Feuding, Fighting and Other Effing in Game of Thrones

I’ve never seen “Game of Thrones” nor read the popular books, but I know it’s hot stuff in Northern Ireland, where a good bit of the series is filmed. From Belfast, you can take “Game of Thrones” bus tours to various filming sights, combining that (or not) with other Causeway Coast attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway, Old Bushmills Distillery and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

So apparently in “Game of Thrones,” there’s fighting …

So despite my ignorance, I felt compelled to glimpse the Northern Ireland Games of Thrones’ Tapestry while at the Ulster Museum earlier this week. You can see it for yourself through March 4, 2018 at the Ulster Museum. But for those not planning a visit to Belfast while it gets dark by 5 p.m. this time of year, you can see it here.

… and feuding …

From what I can gather from the tapestry, the show entails lots of fighting, feuding and other “f” words I’d rather not write out. Below, you’ll find pertinent information about the tapestry, quoted from the museum, along with my commentary.

The tapestry is “a 77-metre long, medieval-style wall-hanging that brings to life the events, locations and story of the most popular television series of all time.” What? No M*A*S*H?

… and effing (is that two dudes?) Hard to tell …

Recalling the island’s textile manufacturing past, “the tapestry has been hand-woven and hand-embroidered using linen sources from one of the last surviving linen mills in the area. Much of the tapestry contains the same linen that is used to create the costumes and sets for the series.

“Each key scene and character in the tapestry is hand-drawn by artists and illustrators. Then, the drawings are brought to life (or death, as a quick viewing revealed) by hand-weaving experts using a state-of-the-art Jacquard loom, ready for hand-embroiders who meticulously embellish the finer details – from King Joffrey’s golden crown to Daenerys’ shimmering white and silver hair.”

… and blood, lots of blood coming out of dudes.

And blood. Lots of blood. And dudes on fire. And blood coming out of dudes.

Despite having no idea what was going on, it was cool to look at. And it smelled like a feed sack, minus the feed.

Trump Tales Follow Us to Emerald Isle

Although we’re nearly 4,000 miles from home, we can’t escape the specter of Donald Trump. He’s seemingly everywhere, whether he’s pooping out Armageddon on his throne at the Ulster Museum or acting eerily like Santa Claus in the Lyric Theatre production of “What the Reindeer Saw.”

While Marilynn was in Dublin giving another public “Hopdance” lecture, Declan and I had the day to ourselves. After a somewhat lazy morning, we headed to the Ulster Museum to see art from our friends Marcus Patton and Joanna Mules. They are part of a Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) 136th annual exhibition at the museum. The Ulster Museum is free to visit and always fun.

Get yours in the gift shop

Marcus and Joanna were friends with Stewart Parker when he studied at Queens University Belfast in the ‘60s and were invaluable to Marilynn’s biography of the playwright. They live a few blocks from the museum (and Queens), and no visit to Belfast would be complete without stopping by their imposing Victorian duplex (not kidding) for a gin-and-tonic, a warm fire and good craic.

Marcus is a talented illustrator who is showing an architectural watercolor in this year’s exhibition. Joanna submitted two bronze sculptures, a medium she took up recently. Joanna is a skilled painter and portrait artist who did a rough sketch of Marilynn this summer for a series of portraits of writers reading from their work. There is a future column on that experience coming up.

While perusing this year’s artwork, we came across this multimedia work of Trump pictured at top. Whether you think Trump will make America great again or drive us all off a cliff, you must agree that Kyle Alexander Lundy’s representation certainly is provocative. According to the description, photo prints are available, if you’re interested in adding to your art collection.

Santa Trump?

A Trump-like character in the guise of Kris Kringle made an appearance later that night in the Lyric Theatre’s original production of “What the Reindeer Saw.” It’s no coincidence that the ascendant Santa happens to be the 45th incarnation of Claus who wants to break all the rules before understanding why the rules exist in the first place. Maybe it’s to make the North Pole great again, but it didn’t work any better in the play than the US president has managed thus far in real life.

