An Irish Roadtrip — Brú na Bóinne and the Giant’s Causeway

An Irish Roadtrip — Brú na Bóinne and the Giant’s Causeway

It’s a one-hour drive north from Dublin to Brú na Bóinne (Gaelic for Palace of the Boyne), and 5,000 years back in time.

 The River Boyne at  Brú na Bóinne.

Built around 3200 BC within a bend of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne complex is the most prominent Neolithic site in Ireland, famous for the spectacular passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. These ceremonial structures, which pre-date the Egyptian pyramids by some six centuries, also hold the most important concentration of megalithic art in Western Europe.

Brú na Bóinne

The Brú na Bóinne Visitor Reception Center.

On the south bank of the River Boyne, the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Reception Center is the only access point to the Neolithic sites of Newgrange and Knowth, located north of the river. On the lower level of the Center, extensive exhibits include a life-size replica of the Newgrange Chamber, as well as a model of one of Knowth’s smallest tombs. Access to the actual sites begins with visitors crossing the river via a footbridge to reach the shuttle bus that takes them to the monuments for their pre-booked, time-allocated guided visit.

Newgrange

A narrow passage of stone slabs leads to the central chamber.

Newgrange is the best example of a Stone Age passage tomb in Ireland and one of the most remarkable prehistoric sites in Europe. The burial mound is some 80 meters (260 feet) in diameter and 13 meters (42 feet) high. The narrow passage leading to the central chamber and its three side niches is 19 meters (62 feet) long, walled and roofed with sturdy, carved slabs. Above the chamber, the roof slabs are arranged to an astonishing steeple-like peak. Human remains and funeral goods were originally found here.

The roofbox allows the rising sun to reach the inner chamber.

However, the most remarkable feature of Newgrange is its roofbox (open panel above the entrance). Every year, on the days around the winter solstice, the rising sun gleams through the opening and for 15 minutes illuminate the passage within, down to the innermost chamber, brushing the decorations with amber light. (Note: for visitors at any other time, the event is now re-created electrically).

The passage stones display elaborately carved motives.

Over 200,000 tonnes of earth and stone were used in the construction of Newgrange. The stones are believed to have been quarried and transported from Wicklow, 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south as well as the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. Newgrange also plays a role in Irish Mythology, as the burial place of the lovers Dairmuid and Grainne, and as the place where the great warrior Cuchulainn was conceived.

Knowth

The Knowth site consists of a one-hectare mound surrounded by smaller satellite mounds.

The Knowth site consists of one large mound and 18 smaller satellite mounds. The large mound covers one hectare (2.5 acres) and contains two passages, placed along an east-west line. The entire mound is encircled by 127 kerbstones, many of them decorated with megalithic art. Over 200 decorated stones were found during excavations. Most of the motifs here are typical: spirals, lozenges and concentric circles, as well as unusual crescent shapes.

The chamber contained basin stones used to hold creamated remains.

According to the virtual visit at the Visitor Center, the eastern passage of the large mound leads to a cruciform chamber, similar to that found at Newgrange. It contains three recesses and basin stones into which the cremated remains of the dead may have been placed. The interior of the actual mound is not open to visitors.

Dowth

Although it is not part of the official visit, the main mound of the Dowth site compares in size with its famous neighbors at Newgrange and Knowth, and visitors are free to walk around the site. Its original roof collapsed long ago and was replaced, so that from the outside, the tomb seems preserved. There is no access to the interior of the structure.

The Land of Giants 

Walking the Giant’s Causeway is an exhilarating experience.

It’s a 220-kilometer (136-mile), three-hour drive north from Brú na Bóinne to the Giant’s Causeway, a dramatic promontory of massive basalt columns, stretching along 4 miles (6 kilometers) of the northern coast of Northern Ireland, on the edge of the Antrim Plateau. Here, more than 40 thousand perfectly stacked basalt columns create what looks like a giant set of interlocking bricks leading down to the ocean.

Massive step formations descend into the ocean.

This epic landscape was formed about 60 million years ago by a volcanic fissure eruption, when successive flows of lava cooled as they reached the water. Layers of basalt formed the columns, and the pressure between these columns sculpted them into polygonal shapes that vary from 38 to 51 centimeters (15 to 20 inches) in diameter and measure up to 25 meters (82 feet) in height. 

 

 

The hotel is a haven of timeless charm at the edge of the Causeway.

Since we plan to explore this storied coastal landscape at the first hour the following morning, we have opted to spend the night at the Causeway Hotel, itself an historic landmark, adjacent to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center and the head of the Causeway. The hotel was built in 1836 to create a place for travelers to stay when visiting the famous rock formations. Today, the cheerful white clapboard, 28-room property has retained its timeless charm, albeit with the addition of 21st century amenities.

Into the Myth

The basalt columns facade of the Center unobtrusively recedes into the horizon of the Antrim Plateau.

The next morning, after a gargantuan Irish breakfast, we head for the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center. Open in 2012, the Center is a remarkable creation of the Irish firm of Heneghan Peng Architects, designed to evoke the towering columns of the Causeway. Its facade, lines of irregular basalt column separated by vertical windows, unobtrusively recedes into the landscape and integrates itself into the top of the plateau. Inside, the space consists of multiple levels connected by ramps, staggered to accommodate the sloping site.

A first glimpse of the Causeway, seen from the Center..

Here, multiple interpretive spaces tell the story of the Causeway from different points of view. As is traditional, it features the mainstream geological view, which says the lava flows erupted some 60 million years ago. But it also features the local mythology, about the legendary Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) who built the Causeway as a bridge to Scotland to fight his Scottish arch nemesis, Benandonner. Then an immersive audio-visual experience places the viewer at the centre of the landscape’s dramatic geological formation. And at the far end of the building, the coffee shop also dishes out spectacular coastal views.

The Giant’s Organ Pipes.

