famed Manchester United, the soccer team that lost David Beckham, and its arch-rival, Manchester City.
If you’re coming to take in England’s glorious Lake District, a couple of hours’ drive north, you can fly nonstop from the U.S. to Manchester. Spend a couple of days here, to get a feel for this great-again city.
For all the starting advice you’ll need, including help with reservations, go to the city’s official tourism site, .
GREENWICH, England — Kings and queens vacationed here for nearly five centuries. The world sets its watches from here. Sailors successfully navigate using a device on display in this town. All of it is a half-hour’s narrated boat ride down the Thames from the Tower of London.
And vivid history lessons about science and exploration await visitors who walk a few blocks up from the river.
One of the first buildings is the handsome Royal Naval College, originally designed by famed architect Christopher Wren to be a hospital and retirement home for sailors. The building known as the Painted Hall has a ceiling mural so vast that carts with mirrored surfaces are placed in the room so visitors can look down to view the paintings, rather than crane their necks and arch their backs.
Beyond the college and the twin wings of the Queen’s House, originally built in 1638, later enlarged and now an art gallery, is a statue of William IV, at the edge of the vast lawn that is Greenwich Park.
King, yes, but none then to the irreverent as Silly Billy or Sailor Bill. Those nicknames referred to his legendary drinking and womanizing — his mistress bore him 10 children, his wife bore none who lived — and his obvious lack of maritime skills.
Visitors who climb the hill through the lovely green park past the picnickers and scampering children reach the Royal Observatory. From the hilltop, you can look back to London and see the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, six miles upstream.
In the late 1600s, Greenwich was already a desirable location for London’s well-to-do, easily reachable via the Thames yet clear of the smoke and crowds of the working class.
It was King Charles II who decreed that his Royal Observatory be situated on the hilltop. Who else but Wren, himself an astronomer, would be chosen to design a home and work space for the royal astronomer, John Flamsteed?
More than 325 years later, Flamsteed House is still lovely to look at and intriguing to tour, because it is a museum that chronicles mankind’s effort to chart time, the heavens and our place anywhere on this globe.
This last chore was largely accomplished over 40 years by a nonscientist, the clockmaker John Harrison.
On display are the “sea clocks” Harrison fashioned. He wanted moving parts that would neither freeze nor shrink in the extreme conditions through which Britain’s military and merchant ships sailed.
The clocks finally allowed navigators to determine their position east and west. The clocks’ accuracy led to drawing the lines of longitude and, in the 1770s, won Harrison a prize of 20,000 pounds, a fortune then.
The continued study of measuring time is told in other exhibits, including a version of an atomic clock judged to be accurate within 1 second over the passage of 15-million years.
Outside the observatory, many visitors pose for a gag photo, with one foot in the western hemisphere and one in the eastern. They can do this because first British and then international authorities decreed that the prime meridian, the line of zero degrees longitude, would pass through the observatory grounds.
The nearby National Maritime Museum, which chronicles the history of the greatest seafaring nation ever, is not only imaginative but fascinating. You can easily spend an afternoon learning not only why Great Britain established the empire “upon which the sun never set” but also how it was created — often through invasion and slavery.
From the 2-million-plus items in its collection, the museum displays ship’s models, figureheads, ancient navigational aids and maps.
One gallery displays maritime paintings and even clips from a color documentary on vacation cruising from a half-century ago.
Another gallery is a fascinating discussion of exploration. This is highlighted by remarkable film of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914-16 voyage to the Antarctic. His ship Endurance was locked in the ice for about nine months in 1915. Viewers watch its demise: as ice floes come together, the vessel is crushed and sinks.
Shackleton and the 27-member crew made it to an uninhabited island. He and five others then went for help. Not until August of the next year were all of them rescued.
Yet another gallery is devoted to the empire’s greatest naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Surely millions of tourists to London have passed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square without understanding why it was erected. The answers are in this gallery.
In October 1805, off the coast of Cadiz, Spain, the 47-year-old Nelson led an armada of 33 ships against a force of equal size from the Spanish and French navies. In about two hours, the British sank or disabled 18 enemy vessels, killing or wounding 6,000 of the enemy.
