A Day in Drogheda

New York’s pretty close to Ireland so I get a lot of requests from friends for what to see and do while they’re visiting. Itineraries almost always starts and end in Dublin and I’m happy to simply forward my list of Dublin favourites which I update anyway during each visit. Recently, however, I finally had a chance to share another list, covering where I grew up: in and around Drogheda. Of course, Newgrange was (quite rightly) the primary reason for the visit but there was a hotel booked, time to be spent in the town itself, and recommendations were sought.

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My list is reproduced below but, first, why was a request for Drogheda recommendations so long coming? As a large-ish, historic town situated only thirty minutes by train from the capital Drogheda could be flooded with visitors: smaller towns in remote parts of country (Kenmare, Lisdoonvarna, Carlingford, etc.) offer a lot more to visitors without having anything like the the mind-blowing attraction of Newgrange nearby. However, public transport is poor: the express train only runs a few times each day from a small station located almost 2km outside the town centre and those hoping for a bus onwards to Newgrange will, if they can find it at all, discover the schedule bearing little relation to the visitor centre’s opening hours. Consequently, Newgrange has become, for tourists, a day trip from Dublin before they hit the rest of the country rather than a short excursion from the town itself (a pattern repeated across Ireland but it does seems particularly unfortunate in the example of Drogheda, situated on a major train line so close to Dublin).

Thanks partly to this, Drogheda’s really only worth a half day or so in conjunction with Newgrange and Carlingford – but here’s how you can spend that time well (note that this list is short on pubs only because most of my friends back home live in Dublin – suggestions welcome):

  • You’ll get a good lunch at Bare Food Company on West Street, the town’s main drag.
  • Traders Coffee House, at the westernmost end of West Street near The Tholsel (now a tourist information office – formerly a toll booth, a bank, place of execution…basically, worth popping inside) serves the only decent (and occasionally very good) coffee in town.
  • See what’s on show at The Highlanes Gallery. They operate on strange opening hours so check their website first.
  • St. Peter’s Catholic Church, on West Street, is famous for housing the remains of St. Oliver Plunkett – specifically, his head. Free, and not as gruesome as it sounds.
  • View the Boyne Viaduct from one of the town’s many bridges. It’s a railway bridge connecting Dublin with Belfast and was one of the largest of its kind in the world when it was built back in the 1850s.
  • For dinner, go to Eastern Seaboard beside the train station. They offer good, modern Irish food and drink in a bustling, warehouse-like space. It’s as close to Brooklyn as you’ll find in Drogheda. Call ahead to reserve as it’s very popular.
  • If Eastern Seaboard is full, consider:
    • D’Vine on the quays north of the river (a few minutes walk from West Street). It’s a mish mash of Italian and Irish but pretty decent and serves local beer too.
    • Scholars Townhouse, a few minutes walk north of West Street. I’ve only been for Sunday lunch but it was excellent.

If it’s a nice day and you’ve a few hours to kill, consider walking or bicycling along the banks of the River Boyne on the Boyneside Trail. From town, you can access it from the Ramparts Park on the south side of the river. This will take you all the way to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre and under the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge. In fact, you might consider spending the morning at Newgrange before finding a ride down to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre – roughly a ten minutes drive – and walking along the river into town.

Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge.
Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Finally, a chance to see “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”: how have I missed this before? I’m not sure I enjoyed it quite as much as the man beside me who knocked his umbrella over three times from laughter or the woman who whooped every time the cat did something funny but…fantastic, from start to end.

It was also a chance to try out another of Zurich’s cinemas, the filmpodium. It’s not as nice as Xenix and does have the bizarre layout I’ve seen elsewhere here in which a line of pillars running down one side of the cinema serves only reduce the potential width of the screen by several feet – but is located just off the main shopping street and has a “25 Greatest Hits” season with several films I’d like to see in the cinema. However, several of these aren’t in English and this only serves as reminder that I may not be seeing much “foreign” cinema here.

Afterwards, a brief stop in Starbucks because it was the only place open and a bratwurst mit brod to remind me I’m still in Zurich (though the hailstones in October did that, too).

A Morning in Cloney

Cloney Audio sell quality hi-fi equipment. Superior and tempting hifi equipment. Their absolute cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel (and I use that term in the loosest sense possible) CD player is priced at €629. Calling here is not a good idea for those planning an extra holiday or possibly even buying a car.

However, I’ve been in pursuit of a good amplifier for some time; my current system is a Denon MD30 micro-system along with a pair of B&W 602 S3 bookshelf speakers; two quality products but the Denon was only ever meant as a short-term solution until I found an amplifier worthy of the B&Ws. These speakers deserve:

  • A decent amplifier. More than decent, perhaps; the speakers themselves are due an upgrade soon enough, so it might make sense to consider an amp that completely outclasses the B&Ws.
  • A CD player. Not a great one because, eventually, I’ll get an audiophile-grade networked music device like the Transporter. The Squeezebox has changed my habits but, for now, I need a decent source.