From the Center it’s an easy 20-minute walk down a long scenic hill to the Causeway itself. Then the paved path leads all the way to the Amphitheater, along diverse surreal rock formations ranging from the Wishing Chair, the Giant’s Boot, Camel, Harp and Giant’s Organ Pipes. In case you can’t figure which is which, there is signage to give you a hint. And for the sure-footed, it’s ok to climb the rocks — at your own risk. 

I did not. But this walk along the wild Northern Atlantic shoreline and the awesome older-than-time wonders of the Giant’s territory remain an exhilarating highlight of my Irish road-trip.

Good to Know

  • Getting There — By Car to Brú na Bóinne: the  Visitor Centre is located approximately 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Dublin via highway M1 to Drogheda. Take Exit 9 to Donore Village and follow Staleen Road to the Visitor Center. From Brú na Bóinne to The Giant’s Causeway: it’s approximately 220 kilometers (136 miles) north via highways M1 and M2 to Bushmills and the Giant’s Causeway.  Note: About one hour into the drive, the bilingual (Gaelic and English) roadsigns used throughout the Republic of Ireland suddenly become English only. You have just crossed the open border into the British territory of Northern Ireland. From here on the speed indications change from kilometers to miles and the currency in use goes from Euro to British Pound. Also if you are planning to rent a car in Dublin for your roadtrip, you will need to purchase additional insurance for driving in Northern Ireland.
  • Visiting  Brú na Bóinne:  Access to the Brú na Bóinne archeological site is limited and advanced booking is required.  For opening hours and pre- booking your visit, consult the Brú na Bóinne website.  The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center, 44 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Opening hours and access availability vary broadly with the seasons. Consult the Center’s website for details and strongly recommended advanced bookings. Contact: Tel. +44 28 2073 1855 or email. . 
  • Staying —  The Causeway Hotel, 40 Causeway Road, Bushmills, County Antrim, BT57 8SU. Contact: tel. +44 28 2073 1210, or  email.  Hotel guests receive complimentary on-site parking and entry to the adjacent Causeway Visitor Center.
  • Getting Around —To reach the Causeway, you can either walk 1.5 kilometer (1 mile) down the long scenic hill or take the Causeway Coaster minibus. A popular option with many visitors is to take the 20-minute walk downhill to the main causeway and catch the shuttle bus back up the hill (fare was 1 GBP each way, or 1.25 USD at the time of this writing). Note: While access to the Causeway itself is technically free, there is a 13.00 GBP (16 USD) per adult charge for parking at the site. Ticket price includes access to all the amenities of the Visitor Center, including guided tour, audio guide, immersive exhibitions and café. Visitors are encouraged to pre-book an entry time slot. Parking-only tickets are not available.

Location, location, location!

Giant's Causeway, Ireland

In Dublin – Two Unique Museums Tell The Story of Ireland

In Dublin – Two Unique Museums Tell The Story of Ireland

There are more than 40 museums spread across Dublin, offering visitors the chance to satisfy their interest for all things Irish, from archeology to whisky and leprechauns. Two  are “must-sees” to explore the historical and cultural heritage of the country.

The National Museum — Archeology

The Knowth flint macehead dates back to somewhere between 3300 BC and 2800 BC.

The Prehistoric Ireland exhibit at the National Museum contains artefacts from the earliest period of human habitation in Ireland: stone implements created by the first hunter-gatherers, beginning around 7000 BC. The tools, pottery and burial objects of Neolithic farmers follow, including the unique ceremonial macehead discovered at the tomb of Knowth (County Meath). 

The exhibit then covers the introduction of metallurgy into Ireland around 2500 BC, with early copper implements. Then from the later Bronze Age period there is an impressive array of bronze axes, daggers, swords, shields, cauldrons and cast bronze horns. Wooden objects include a large dugout longboat, wooden wheels and reed fishing equipment.

 

Bronze Age Irish Gold

Early Bronze Age sheet gold lunulae.

Late Bronze Age dress-fasteners.

By far the one of the most remarkable holdings of the museum is the stunning collection of prehistoric Irish goldwork  ranging in date between 2200 BC and 500 BC. Most are pieces of jewelry but the precise function of some is unclear.

During the Early Bronze Age the principal gold products were made from sheet gold, and include sundiscs and crescent-shaped gold collars called lunulae. Around 1200 BC, new gold working techniques were developed and a variety of torcs were produced by twisting bars or strips of gold. Styles evolved around 900 BC – the Late Bronze Age – to be be divided into two main types. Solid objects such as bracelets and dress-fasteners now contrast dramatically with large sheet gold collars and delicate ear-spools. 

The immense quantity of Bronze Age gold from Ireland suggests the availability of rich local ore sources. However, their location has never been identified.

 

Viking Age

A replica of a Viking fishing vessel marks the entrance of the exhibit.

Another fascinating exhibit focuses on Viking life in Ireland, through objects from Viking graves of the 9th and 10th centuries, and from settlement sites of the 10th to 12th centuries. The first recorded Viking raids on Ireland took place in 795, when islands off the north and west coasts were plundered. Later on, Viking fleets appearing on the major river systems and fortifying bases are mentioned around 840. Fast, manoeuvrable ships made for effecting raiding. A replica of a Viking fishing vessel used for these purposes marks the entrance of the exhibit. 

Typical Norse paired shoulder brooches of bronze from female burial sites.

Pagan Viking burial traditions included the personal possessions of the deceased. Warriors were buried with their weapons. Burial sites near Dublin, dated from the early 10th century on, also reveal the presence of weights, scales, purses, tongs and hammers, suggesting that some of the dead were merchants and craftsmen. Typically, Norse oval brooches, worn in pairs in women’s costume, as well as objects of domestic life such as a spindle whorls (for spinning wool) and bronze needle cases, indicate that women were also buried in these cemeteries.

Viking Silver Brooche (circa 10th century).

By the end of the 10th  century the Vikings in Ireland had adopted Christianity. With this fusion of cultures it is often difficult to distinguish between Norse and Irish artefacts from this time on. The final section of this exhibit displays church metalwork and other ecclesiastical objects of the 10th to 12th  centuries, which illustrate Christian art created by those Vikings who settled and converted, and how Norse features became absorbed into Irish culture and art styles.