Instead of learning how to drive the sleigh and making his list (not to mention checking it twice), Santa prefers to spend his time at his own Mar-a-Lago, the reindeer shed. There he plays reindeer games with Prancer and his pals, although games are difficult to play among those lacking opposable thumbs.

Much PG-14 hilarity ensues, including liberal use of the “f” word at one point, a succession of fart jokes and a randy Santa wanting to make merry on his desk with Mrs. Claus, who was played by a dude. For good measure, throw in fractured Christmas tunes, local references (many of which flew right over my head) and a lot of snow at the end.

While not a panto, I guess every Irish Christmas play must have its own version of a dame (who is always a dude in drag). And like a panto, the play had a happy ending. I sure hope we can say the same thing about a Trump presidency.

Once Not Enough for Family Belfast Adventure

Apparently 205 days overseas in 2017 wasn’t quite enough of an adventure for my family, because here we are back in Belfast.

Declan and I have returned for a little over a week, while Marilynn is here for much longer, researching her new book on the literary responses to the peace process in Northern Ireland. She’s doing archival research to establish historic timelines for the books, plays and poems she’ll include in this project.

Marilynn’s also interviewing authors she wants to feature, including poet Michael Longley and novelist David Park. OK, we hosted and were hosted by both writers and their spouses several times while we were here earlier this year. However, it’s quite different to exchange pleasantries and a glass of wine with someone in their house versus querying them about works they wrote decades ago. The earlier encounters set the stage for the current ones.

Marilynn’s also giving public lectures on Hopdance in Belfast and Dublin, in conjunction with Lynne Parker, artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin. Lynne is also the niece of the late Stewart Parker, the subject of Marilynn’s second book and the playwright who also wrote Hopdance, a semi-autobiographical account of the amputation of his left leg from cancer when he was 19.

Different this time around

Although fewer than four months have passed since we left Northern Ireland on July 25, it’s a much different experience. We swapped our Queen’s University accommodations along the tree-lined Windsor Park for a serviced apartment along the busy (and certainly not tree-lined) Lisburn Road. Fortunately, the traffic dies down in the middle of the night, but the Tesco truck unloads outside until 11 p.m. or so, with much beating and banging, and the traffic picks back up about 6. Despite being four stories up and behind double-paned glass, we hear nearly everything.


The weather has been dank since the moment we touched down. And while the cold is OK for a little while, it grinds down one’s psyche day after day. The not getting light until 7:30 a.m. and the darkening by 4:30 p.m. certainly doesn’t help.

But that hasn’t stopped Declan and me from exploring our adopted hometown further. We spent several hours our first day looking for Declan a pair of shoes and both of us thermal shirts but to no avail. Then yesterday, we went shopping for Thanksgiving dinner supplies with our friend Eileen.

Gardens and markets

Eileen then drove us to Antrim and dropped us off at Antrim Castle Gardens while she attended her gardening course nearby. The castle itself was destroyed by fire in the 1920s, but the expansive gardens alongside the Sixmilewater River that date from the 17th century remain. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, particularly watching the river meander toward a bridge, where it picked up speed due to an elevation change past the bridge. As a heron watched from the shore, children atop the bridge dropped leaves into the river to watch them bob in the now-turbulent waters.

After her class, Eileen joined us for a cup of tea in the gardens’ tea room before dropping us off near the Belfast city centre, where we met Marilynn for dinner at the Christmas market.

I’ll have to admit I had higher hopes for the market than reality revealed. After a time, all of these public events and festivals take on a certain sameness. It wasn’t much different than the Easter market we saw in Prague, save for the lack of a Belfast culinary “delicacy.” But you could gorge on food from around the world, including one stall that sold burgers formed from a wide variety of critters, including kangaroo, wild boar and crocodile. I wasn’t much taken with my cowburger, but Declan liked his Asian noodles and Marilynn enjoyed her footlong German sausage served on a baguette.

While I didn’t see any unique Belfast cuisine, we weren’t surprised at the number of stalls selling items made from wool. And Declan, for perhaps the first time ever, saw his name on one of those personalized tchotchkes every tourist shop has. A small triumph, to be sure, but one more indication that we are back home.