The British lost no ships, though some were no longer worthy as fighting ships, and suffered casualties of 1,700.
Among those killed was Nelson, shot through the shoulder and spine by a sniper perched in the mast of the French ship that Nelson’s Victory was battling.
On display is his uniform; you can see the bullet hole below his left shoulder.
Consider the following qualities attributed to Nelson: decisive, courageous, a leader from the front, unconventional in his attack plans, adaptable.
The admiral, who had previously lost his right arm and the sight in one eye during various battles in which he captured at least 26 vessels, once wrote:
“Difficulties and dangers do but increase my desire of attempting them.”
If you go
GETTING THERE: From London, you can reach Greenwich the slow, picturesque way, by a narrated cruise down the Thames, or the fast and impersonal way, connecting with the Docklands Light Railway, an elevated commuter train, from the Bank Tube stop near the Tower of London.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Go the Web site, ; each of the museums has a link from this page.
LONDON — Career paths, marriage or divorce choices, perhaps even whether to continue with life itself … surely all of these issues are contemplated time and again in the spring sunshine that caresses London’s glorious St. James’s Park.
One end of the park’s 93 acres cushions such government buildings as the Foreign Office and the Admiralty. The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are just a couple of blocks away. The lawns, lake, shade trees and flower beds in between have soothed bureaucrats and politicians – and everyone else from romantic couples to overworked merchants — for more than three centuries.
But how many tourists would interrupt their schedule to sit on a bench and watch the ducks and pelicans? After all, this is one of the world’s most cultured cities, where history is on view most everywhere.
Well, visitors should take time to sit here, and stroll here. St. James’s almost forces calmness on you — the perfect tonic to hectic sightseeing. And while you’re relaxing here, double-check your itinerary to make sure it includes these places:
The Banqueting House: Both historically important and, on the inside, glorious. Designer Inigo Jones built this half-block-long palace for James I in 1622. Jones, having just returned from Italy, eschewed the prevalent ornate architecture for the symmetrical simplicity of Italy’s Palladian style.
But the reason to enter is to marvel at the series of paintings on the ceiling of the upstairs grand hall, which is 110 feet long. James’ son, Charles I, commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to glorify his father in those paintings, 55 feet above the floor. Ironically, Charles practiced few of the virtues alluded to in the ceiling murals, and in 1649 he was executed for treason — on a scaffold erected outside these second-story windows.
The entrance fee includes a helpful audio guide. Located on Whitehall, at Horseguards Avenue.
Westminster Abbey: Central to the history of England, as both a place of coronation and burial. The British empire’s greatest naval hero, Horatio Nelson, used to rally his men during battle by shouting, “It’s Westminster Abbey or victory!” Admiral Nelson, however, was not buried here.
Every coronation since 1066 has taken place in the Abbey, which is still a functioning church. Visitors can almost touch the Coronation Chair, created in 1308.
There is so much here to see — and it becomes crowded with tour groups – that it is well worth paying the for the Abbey’s own narrated, 90-minute tours or audio guides.
The Abbey is immediately behind the Houses of Parliament, but the main entrance is off Broad Sanctuary, a continuation of Victoria Street.
The Wallace Collection: An engrossing collection of European porcelain, paintings, furniture, clocks and armor. The family gave the nearly 5,500 pieces, gathered by four generations, to the government with the proviso that it never be divided.
The items are displayed in 25 rooms of what had been the family mansion, more than a little off the beaten path. But here, the paintings alone include works by Rembrandt, Titian, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Watteau, Fragonard and Canaletto.
Entrance is free, though donations are suggested.
In Hertford House, on Manchester Square; from Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street, go north on Duke Street for six short blocks.
Other worthy stops in London:
/ Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park
/ St. Paul’s Cathedral
/ British Airways London Eye
/ Victoria and Albert Museum
/ National Portrait Gallery
/ Tate Modern
/ Highgate Cemetary (by tour ony)
/ Central Criminal Courts
And if you want to learn about the city from street level — and sometimes from observation points a few floors above — be sure to book one of the charming narrated tours offered by THE specialist, London Walks.