 

Power, Work and Prayer

The medieval section of the museum is divided into  three galeries: Power, Work and Prayer, reflecting the three-fold division of medieval society — nobles, common people and clergy.

Detail of the Breac Maodhóg Shrine.

Power deals with the nobility, both Irish and Anglo-Irish, who ruled medieval society. Displays of jewelry and other personal adornments used by noble and affluent men and women highlight courtly life, as do treasures associated with important aristocratic families, such as the 11th century Breac Maodhóg Shrine associated with the O’Reilly lords of East Bréifne. There is also a fine display of late medieval swords and axes that highlights the unique characteristics of medieval Irish warfare.

The Medieval Work gallery showcases the tools and products of crafts and trades.

Work focuses on secular, non-noble society, with particular emphasis on economic and social life. Separate sections deal with the agricultural practices of the countryside and the life of towns, which became a widespread feature of the Irish landscape during this time. A large part of the gallery is devoted to the tools and products of medieval crafts and trades, both urban and rural. 

 

 

Detail of the crook – The Prosperous Crozier (circa late 9th or early 10th century)..

Prayer explores the dominant features of religious life during the Middle Ages. It focuses on the fundamental changes that took place in the organisation of the Church and the introduction of new monastic orders. Many practices of the older Church tradition survived, however, especially in areas outside English control. The exhibition also looks at religious practice and devotion as well as church furnishings, including a fine selection of late medieval reliquaries: book shrines, bell shrines and croziers.

EPIC

EPIC is located in a restored 19th century warehouse,.

Located on the docklands of Dublin, in the vaults of a fully restored 19th century bonded customs warehouse, EPIC, The Irish Immigration Museum, is the antithesis of the National Museum – Archeology: it covers covers the history of the Irish diaspora. In the word of its Curator Jessica Trainer, “EPIC is not an acronym. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of the epic journeys of Irish emigrants.”

Interior design of the EPIC itinerary.

While there are recorded mentions of Irish migration throughout the Middle Ages, it can only be quantified starting in the early 18th century. Since then, between 9 and 10 million people born in Ireland have emigrated. That is more than the current population of the entire island, which today stand around 6.9 million (5 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.9 million in Northern Ireland). The poorest of them went to Great Britain. Those who could afford it went further, including almost 5 million to the United States and 1.2 million to Canada.

Migration – Artwork representation.

 

Also, between the 1790s and 1920s, approximately 400,000 Irish settlers – both voluntary and forced – are thought to have arrived in Australia. They first came over as convicts, with around 50,000 transported between 1791 and 1867. Even larger numbers of free settlers came during the 19th  century due to famine, Overall, an estimated 80 million people worldwide now claim some Irish descent, including more than 36 million Americans claiming Irish as their primary ethnicity.

An Immersive Experience

Opened in 2016, the museum is made up of twenty galleries that create an immersive, fully digital, interactive environment for visitors to experience the history and various aspects of Irish emigration. The exhibits’ itinerary is arranged around four individual themes: 

Early emigrants voyage into the unknown.

Migration — This introduction to the itinerary deals with migration patterns from Ireland over the centuries. Motivation cover missionary work, the Irish famine, religious and social persecutions, criminal transportation, and the effects of Irish involvement in foreign conflicts. Especially powerful are the individual stories of six emigrants, played out on video. They explain their reasons for leaving, their hopes, the challenges they encountered and their outcome.

EPIC – Immigrants achievements.

Influence  and Diaspora Today — These two themes seamlessly blend into each other, covering notable Irish immigrants in the world of business, sports, sciences, political leaders and thinkers, music, dance and entertainment, art and fashion, writing and storytelling. A “Rogues Gallery” of infamous trouble makers with Irish heritage is also included. Then the itinerary ends with an uplifting glance at festivals and celebrations of Irish culture worldwide.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There Dublin is easily reached by plane, via regularly scheduled flights from around the world into Dublin Airport. It can also be reached via ferries from England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.  
  • Getting Around — Central Dublin is fairly compact and is best explored by a combination of walking and public transportation. The city has a good public transportation network which includes public buses, trams and rail services (for going outside the city center).
  • Visiting —The National Museum of Ireland – Archeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, is open year round Tuesday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sunday and Monday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. It is closed  on Christmas Day, St. Stephen’s Day and Good Friday. Admission to all permanent collections is free, EPIC – The Irish Emigration Museum, CHQ, Custom House Quay, Dublin 1, is open year round, every day from 10:00 am – 6.:45 pm.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Saint Patrick's Cathedral

A Stroll Around Dublin Medieval History

A Stroll Around Dublin Medieval History

Although archeological evidence shows the Dublin area was previously inhabited by the Gaels, it was the Vikings that put the city on the map of Ireland in 841 when they established their first stronghold at the mouth of the River Liffey. As the Kingdom of Dublin grew, it became Ireland’s principal Norse settlement — until  the 12th century Anglo-Norman invasion of the island.  This watershed marked the beginning of more than 800 years of direct English involvement in the country’s history, and left an indelible stamp on what is today the vibrant, cosmopolitan capital of Ireland.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral

The nave of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is a fine example of gothic architecture.

My exploration of Dublin’s historical sites begins with the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which from everything I have heard of its origins and evolution, seems a striking metaphor for the city’s past.  First, a small wooden sanctuary, was constructed on the site in the 5th century AD, near the well where Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is believed to have baptized Irish converts. The church as it stands now was built as a Roman Catholic cathedral between 1191 and 1270. In 1311, the College of Dublin was founded here and the cathedral became a place of higher education as well as a place of worship.

The banners of the Knights of Saint Patrick hang in the Catherdral’s choir.

In 1537 however, following the English Reformation, when the Church of England broke from the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Patrick became designated as an Anglican Church of Ireland and has remained a part of the Church of Ireland to this day. It is also considered one of the best examples of medieval architecture still standing in the Irish capital — Although it is fair to note that the structure went through massive reconstructions and alterations over time, including the addition of the tallest spire in the country in 1749, and a major rebuilding in the 1860’s.