One Foot in Two Worlds

Three short weeks ago, an exhausted Bolch/Richtarik family returned to the US.

The intervening days have been a whirlwind of unpacking, washing, shopping, errand-running and overwhelming tiredness. Think jetlag on steroids, and you still haven’t approached the fundamental weariness that has hit the household’s adult population. Declan, naturally, is unaffected.

Don’t get me wrong: we are genuinely happy to be back. We missed (among many other things) our cat Gunner, our king-sized bed, ceiling fans, big-ass washers and dryers, driving to the store, our community, milkshakes and American plumbing. Say what you want about our country, we do plumbing right. And, of course, I’ve been smoking or grilling nearly every day on the Big Green Egg.

My sister asked me whether the Irish ate pork. “Whatever gave you the idea that they didn’t?” I asked. “Because you’ve been smoking so much pork,” she replied. “Well what else are you supposed to do on a Big Green Egg?” I said.

Too much to do

Part of the reason for our tiredness, I think, has to do with the incredible amount of household work that awaited us. Take the mail, for example. Despite stopping all of the magazines and everything else we possibly could, we had an overflowing milk crate’s worth of mail waiting for us. It took me an entire day just to deal with that, separating the snail mail wheat (very little) from the chaff (very much). Seeing seven months’ worth of mail at one go does provide insight into how often charities we never support constantly send us stuff we don’t want.

The contents of two bedrooms and my office were packed away so our tenants could feel at home with their own stuff. All of those things have to find their way back where they belong—a process that’s still not complete.

Marilynn shops what’s on sale, creating a weekly menu based on store specials while stocking up on pantry items. We ate through as much of that as we could, leaving the rest for our tenants. But that meant the cupboards were bare when we got back. It seems like we’ve been to one store or another every day since we got back.

I was responsible for turning everything back on that had been turned off, resubscribing to what had been canceled and getting our cell phones working again, which required at least four trips to the AT&T store, three to Best Buy and a drive to the Atlanta ‘burbs for a new flip phone for Declan.

Add the start of Declan’s school year (and the requisite supply list shopping), my business and Marilynn’s work, and it all adds up to too much to do.

Another life left behind

Another reason for our malaise, I’m sure, is that we still are pining for our life in Belfast and our friends there. Toward the end, I absolutely felt like a native, albeit a native with a decidedly Southern American accent. I took great pride in striding unmolested past the Belfast tourist office, where reps for various bus/rail/drunkie cab tours hang out and hand leaflets to passing strangers. People who know where they are going don’t get pamphlets.

We have a ton of friends there and had more adventures in seven months than many families have in a lifetime.

Simply put, living outside your country and somewhat out of your comfort zone puts a new perspective on every aspect of your life. I can’t escape thinking about the post-World War I song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”

And I believe the answer is: You can’t.

Goodbye, Belfast

After 205 days, 11 countries and I don’t know how many miles, we’re flying home today. It’s a bittersweet day for all of us, thinking of what we’re leaving behind while looking forward to getting home.

The bags are repacked, ready to go into the taxi that will take us to George Best Belfast City Airport for the short hop to Heathrow in London, then it’s on to hometown airline Delta for the final push to Atlanta.

The assorted items we bought during the trip have been used, sold, donated or tossed, save our dishes and a few other items (including an oscillating fan!) that our friend Eileen has agreed to keep for us.

Lifetime of memories

For per diem purposes, we kept a calendar of where we were on each day. Mostly we were together, except for a couple of Fulbright conferences in the UK and an Irish studies conference in Kansas City that Marilynn attended alone and the weekend in April when Declan and I saw Arsenel play Manchester City to a tie at the Emirates in London.

But we were together someplace other than Belfast for 50 nights, seven weeks’ worth of trips to Italy, mainland Europe, Portugal, Dublin and the Dingle peninsula in the Republic and a week in England’s Cornwall district. We also spent a weekend in the natural beauty of Donegal and another visiting Big Houses in Enniskillen.