Cloney were good enough to let me test a multitude of amps, CDs and speakers. In fact, this is why I come here: they’ll let you listen to your CDs on almost any combination of equipment they sell. I tested their sub-€1000 amps with a pair of B&W 685 speakers, the successor (and nearest match) to my current 603s.

Thanks to the salesman’s infinite patience, I eventually settled on a Primare I21. In an effort to relay to my future myself exactly why I chose this amp, I’m going to briefly describe the equipment I tested:

  • Rotel RA04
    An entry-level amplifier, only briefly tested; I wasn’t overly interested and, bizarrely, there’s no remote.
  • Arcam A70
    A league up from the RA04 and roughly twice the price. I also tested these – and every other amp – with a pair of B&W 685s. Detail is good – notably the drums in Lester Bowie – but, to be perfectly honest, I can’t detect €799-worth of difference from my present system. It fact, it seems less lively than what I’m used to.
  • Rotel RA06
    I like this right away. Priced similarly to the A70, this is a totally different machine with a completely different feel: Joni Mitchell is with me in the room, as is Stacy Kent. The trumpet in Gershwin soars above the orchestra, just like you always wished it would. If I see nothing else today, I’m happy with this.
  • Primare I21
    I’ve never heard of these guys (Scandinavian, it turns out). Certainly, it looks very nice and feels solid and reassuring. It’s in a different price league but why not try it while I’m here? Although Gershwin has about the same detail, the piano is very definitely tighter and better separated. The bass in Herbert is clearly more pronounced. In short, it seems this beast has all the detail and brightness of the RA06 along with a warmer sound.

Combined with a second-hand Primare D20 CD player going for a (relative) song – with which it handily shares a remote control – it’s a fairly easy decision.

Expensive taste is a curse; if the Primare was only cheaper, I’d take it. Lo and behold, they have an ex-demo model which works out at the same price as the RA06. My only reservation is that the warmer tone of the Primare may, in some way, neutralise its brightness. However, I eventually reason that it’s surely better to have warmth and brightness than brightness alone.

Having played with it for a few hours now, I’m happy. Almost-€1000-worth of happiness? Hard to tell just yet. It’s different, for sure: better detail in music, more realistic in almost everything. There’s a weird programme about harps on BBC4 right now and it sounds fantastic. It all sounds warm and fuzzy, like you remember an old valve radio. An interesting day, for sure; based on price lists and magazine reviews alone, I’d probably have opted for an Arcam. I’m very glad now I didn’t (and can’t see myself opting for hi-fi equipment blind in the future, plummeting sterling or not). Update on the Primare experience to follow after a few weeks’ listening…

And so it begins…

Summertime, that is, not an inter-galactic battle spurred by the long-forgotten rivalries between two ancient races.

Yes, come this morning, I’m offcall; the sun comes out; stays out; it’s warm enough for wearing only a light jacket to work. A gentle breeze crossing MacMahon bridge. Same on the way home and, at 8pm, it’s still bright. Joy of joys! Looks like things are getting better: it’s officially summertime and summer is actually coming.

Then, when you thought things couldn’t improve, the New York Times reports on a new production of an almost-forgotten and never-recorded Leonard Bernstein musical. A new Bernstein musical?! How many days have that?!?! That’s a damn fine way to usher in summer.

Japan Synopsis

Well, I’m back from Japan a couple of weeks. I’ve started the new job, re-commenced complaining about Irish weather and life is good generally – however, I’ve still yet to blog about some of my wacky holiday adventures.

In retrospect, it was one hell of a trip and I did an awful lot…while an extra day or two at the end would have been very welcome, three weeks was actually long enough to see all the major cities and sights while still providing an excuse to return at some future date for another couple of weeks.

While I’m curious to see just how much mileage I got from my Japan Rail Pass, such stats and figures can wait for another time; for now, I’ll provide links (and placeholders) to everything I did and simply observe how the amount of blogging was inversely proportional to both the “craziness” of the city I was in at the time and amount of jet lag.

Here we go…:

Day 1, Thursday 5th:

Day 2, Friday 6th:

  • imperial palace grounds (garden closed)
  • haranjuku bridge
  • wandering around ginza
  • metro
  • national museum of modern art
  • yasukini-jinja
  • roti + anchor steam steam beer
  • roppongi hills – view only

Day 3, Saturday 7th:

  • asakusa/senso-ji
  • the garden
  • yamanote line
  • ginza at night

Day 4, Sunday 8th:

Day 5, Monday 9th:

  • skyscrapers of west shinjuku
    • metropolitan offices tour
    • shinjuku station
  • harajuku:
    • takeshita-dori
    • design festa
    • shopping
    • sushi conveyor belt bar on omatesando

Day 6, Tuesday 10th:

Day 7, Wednesday 11th:

Day 8, Thursday 12th:

  • osaka castle
  • osaka museum + tdk studios
  • osaka-hiroshima
  • UAX diner – chat with the owner

Day 9, Friday 13th:

Day 10, Saturday 14th:

Day 11, Sunday 15th:

  • fukuoka – nagasaki
  • nagasaki peace museum
  • nagasaki peace park + around
  • sky ropeway viewing point

Day 12, Monday 16th:

Day 13, Tuesday 17th:

  • gion matsuri
  • little bit around the shopping district
  • book the two tours
  • check into hotel granvia…sushi + beer

Day 14, Wednesday 18th:

Day 15, Thursday 19th:

  • shugakw-in, 11
  • gingaku-ji
  • kiyomizu dera

Day 16, Friday 20th:

  • hall of 1001 buddhas
  • kinkaku-gi
  • zen garden
  • the wrong temple

Day 17, Saturday 21st:

Day 18, Sunday 22nd:

Day 19, Monday 23rd:

Day 20, Tuesday 24th:

Day 21, Wednesday 25th:

Day 22, Thursday 26th:

  • LEAVE JAPAN FOR IRELAND, 11am

Sapporo – Tokyo

On reflection, I realise I’ve never taken an internal flight at all – not even in the states. Naturally, this owes, at least in part, to my slight train obsession. This time, however, I simply don’t have time to indulge that passion – an entire day on the train was “fun” once but I can’t do it again without sacrificing my last full day in Tokyo.

So, I swallow my pride and book an internal flight from Sapporo to Tokyo. Miraculously, a flight with Air Do at only 24 hours notice costs only 17,000¥ (about €100). The surcharge alone for the 16 hours overnight train from Sapporo is about 22,000¥. I don’t feel so bad and now I console myself with the knowledge that at least the trip is noteworthy, in one fairly major way, for being the busiest air route (domestic or international) in the entire world (easily beating even Dublin-London) with about 25 million passengers per year.

Time to build a new shinkansen perhaps…?

Anyway, it was surprisingly easy to book this over the phone but trying to spell “Trevor” in an Irish accent to a Japanese speaker is an exercise in patience and international relations.

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As is customary, after a very nice and very leisurely day I still somehow end up in a bit of a panic when the “express” airport train turns out not to be so fast at all. I encounter another strange bit of Japanese time-keeping when querying the rail attendant about this:

I thought the train only took 36 minutes?

Yes, 36 minutes, express!

But 8.10 to 8.58 is 48 minutes?

(check in time for the 9.20 flight is 9.05)

That’s right, 36 minutes!

(she ushers me proudly but quickly towards the platform)

When I arrive I have, by my calculations, a full 4 minutes in which to check in. Never in my life will I negotiate any airport with such fluidity as I have tonight (although this is more a reflection on the good people at New Chitose airport than myself): I check in with 1 minute to spare.

The staff and airport are a study in composure: my baggage is processed in seconds, there’s no passport control (I forgot about this) and it’s a quick walk to the gate. I suddenly see why internal flights are so popular.

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90 minutes later, back in Tokyo, I take the monorail from Haneda airport back to Tokyo Station, briefly passing through the most impressive bit of infrastructure of the whole trip: at one point, the monorail is suspended about 100m in the air above a regular rail line which, in turn, passes over a road which – unless I was mistaken, as it was dark – ran over a car park. And there was a river nearby, too.

Definitely back in Tokyo!

Tokyo International Forum

It’s been a few days now and I’m kind of getting my bearings. When it comes to the area surrounding the hotel and Tokyo Station, I’ve realised that – including the time taken to navigate the two stations – riding the Yamanote between Tokyo and Yarakucho takes far more time than simply walking there.

The corollary of this is that it’s also just a short walk to the Maranouchi Building and the Tokyo International Forum: the former sports a Belgian beer bar in its nether regions while the latter is a fairly spectacular piece of modern architecture housing an exhibition centre, cinemas and many other cultural delights.

Both stay open late so make for a perfect combined after-hours activity having returned from Nikko.

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It doesn’t really show here but the International Forum building is modelled on a ship’s hull. You enter into a vast seven storey oval-shaped glasshouse which contains a small visitors’ information booth and entrances to the cinema and exhibition halls.

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Even though it’s late and nothing is open, the public area is diversion enough. The upper levels feature a network of walkways which afford wonderful views of the ground floor.

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These upper levels are eerily quiet (although I spot a few youngsters lurking in the shadows) and the walkways a little un-nerving…but a sign assures me in wonderfully understated Japanese language that:

modern materials and superior craftsmanship together made this unique design possible

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Wine on Thinkpad T60p under Ubuntu Edgy

Another oddity with the Thinkpad, related this time to the fglrx graphics driver.

In order for Wine to run successfully I need to add this line to the options section of my device in /etc/X11/xorg.conf:

Option "UseFastTLS" "2"

Very annoying and it just confirms what utter s$%^ the fglrx driver is.

This tip comes from the “Problems with fglrx” page on Thinkwiki: http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Problems_with_fglrx

With this done, however, I can now run Autostitch, DVD Shrink and Lotus Notes just perfectly. Incidentally, I use the Wine packages from WineHQ:

deb http://wine.budgetdedicated.com/apt edgy main