The church accumulated a wealth of statues of historical figures.

Throughout its convoluted history, Saint Patrick’s accumulated a wealth of artefacts of artistic and historical significance, from marble statues, steles and relief portraits to stained glass. The best known are the tomb of Anglo-Irish writer and satirist Jonathan Swift, who was dean of the cathedral from 1713 to 1745, and the 17th century tomb of the Boyle family. The later, by far the most impressive, is a multi-tiered statuary family tree erected in 1632 at the west end of the Cathedral by Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, for himself, his wife and family. Smaller mementos are dedicated to Turlough O’Carolan (famous 18th century blind harpist and composer) and Douglas Hyde (first President of Ireland, 1938 to 1945).

Trinity College

The Long Room holds 200,000 of the library’s oldest books.

Founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth’s, or Trinity College for short, is the only college of the University of Dublin. It is to this day widely regarded as the finest university in the country. While its prestigious history makes it an impressive place to wander around and visit, its most popular attractions by far is the Old Library, also known as the Long Room. 

Marble busts of famous philosophers and writers line the central walkway.

Built between 1712 and 1732, the Long Room holds 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. Its stunning barrel ceiling was added in 1860 to allow space for more works when the existing shelves became full. Marble busts of famous philosophers and writers, created by sculptor Peter Schemakers beginning in 1743, line the central walkway of the nearly 200-foot-long room. Taking pride of place in the center aisle it the 15th century wooden harp which is the model for the emblem of Ireland. 

 

 

The Book of Kells

Detail of the Book of Kells.

By far the most famous holding of the library, however, is an extraordinary illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells. Decorated with lavish Celtic and Christian iconography, its distinctive designs have become rooted in Irish identity. It is considered one of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures, Thought to have been created around 800 AD by Christian monks on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, it is composed of the four gospels, hand-transcribed on vellum. It is named for the monastery at Kells, County Meath, where the monks took refuge after a Viking raid and which became the manuscript’s home for centuries before coming to Trinity College in 1661, for safekeeping after the Cromwellian raids on religious institutions. It has been on display here since the 19th century.

Dublin Castle

The Gunner’s Tower is the last medieval remain of the castle.

Dublin Castle is one of the most important buildings in Irish history. First founded by King John of England in 1204 to defend the city and administer the new territories in Ireland, it was completed by 1230.The fortress was of typical Norman design, with a central courtyard protected on all sides by tall defensive walls and a circular tower at each corner. It remained the seat of English rule in Ireland until 1922, serving as the residence of the British monarch’s representative, the Viceroy (a.k.a. Lord Lieutenant) of Ireland, and as a ceremonial and administrative center. 

Bedford Hall is a 18th century addition to the castle.

The castle  evolved considerably throughout the centuries, and although parts of the original fortress still exist, most of the current complex dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the State Rooms, which are still used for official state engagements. In 1922, following Ireland’s independence, Dublin Castle was handed over to the new Irish government. It is now a major government complex and a key tourist attraction.

 

Powder Tower

Remains of original Viking defenses are integrated within the foundations of the Powder Tower.

Beneath the northeast corner of the lower castle yard, excavations have uncovered parts of the structure of the medieval castle. These include remains of original Viking defenses, a section of which was integrated within the massive circular walls of the 13th century Powder Tower.  Built around 1228 and used to store gun powder, the tower had an interior diameter of six meters (20 feet) surrounded by four meters (13 feet) thick limestone walls. Stone steps cut through the medieval stone wall to allow access to the Castle from the narrow moat that surrounded it, are also visible to visitors.

Chapel Royal

The coat of arms of the successive Lord Lieutenants are carved on the gallery,

Designed by Francis Johnston (1760–1829), the foremost architect working in Ireland in the early 19th century, the chapel contains one of the finest Gothic revival interiors in the country. It served as the official Church of Ireland chapel of the Household of the Lord Lieutenant from 1814 until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, which terminated the office of Lord Lieutenant and ended British rule in most of Ireland. In 1943, the chapel was reconsecrated as a Catholic place of worship and rededicated as the Church of the Most Holy Trinity.

The 19th century organ case was was restored in 2008.

The stunning organ case was constructed in 1857 to house a new organ by William Telford of Dublin, which replaced an earlier instrument. Although the case was restored in 2008, the organ is no longer playable as the pipework and mechanisms have been removed.

 

 

 

State Apartments

Saint Patrick’s Hall.

The State Apartments were originally constructed as residential and public quarters for the Lord Lieutenant.  As such, these elegant Georgian rooms were at the heart of the Anglo-Irish social life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today they are only used for major state occasions such as the inauguration of new Presidents, and during the Irish presidency of the European Union.

Saint Patrick’s Hall — One of the greatest ceremonial rooms in the country, it was created in the mid-18th century as the castle’s ballroom. Its exquisite ceilings painted in 1788 by Italian artist Vincenzo Waldré can still be admired today. The hall was for many years the meeting place of the Knights of St Patrick, Ireland’s chivalric order of knights whose flags still adorn its walls.

State Drawing Room.

 

State Drawing Room — Created in 1838, it was used mainly by the Vicereine (wife of the Viceroy) as a formal sitting room, and for holding audiences with Irish courtiers. Today the room houses one of the most significant paintings in the Dublin Castle collection, a portrait by leading 17th century European portraitist, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The room is still used by the President of Ireland for the reception of visiting dignitaries.

The Portrait Gallery.

The Portrait Gallery —This room takes its name from the collection of portraits of Irish Viceroys that have hung on its walls since 1849. The room’s main function was as a dining room where State dinners were held. It continues to be used for State receptions by the Irish government today.