Declan spent a semester at a different school, where he excelled in Spanish, Irish history and religion. He also saw lots of professional football, including the local Linfield Blues (twice), Hertha Berlin and Bristol City.

I learned, despite the occasional technology snafu or time zone crisis, that I can work from truly anywhere. And Marilynn immersed herself in Northern Irish politics, which have been particularly turbulent these past seven months, and dived deeper into the publications she plans to include in her next project, on literary responses to the peace process.

We take with us memories of our travels near and far, as well as the people we met and those we’ve gotten to know much better. We think back to those who have opened their homes and their hearts to us and how we tried to reciprocate. But we also look forward to reconnecting with our US family and friends, to chance encounters with neighbors in the street, at the grocery store or at the gym.

We miss our cat, our big American washer and dryer, American plumbing and central A/C, although I do enjoy needing a light jacket in July. Later this week we plan to enjoy milkshakes at Cook Out, share a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts and eat out at Mellow Mushroom and Sushi Avenue. Declan and I also want to split a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal (with Crunchberries, of course).

And then diets beckon for the adults, as do the prospects of returning to their jobs, and Declan heads back to school, just a month after getting out of school in the UK.

Thanks so much for coming along on this journey to Europe and back, although the journey doesn’t end today. No, there are more stories left to tell, so stay tuned. But for now, I’ll leave you with the same scene that we started with on January 3, although this image was taken this morning, our final morning in Belfast.

Cathedrals to God, Football on Display in Braga

Declan built our entire trip to Portugal upon a trip to Braga, to see the S. C. Braga football stadium blasted out of a former rock quarry. So it was natural that our final day trip was to Portugal’s third-largest city, about 75 minutes by train north and slightly east of Porto.

‘The Quarry’ a Site to Behold

The Municipal Stadium of Braga (Estádio Municipal de Braga) opened in 2004, following two years of difficult construction that saw costs triple beyond initial projections, according to our stadium tour guide. The result, however, is a magnificent cathedral to football, with great sightlines throughout and graceful, sloping roofs over each stand, connected by steel cords.

Beyond one goalpost, exposed rocks give the stadium a rugged feel, and beyond the other, you’ll find sweeping city views. Just under the roof on the right side, you’ll see a stainless steel gutter and downspout that looks like a piece of a Mousetrap game. In fact, that’s the water reclamation system.

Sitting in the home stand, you’ll quickly notice a large grey concrete edifice to the left beyond the visitors’ seats that looks like a half-finished construction project. It is, our guide says, the result of cost overruns that forced other projects to be canceled. This was supposed to be an Olympic size swimming pool and other amenities for the Sporting Clube de Braga, which includes sports such as basketball and badminton as well as football.

Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura won a Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2011 for the design of the 30,000-seat stadium, which our guide says is pricey to maintain. They’d like to have a stadium store on site, but the architect has the final say and doesn’t want it to ruin the “look” of the stadium. So Declan’s belated birthday Braga jersey would have to be bought in town.

Jesus is the Bom

But upon first arriving in Braga, we saw a shuttle for Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount) outside the train station, the other stop on our Braga tour, so we went there first. While the church itself is impressive, what’s truly amazing are its hilltop location and three sets of winding staircases built in the 18th century that allow for contemplation on the climb.

There is a funicular (think Incline Railway) at the shuttle stop that will take you to the top. We just missed it, and, despite a lingering ankle sprain, I’m glad we did. Riding to the top in one go means you’d miss out on the thrill of discovery around nearly every corner as you gain altitude.

The first staircase is in shadow and represents the Stations of the Cross in circular domes. I will say this area, especially the stations, needs a little renovation work. Rising higher and out of the treeline is The Stairway of the Five Senses (Escadaria dos Cinco Sentidos), with playful water fountains with water squirting from eyes, ears, nose and mouths of various statues. Highest is the Stairway of the Three Virtues (Escadaria das Três Virtudes) dedicated to faith, hope and charity.