 

 

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There —Dublin is easy to reach by plane, via regularly scheduled flights from around the world into Dublin Airport. It can also be reached via ferries from England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.  
  • Getting Around — Central Dublin is fairly compact and is best explored by a combination of walking and public transportation. The city has a good public transports network which includes buses, trams and rail services (for going outside the city center).
  • Visiting —  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral , St Patrick Close, Dublin 8, is open to visitors year-round, Monday through Saturday from 9:30 to 17:00 and Sundays from 9:00  to 10:30 and 13:00 to 14:30.   Trinity College Long Room and The Book of Kells, College Green, Dublin 2, is open April through September, Monday through Saturday from 8:30 to 17:00 and Sunday from, 9:30 to 17:00, and October through March, Monday through Saturday, 9:30 to 17:00 and Sunday from 12:00 to 16:30.  Dublin Castle, Dame Street 2, Dublin 2, is open every day year-round from 9:45 to 17:45.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Saint Patrick's Cathedral

Avignon, France — The Other Papal City

Avignon, France — The Other Papal City

The skyline of Avignon is a mighty fortress that spreads its majestic walls across the sunbaked landscape of Provence. Everlasting witness to the power of the papacy over the Middle Ages, the Palace of the Popes remains the greatest gothic palace in the world. Although the historic town draws well over half a million visitors a year, many of them, other that papal history buffs and French school children, may not be aware how for most of the 14th century this small, heavily fortified southern French city on the bank of the Rhône river came to be the capital of Christendom.

It Began with Charlemagne

The Palais des Papes is the largest Gothic palace ever built.

Like most of the major events that shaped modern Europe, it began with Charlemagne, King of the Franks (771-814), a powerful Germanic tribe whose territories covered present-day western Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. A determined expansionist and skilled military strategist, he had by the end of his reign extended his reach across western and central Europe.

A staunch defender of Christianity, he supported the church with funds and land, and extended his protection to the Pope. To acknowledge the power of his benefactor and reinforce the relationship with the papacy, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans on December 25, 800, at St. Peter Basilica in Rome. In the process, in addition to its spiritual leadership role, he asserted the papacy as a major authority in geopolitical matters. The consequences of this quid pro quo would reverberate throughout Europe for centuries.

The Passion of Christ sculpture- housed in the Consistory – is a remarkable exemple of Medieval art.

Charlemagne’s descendants proved incapable of keeping his vast empire together. By 888, France, Germany and Italy had become separate states. Who then was to be emperor? The nominee of the pope, himself a puppet of Italian aristocratic factions? Charlemagne’s rightful heir, whoever he might be? Or the strongest king in Europe? Centuries of political intrigue and ever-shifting alliances ensued, throughout which the imperial crown was habitually set on a succession of Germanic heads. And disputes between the Popes and the Emperors continued, over which of them was the secular leader of Christendom, with the Pope’s side most often bolstered by the French kings.

The Road to Avignon

The main entrance of the papal palace.

By the early 14th century, however,  Pope Boniface VIII and the French monarch, the autocratic Philippe IV, were feuding over Philippe’s decision to tax the considerable wealth of the Church in France to finance his war with the English. The feud turned violent, with Italian allies of the King of France breaking into the papal residence and assaulting Boniface VIII, who died shortly thereafter. A successor who would not be hostile toward Philippe was promptly elected. However, after a pontificate that lasted a mere eight months, Benedict XI died suddenly — poisoning was suspected although never proven. 

Cloister of the Old Palace

His successor Clement V, a Frenchman and personal friend of King Philippe, was in France when elected and thought it prudent to never travel to Rome. In 1309, he decided to establish his Papal Court in Avignon, where it was to remain for the next seven decades.

 

 

The Builder Popes

Scaled model of the completed palace.

Clement V (1305-1314) lived simply as a guest in the Dominican monastery of Avignon. Then his successor John XXII (1316-1334) started the process of rebuilding and enlarging the old episcopal palace, which sat on a natural rocky outcrop overlooking the river at the northern edge of Avignon, and convert it into a fortified palace. However, it was John’s two successors who became the main builders of the impregnable fortress that stands to this day.

Cour d’Honneur (Ceremonial Courtyard) of the New Palace.

Benedict XII (1334-1342) built the first pontifical palace, an austere stronghold set around a vast cloister (now referred to as the Palais Vieux, or Old Palace). Then Clement VI (1342-1352) expanded Benedict’s palace with more lavish constructions around a grand internal courtyard. Now known as the Palais Neuf, or New Palace, it became the biggest Gothic palace in all of Europe, with 15,000 square meters (160,000 square feet) of floor space.The immense size of the palace facilitated the integration of the Curia (church administration) into the truly central administration of the Church that suited the needs of the papacy.

Life at the Pontifical Court

The Great Clementine Chapel held liturgical events.

More than 20 rooms are open to visitors, including several ceremonial halls of majestic proportions, such as the Consistory, the  Grand Audience Hall with its remarkable ceiling frescoes of the prophets, the 52 meters (170 feet) long  Great Clementine Chapel, which held official events and liturgical services, and the soaring Grand Tinel. The latter was primarily a reception and banquet room, but during conclaves, it was the room where the cardinals assembled to elect the new pope. For the occasion, the room was temporarily walled, with only a small aperture  left open to provide the necessary food. 

Detail of the chambre du cerf (room of the deer) fresco

The visit also includes the private apartments of Clement VI: the papal chamber and private study, commonly called the chambre du cerf (room of the deer), for the remarkable hunting scene frescoes that decorate the walls. The subject matter, while common in secular art at the time, is as unexpected in a room supposedly dedicated to study as it is for a room in a papal apartment.

 

St John Chapel frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti.

Other highlights include the Saint Martial and Saint John chapels, decorated with sumptuous frescoes by the Italian master Matteo Giovanetti, who had been charged by Clement VI to lead the decoration of the Palace. While a large proportion of these creations were lost in the course of time, several have survived to bear witness to the innovative artistic work created by the French and Italian schools of paintings in the 14th century – and the lavish ceremonial lifestyle of the pontifical court that supported it.

More on Papal Politics

Portraits of the Popes of Avignon – imagined by 19th century artist Henri Serrur.