In addition to the church on the hilltop, you’ll find a man-made cave with running water as well as restaurants and a hotel. A shaded bench provided the perfect spot to eat the sandwiches we’d brought from the flat and contemplate all we’d seen that morning.

Beginnings of Portuguese History in Guimarães

Guimarães, about an hour by train to the northeast of Porto, is steeped in the country’s history. The town is birthplace to Alfonso Henriques, the country’s first independent king, who launched a war against the Moors in the 12th century. It also makes for a great day trip from Porto.

Significant sights include an 11th-century castle where Henriques was believed to be born, a rebuilt 15th- century royal palace and a cable car that takes you to the summit of Penha, where you can get impressive glimpses of the city and wander through the wilderness.

Historic, 11th-century castle

After getting our bearings, we headed through the old center of town, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, toward Castelo, the reputed birthplace of Henriques. The castle, with its seven towers, commands great views of the city (that is, until you’re atop the Penha). You can walk across the battlement in most areas, peering over walls or through archers’ slits.

It’s hard to believe that such an old building has retained so much of its beauty and its character. However, Declan pointed out that the town is somewhat off the beaten path and so is the castle, so the chances of a siege or significant military battle were greatly lessened.

On the same site you’ll also find St. Michael’s Church (Igreja de S. Miguel), where Henriques was baptized, according to an inscription on the baptismal font. However, many date the church to the 13th century, which would have made that impossible.

Regardless, it’s worth a stop on your way to or from Castelo.

Fit for a duke

The Ducal Palace of Braganza dates to the 15th century, when Dom Afonso, future Duke of Braganza, built a royal residence on what’s now known as Holy Hill. The palace fell into disuse following the death of the first Duchess of Braganza in 1480, and remained that way for nearly 450 years.

Reconstruction of the palace began in 1937, and it is displayed now in an approximation of its former glory, with period furniture, tapestries and weapons from the 17th and 18th centuries.

While making our way to the cable car (Teleférico de Guimarães), we passed São Gualter (Igreja de São Gualter), with a wide, highly landscaped boulevard providing unobstructed views of this 18th-century church. The cable car is a bit off the beaten track, but we managed to find it without much difficulty. The ride to the top takes you past layers of Guimarães history, with old houses fallen to ruins next to McMansions with modern design, swimming pools and solar panels. One house even sported an immaculate mini football pitch complete with goals.

A short walk from the cable car among trees, rocks and crevices wide enough to walk through (or hide in) is Penha, which commands prime views of the town below. You can find a modern church atop the hill and several quaint eateries where you can relax with a bite to eat or a cup of tea and even enjoy a round of mini golf.

A quick ride back town takes us back to the train station, our day trip to Guimarães fresh in our minds.

Water and Wine a Fine Mix in Porto

You can’t escape Porto without taking a boat tour and visiting a port wine “cave,” another word for honkin’ big wine cellar. And we did both on the same day last week.

But first, we took time to actually visit the São Bento Train Station, a short walk up the hill from our flat and the station where we arrived in Porto. The entrance hall is filled with azulejos (painted tiles) of scenes from Portuguese history, dating to at least Henry the Navigator. According to my handy Portugal guide, it was completed in 1903. Some 20,000 tiles representing the scenes were added later.

A tour and a tipple (or two)

Porto is the port wine capital of the universe, so Declan had placed a wine cave tour on our itinerary. Our Airbnb hostess recommended a winery, so we crossed the Douro River to the Vila Nova de Gaia and started up the steep hills in search of a tour. But they were way more expensive than the guidebooks (and our hostess) said they were be. We visited several but didn’t want to spent 18 euros for a tour.

We had about given up when someone approached us and asked if we wanted a tour in English that started immediately for only five euro apiece. Well, of course, we replied, so off we went to Porto Augusto. It’s a third-generation, family-owned operation that doesn’t sell its product outside of Portugal.