Three more popes would keep their seat of power in the French city until the last of them, Gregory XI (1370–1378) brought the Avignon papacy to an end in 1377 when he returned the papal court to Rome. However, this departure was not the end of  the Avignon popes. The following year, the Roman Catholic Church split apart when a faction of cardinals refused to recognizes Gregory’s successor, the newly appointed Pope Urban VI. Instead, they elected a rival Pope, and returned to Avignon. Thus from 1378 to 1403, during a period known as the Western Schism, Avignon was the seat of a rival papacy, its popes referred to by the official church in Rome as “Antipopes.”

Avignon – the Palace of the Popes.

Good to Know

  • Getting there —  By Train: Avignon is located in southeastern France, 700 kilometers south of Paris. It is easily accessible in less than three hours by non-stop TVG (high-speed train) throughout the day from Paris – Gare de Lyon to the Avignon TGV station.  The TGV station lies  slightly outside of town, and is connected via regular shuttle trains to the Avignon Central Station (Gare d’Avignon Centre just outside the fortification walls on the southern edge of the old town. The city is also well connected other main cities in France and surrounding countries via regional regional and intercity trains.  These arrive at the Avignon Centre station.
  • Visiting —  The Popes’ Palace, Place du Palais, 84000 Avignon, France, is open every day, all year round from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.  Check the website for extended visiting hours during the summer season.  Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 32 74 32 74. Accessibility: due to its multiple stone stairways, the palace is regrettably not accessible to persons with reduced mobility.

 

Location, location, location!

Palais des Papes

Beyond Narbo Martius — Narbonne Through The Ages

Beyond Narbo Martius — Narbonne Through The Ages

Narbonne (or Narbo Martius as it was then called) was founded in 118 BC as the capital of the first Roman colony in Gaul. Located at the crossroad of the land and sea trade routes of southwestern Gaul, it became one of largest trading center in the western Mediterranean — until the fall of the Empire.

Shaped by a Tumultuous History

The Basilica Saint Paul-Serge illustrates the early Christian past of the city.

During the Middle Ages, a period dominated by christianity, Narbonne became the seat of a powerful archbishopric and a center of political power. The seaport also remained active, and the city relatively prosperous until the beginning of the 14th century when catastrophic flooding altered the course of the river Aude, turning the port into a pond — which explains how, over time, Narbonne came to be located in a wine-growing plain some 13 kilometers (8 miles) inland. Add the dual scourge of the Black Plague and the Hundred Years War, and it is easy to understand why the city experienced a drastic decline at that time

The Canal de la Robine is the central artery the old town.

In the beginning of the 16th century Narbonne emerged from its inertia when it was attached to the kingdom of France and became the most important stronghold in the region. Eager to reestablish its relevance as a commercial port, the city began the onerous work to canalize the remnants of the Aude River’s access to the Mediterranean. The Canal de la Robine was finally linked with the Royal Canal (now the Canal du Midi) in 1787, ushering Narbonne into its golden age of wine-making in the 19th century. To this day, the Canal de la Robine remains the central artery of the old town, and a perfect starting point for a stroll back in time through its winding cobbled streets.

The Basilica of Saint Paul-Serge

The nave of the Basilica Saint Paul-Serge features a blend of Romanesque and early Gothic elements.

Built on the site of a pre-Romanesque church that burned down in the 5th century, the Basilica of Saint Paul-Serge was rebuilt around 1180 as the first early Gothic church in Narbonne and one of the oldest of the south of France. Although its current incarnation is the result of numerous modifications and restorations from the 15th century onward, the structure has retained its remarkable mix of Romanesque and early Gothic architectural elements.

The sculptures on one the sarcophagi shows motifs belonging to pagan symbolism.

However, I found its crypt to be most remarkable part of the Basilica. Built upon the tomb of Saint Paul, the first Bishop of Narbonne, most likely dead in 250, who according to tradition was a converted Roman Pro-consul (Sergius Paulus) and one of seven missionaries sent to Gaul by Pope Fabian (235-250) to evangelize the country. As a sign of great devotion Christians dignitaries then wanted to be buried near his tomb — which explain the several sarcophagi of the Constantinian era (4th century) found in the crypt, including one ornamented with sculpted motifs reminiscent of pagan symbolism adapted to Christian iconography. 

The crypt also holds several amphorae, usually used to bury infants. The remains of Saint Paul, however, were transferred in 1244 to the choir of the basilica.

The Truncated Cathedral

The Cathedral of Saint-Just towers over the city skyline.

Towering above the Narbonne skyline, the Cathedral of Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur is the perfect landmark to ensure you never get lost here. However, although it is now located in the heart of the city, in the Middle Ages it abutted the edge of the defensive fortifications. Started in 1272, the construction of this soaring Gothic structure — the fifth sanctuary to be constructed on the site since the early days of Christendom in the region — was a political statement by Pope Clement VI. Formerly  Archbishop of Narbonne, he decreed that  “this cathedral would equal the magnificent cathedrals of the Kingdom of France” (n.b. keeping in mind that Narbonne was at the time the seat of a semi-autonomous Viscounty nominally under the Counts of Toulouse).

The soaring choir is all that was built of the Narbonne Cathedral.

Thus began one of the most ambitious ecclesiastic construction projects of the 13th century, directly inspired by the great cathedrals of northern France. The choir was completed in 1332. It  boasts imposing dimensions: 40 meters (130 feet) wide, 60 meters (196 feet) long and a vault rising to 41 meters (135 feet) in height, it is surpassed only by Amiens (42 meters – 138 feet) and Beauvais (48 meters – 157 feet). And there it ended. With the onset of what would become the Hundred Years War leading to the reassessment of the fortifications, the city fathers realized that adding the nave and transept would encroach on the ramparts. The cathedral remains truncated to this day.

The Cloister

The cloister connects the cathedral to the episcopal palace.

Adjoining the cathedral and built from 1349 to 1417, on the site of an earlier Carolingian cathedral whose bell tower still remains, the cloister backs up against the 5th century fortifications. It is connected to the episcopal palace, also fortified. Its four galleries are framed by large arcades, with the supporting columns decorated with striking gargoyles.

 

 

The Palais des Archevêques

The Archbishops’ dining room is an 18th century masterpiece.

With the Gothic cloister and the Cathedral of Saint-Just, the Palace of the Archbishops forms a monumental complex, both residence and fortress, similar to the Palace of the Popes in Avignon. The Palace of the Archbishops consists of two separate parts: The Romanesque  Vieux Palais (Old Palace, circa 12th century) with its medieval rooms, chapel and oratory was unfortunately closed to the public for major maintenance and renovation at the time of my visit.

The Palais Neuf holds a fine European art collection.

The Palais Neuf (New Palace), built between the 14th and 19th centuries, housed the apartments of the archbishops. Nowadays, it is home to the rich collections of the City of Narbonne: earthenware from the 17th and 18th centuries, paintings from European schools from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and an interesting section of orientalist paintings. The various galleries and their decorations are themselves remarkable, especially the painted ceilings of the large audience room (17th century), the King’s room (17th century),  the Archbishops’ dining room (18th century) and the large reception gallery (19th century).

The Passage of the Anchor connects the Old Palace to the Cathedral.

Under the direction of Viollet-le-Duc the Palais Neuf was restored in 1845 to also house the Town Hall. The Neo-Classical facade is bracketed by two square towers (the 13th century dungeon and the 14th century Saint-Martial tower). A Romanesque passage connects  the Old Palace and the Cathedral. It is the Passage de l’Ancre (Passage of the Anchor), in reference to the navigation and berthing rights once levied by the Bishops from the users of the harbor.

 

Les Halles

The Art Deco-style covered market is a Narbonne institution.

No visit to Narbonne is complete without a stop at Les Halles, the hugely popular Baltard-style covered market built in 1901along the Canal de la Robine right in the center of town. Its elegant cast iron structure, ornate stone pillars and majestic glass roof have earned for the second year in a row in 2022 the coveted “most beautiful market in France” distinction.

All manners of top quality foodstuff await shoppers in the spectacular covered market.

But more than a landmark, Les Halles are a bustling Narbonne institution, where locals go to socialize and do their victuals shopping. Over 60 vendors have their merchandise on display, and you can find just about anything in their stalls. The butchers and delicatessens are near the main entrance, the fishmongers in the back, and everything else is in between. The best of fresh produce, dizzying arrays of cheeses, breads and pastries, olives, local honey… it’s all there, in irresistibly colorful displays. Caterers, bars and wine merchants are interspersed throughout. Whether you want to purchase fresh ingredients for the day’s meal or settle in for a snack or lunch, stop by daily from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm, including Sunday and holiday, without exception.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Narbonne is located 850 kilometers (530 miles) south from Paris, in close proximity to the western Mediterranean shore. By air: the nearest regional airports are in Carcassonne, Montpellier and Perpignan, with mainly seasonal connections to major airports in France and neighboring countries.  By train: the centrally located Narbonne train station offers direct connections to Paris, Barcelona, Toulouse, Marseille and many regional destinations throughout the day. By road: Highways  A9 and A6 pass through Narbonne.
  • Visiting — The Basilica of St Paul-Serge, 21 Rue Arago, 11100 Narbonne, is open to visitors year round Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed on Sunday, January 1, May 1, and November 11. The Cathedral St Just, Rue Armand Gauthier, 11100 Narbonne, is open year round from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed on January 1, May 1, and November 11. The Palais des Archevêques, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, 11100 Narbonne.  The museum is open from October 1 to May 31, every day except Tuesday, from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm and from June 1 to September 30, every day, from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.  Closed on major national holidays. Les Halles, 1 Boulevard du Docteur Ferroul, 11100 Narbonne, is open daily throughout the year from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm.

Location, location, location!

Narbonne

Narbo Via – In Search of Narbonne’s Roman Past

Narbo Via – In Search of Narbonne’s Roman Past

In 125 BC, the major Greek port city of Massalia (now Marseille) in the hellenized region of Southern Gaul, threatened by incursions from the Celto-Ligurian tribes of the Provencal hinterland, called for help from its Roman ally. The Senate sent its armies and within a few years, they had subjugated the local populations from Southern Gaul to the Pyrenees. Rome now controlled the vast area linking Italy to Spain.

Virtual reconstitution of the Narbo Martius waterfront.

To secure these strategic territories and ensure control of their trade routes, in 118 BC, the Senate ordered the construction of a thoroughfare, the Via Domitia, and the foundation of the first Roman colony outside of Italy. Two thousand Roman citizens were settled on a prime location of the lower Aude Valley, in immediate proximity to the Mediterranean coast. Colonia Narbo Martius, the present day Narbonne, was born.

 

A Turbulent History

Slab of decorated marble(circa early 2nd century AD featuring eagles and a central thunderbolt – symbols of Jupiter.

As the capital of the Narbonnaise Province, Narbo Martius became a major merchant port of the Roman Empire. It experienced its heyday in the first two centuries AD, when it spread across nearly 240 hectares (590 acres) upon which rose the various monuments typical of the large Roman city: forum, temples, amphitheater, thermal baths, market. However, among the many temples that Narbo Martius must have had, only the great sanctuary discovered in the 19th century on the site of Narbonne’s high school is known to us. Located in the heart of the original Roman city and looking over the forum, it is now identified as its Capitol —the  temple dedicated to the three deities Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

Fragments of the architectural grandor of Narbo Martius can be admired today at Narbo Via.

Unfortunately, the structures of the ancient city almost completely disappeared over the centuries of Narbonne’s turbulent history, starting with the general decline of the empire in the 3rd  century. Then in the 5th century, it fell into the hands of the Visigoths before being conquered by the Arabs in 719 and looted by the Vikings in 859. Through the successive reconstruction efforts, the remains of the Roman past became a convenient stone quarry for centuries of builders. Consequently, although no complete Roman monument has survived, many fragments of architecture that illustrated the splendor of the city have been preserved.

Reviving a Lost City

The lapidary wall is the backbone of the museum.