The same guy who offered us a tour was in the video we watched, stomping grapes with his co-workers. It was a quaint operation, with the visitor center, tasting room and restroom area constructed of finished particleboard, a decorating motif we saw several times during our visit. We were surprised to learn that grappa, a strong Italian brandy, is used during the production of port and that there is white and red port, just like other wines.

The tour included tastings, after which we were encouraged to purchase some port. However, it’s not to my taste, although Marilynn does drink the occasional glass when it’s offered, so we weren’t their ideal customers. Nonetheless, the tour was enjoyable.

Ride across the river

We then stayed on the Gaia side for a boat tour. Marilynn and Declan had scoped out the boat touring options the day before and decided that boats on this side (across the Douro River from where we were staying) were better because kids were free. OK, I admit it–while we have done more serious vacationing in the past seven months than we have in the past several years, we’re still cheap

It was your basic boat tour, up and down the river for 50 minutes while an inaudible narrator sets the scene. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I did notice how many buildings close to the river had apparently been abandoned. One of the largest and nicest developments sat next to several buildings whose roofs were caving in. It reminded me of Florida, where McMansions sit next to single-wide trailers from the ‘50s.

But tours of wine caves and riverfronts are part of visiting Porto, and we didn’t want to miss out.

Bling Abounds in Porto

The statue of Henry the Navigator in the Ribeira district points to the sea. But he easily could be pointing to the significant buildings and sites of Porto, including what Declan and I call the “bling church.”

OK, it’s actually Igreja de São Francisco, a church dedicated to the humble St. Francis. This Gothic church, which dates from the early 1400s, looks plain on the outside. But that exterior hides 100 kilograms of gold leaf plundered from Brazil that adorns altars, ceilings and just about everything in between. To be honest, the audacious display toes the line of gaudy, depending on your tastes.

I was more impressed with what can be found underneath the Church of St. Francis, expansive catacombs that served as a full-blown cemetery. The well-heeled of Porto were buried here for about 100 years, until authorities decided that burying people under a church might not be healthy. Many were disinterred and reburied elsewhere, but the disarticulated remains of others can be seen through plexiglass portals on a level lower than even the catacombs.

The church property formerly included cloisters that were destroyed in a fire during the siege of Porto in 1832. In its place rose a cathedral to commerce, the Palácio de Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace. Built principally between 1840 and 1850, work on the interior of the Neoclassic building continued for another 60 years.

Built to impress

And once you see the expansive Hall of Nations with its intricate octagonal glass ceiling, the grand staircase that took decades to build and Arabian Hall, you’ll see what took so long. It’s no wonder this building has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tours occur frequently, but bear in mind that you may need to wait until there’s a tour in your language. A guided tour gives you a sense of the building’s history, financed by Porto businessmen to help showcase the city’s importance in global commerce. The stock exchange operated in the Hall of Nations (Pátio das Nações), where the tour opens. Most are mesmerized by the glass ceiling and coats of arms of the two dozen or so countries that the businessmen considered important. However, Declan and I were taken by the mosaic tile in the room, especially the representations of the elements (earth, air, fire and water) as indicated by a lion, eagle, dragon and fish.

Other rooms, which contain mostly original woodwork and furnishings, showcase the ingenuity and craftsmanship of Portuguese artisans. Although one room appears to be nearly all wood, the guide explained that everything above the chair rail was plaster painted to resemble wood. When an especially curious visitor asked why that was the case, the paraphrased answer was pretty much “because they could.”

It was appropriate that the highlight of the tour, the Arabian Hall (Salão Árabe), was also the last room we visited. We knew from the colorful, painted-to-look-like stained glass windows from the adjoining room we were in for a treat. The ballroom didn’t disappoint.

The room features intricate Moorish designs with 18 kilograms of gold leaf. During its heyday, the hall would accommodate large business gatherings, with smaller salons upstairs for private meetings. Arabic writing on the walls was thought to be gibberish, but our guide said her research revealed phrases such as “glory to the sultan” and “Allah above all.”

Believe me, between the church and the Stock Exchange Palace, we saw more gilt in one day than you’d see in the hog farrowing barn. And if you didn’t grow up on a farm, just look that one up.