Now, thanks to the work of archaeologists and virtual reconstitution specialists, it is possible to experience what Narbo Martius looked like in the Narbo Via museum, open in May 2021 at the eastern edge of the city. Upon entering the airy, light-filled reception area, the eye is immediately drawn to the spectacular backbone of the building: a soaring gallery lining the entire back wall, covered by a monumental (76 by 10 meters or 250 by 32 feet) storage device, custom designed to showcase the remarkable lapidary collection of Narbo Via. This unique lapidary wall consists of 760 blocks of carved limestone weighing on average 400 kilograms (900 pounds) each. Originally funerary blocks that evoked the profession or the trade of the deceased, they were ‘harvested’ from Roman necropolises and systematically repurposed throughout the middles ages into the successive fortification walls of the city.

Detail of a funerary stele honoring a local personality.

Past the wall, almost 2,800 square meters (29,000 square feet) of exhibit space bring together the collections of two previous local museums as well as recently discovered finds from various excavation projects around the city. With over 580 artifacts, the overall exhibition itinerary helps revive the lost city of Narbo Martius. One part focuses on elements of former monuments and statuary, another features individual funerary steles, sarcophagi and monuments that honored local personalities.

 

Narbo Martius Revisited

A virtual reconstitution of the original Roman Capitol.

Another high point of the visit is the spectacular 3D, virtual reality stroll through the Roman city, which brings into vivid focus the various themed collections presented throughout the museum. Thanks to the evocative power of three-dimensional reconstitution, visitors can experience the various emblematic landmarks of Narbo Martius: the city and its Capitol, the domus of the Clos de la Lombarde, the thermal baths, the amphitheater. At the center of the route, an immersive projection room with a 180 degree  panoramic screen takes viewers to the key places of the Narbonnaise capital, from the port of Narbo Martius to the heart of the city and along by the Via Domitia.

The Horreum

The tunnels of the Horreum illustrate the architectural expertise of the ancient Romans.

Now five meters below ground level in the heart of the modern city, the Horreum (or warehouse in Latin) is a network of galleries leading to a series of small storage rooms built in the 1st century BC. Used for storing grain, wine and oil, it constituted the foundations of a building, most likely a market hall that has since disappeared. The Horreum remained in partial use as private cellars until it was declared an historic monument in 1961. It was finally open to visitors in 1975. Its well preserved walls are evidence of the architectural expertise and know-how of the ancient Romans. 

 

The Clos de la Lombarde

The Clos de la Lombarde was a Late Antiquity urban neighborhood.

Along with Horreum, the archaeological remains of the Clos de la Lombarde are one of the only visible – and visitable – Roman sites in Narbonne. Located in the northwestern area of the contemporary city center, the site was revealed in 1910 with the fortuitous discovery of a sarcophagus in a privately owned urban garden plot. However, active excavations didn’t begin until1973, when they then promptly offered a wealth of information about an aristocratic urban neighborhood in the Late Antiquity. Archaeologists discovered the foundations of houses, workshops, and a bathhouse.

A number of mosaic floors have been uncovered.

Archaeological research has shown that the area was occupied from the end of the Roman Republic (circa 27 BC) until the 5th century. It consisted of a large residential quarter along parallel streets, some flanked by porticos (covered colonnades), which were wide enough to conduct business and build small shops. The artisans must have done their work in the adjacent houses. Remains of water conduits and drains have also been found. 

 

 

An Opulent Neighborhood

The House with the Large Triclinium featured a marble floor.

Among the many remarkable finds, the ‘House with the Large Triclinium’ with a surface of 705 square meters (7,600 square feet) and  consisting of several units is a typical aristocratic mansion of the 2nd century AD. Three units had access to the garden, one had direct access to the street, and a spacious 90 square meters (970 square feet) room has been identified as the triclinium (dining hall) Remarkable wall paintings and a floor covered with multicolored marble were found here.

 

The magnificent frescos of the House of the Genius can now be experienced in virtual reality at Narbo Via.

The House of the Genius dates back to the 1st century BC and has a surface of 975 square meters (10,500 square feet). It features an atrium and a peristyle and is comparable to the houses found in Pompeii. Here the living quarters were open to a garden surrounded by porticos, while the atrium, entrance hall and triclinium played a public function. Many rooms in this luxurious mansion had fine floor mosaics of black and white stones. The walls were decorated with equally splendid frescos. Among these were representations of a winged Victoria, of a genius carrying a cornucopia and pouring a libation, and of an Apollo with a laurel wreath (the protective deity of the emperor Augustus). 

Sarcophagi were found in the crypt of the basilica,

The mansions were abandoned in the course of the 3rd century, and a church was built on top of them in the 4th century. This Paleo-Christian basilica, the first known christian church in Narbonne, covered part of the House of the Genius. Underneath, the crypt and traces of a baptistery have been found, together with several sarcophagi. After the 5th  century, the religious building was abandoned and the area went into decline.

A visit of the site is especially meaningful after seeing the mosaics and paintings originally found here at the Narbo Via museum.

Panoramic view of Narbo Martius created in vrtual reality at Narbo Via.

Good to Know

  • Getting Around — Much of the city centre can be covered on foot. There is also a free shuttle bus (the Citadine – lines 1 and 2) that services the various points of interest every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday  from 7:40 am to 7:20 pm.
  • Narbo Via, 2, avenue André Mècle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 7:00 pm from May 2 through September 30, and 11:00 am to 6:00 pm from October 1 through April 30.  It is closed on Monday and national holidays.  Contact:  tel. +33 (0) 4 68 90 28 90, e-mail..
  • The Horreum,  7 Rue Rouget de Lisle, 11100 Narbonne, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm from May 2 through September 30 and 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm from October 1 through April 30. It is closed on Monday and national holidays.
  • The Clos de la Lombarde — 28, rue Chanzy, 11100 Narbonne, is open to visitors for guided visits on Saturday mornings only, at 9:45 am and 10:45 am.  Contact: e-mail.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Narbonne