Friday, March 14, 2014

Republic of Finland

The Republic of Finland is in northern Europe and borders Sweden, Norway and Russia.   It is often considered part of Scandinavia although it really is part of the Nordic region.  Suomi is the 8th largest country in Europe.  It's a little smaller than Montana and is home to around 5.5 million people (about the same as Atlanta).

Finland was a part of Sweden from the 12th to early 19th century.  After 1809, it became part of the Russian Empire until, the Bolshevik Revolution when, Finland declared independence in 1917. 

The Soviet Union wanted Finnish territory and the two countries fought in the Winter War of 1939 - 1940.  From 1941 - 1944, Finland fought alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union.  Following an armistice agreement with the Allies, Finland pushed the Nazis out of Finland from 1944 - 1945.  In order to maintain independence the country was forced to give up 10% of its territory and pay huge war reparations to the Soviet Union.

Today, Finland has one of the highest per capita incomes in Europe.  It joined the EU in 1995 and is a member of Schengen and the Eurozone.

The two official languages are Finnish and Swedish although only about 5.5% actually speak Swedish.  The Finnish language is only distantly related to Hungarian and Estonian.  The grammar is beyond belief.  I can barely handle Czech's 7 cases.  Finnish has 15 grammatical cases.  Oh hell no! 

The Åland Islands are a part of Finland but are an autonomous, demilitarized zone.  By law, the islands are exclusively Swedish-speaking.

Finland has an extensive social welfare system and it shows in its educational system.  Every teacher in Finland is required to hold at least a master's degree and teachers are given the same respect as doctors and lawyers.  Only 10% of applicants are accepted to teacher training programs.

Children start kindergarten at 6 and begin the first grade at 7.  Teachers only spend around 4 or 5 hours in the classroom per day.  There is almost no homework or exams.  There is one mandatory standardized test at 16.  The first real test students have to deal with is the university entry exam.  Despite all of this, Finnish students score among the best in the world in math, science and reading.  Here's a video I found on YouTube that talks about Finland's exceptional system of education.

I guess things are good between Finland and Czechland.  On February 11th, an honorary Finnish consulate opened in Brno and in the Spring another honorary consulate will open in Ostrava.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

15 Years in NATO

Today was the 15th anniversary since Czech Republic joined NATO. 

NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  The organization came about after WWII.  It is a military alliance where all members agree to mutual defense.  An attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on all members.

The alliance is headquartered in Brussels.  

Back in 1949, the alliance began with 12 members - Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the USA.  

Greece, Turkey and West Germany joined in the 1950s and Spain joined in 1982.

Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined in 1999 becoming the first former Warsaw Pact members to join the alliance.

Seven new members joined in 2004 - Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and SloveniaAlbania and Croatia both joined in 2009.

Today there are 28 members.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia are all in the process of joining as well.  Georgia is another aspiring member.  Given the problems in Crimea, I'm sure that Ukraine wishes it was currently a member.

Macedonia fulfilled the requirements to join at the same time as Albania and Croatia, but its membership was blocked by Greece over the country name of Macedonia.    

Here's a NATO video timeline I found out on YouTube.

I also found a video from 2011 showing Czech NATO troops training police recruits in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Belfast Tour, Northern Ireland

On Saturday morning I took another bus tour but this time up to Northern Ireland.  This tour was a highlights tour of Belfast, along with some other scenic points up north.  From Dublin, it's only a couple of hours north to Belfast. 

There wasn't any border check between south and north.  The only differences were the road signs.  In Ireland, all of the signs are in both Irish and English and the distance is in kilometers.  In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, everything is in English and listed in miles. 

Belfast is the largest city up north and the second largest on the island.  It's the UK's 18th largest city. 

There are hundreds of political murals in Belfast and the vast majority of them promote either republican or loyalist beliefs.

One of our first stops was at the Eileen Hickey Museum.  It opened in 2007 and is a Republican museum staffed by volunteers.  The museum is quite powerful and shows Northern Ireland and the Troubles from the Catholic, Republic point of view.

The peace walls are intended to keep the peace between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.  They run over 34 km (21 miles) across Belfast. 

What's unbelievable is that more walls have gone up since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.  It's difficult to comprehend how two Christian groups, Catholics and Protestants, have to erect barriers to deter violence between each other.

The current plan is to remove the walls by mutual consent by 2023.

Belfast City Hall was built in 1906 and was renovated in 2009.  On one side is a Titanic memorial.  Here's a Rick Steves video I found on YouTube which gives some Belfast highlights.

The Titanic museum opened in March 2012 at a cost of £77 million (~$129 million).

We then journeyed to Downpatrick to visit Down Cathedral.  Here we saw the grave of St. Patrick who is credited for bringing Christianity to Ireland

Our next stop was the St. Patrick Centre where we learned more about Ireland's patron saint.

Then it was on to Dundrum, a small seaside village, which is home to the remains of a Norman castle.  The castle dates back to the 12th century.

After a few photos we started to make our way back to Dublin.  Along the way we stopped to see the Mourne Mountains which is the largest mountain range in Northern Ireland.

This was another long day trip.  We drove around 500 km (311 miles) and saw quite a bit.  It was a good introductory visit to Belfast.  Next time, I want to spend a couple of days in Northern Ireland so that I can fully explore Belfast and perhaps try to see things from the Protestant point of view.  I also want to visit the Giant's Causeway which is only a couple of hours away.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Cliffs of Moher Tour, Ireland

On Friday, I had a 12-hour bus tour to see the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. 

We left Dublin at about 7:30 on the roughly 600 km (373 mile) tour to the other side of the island.

After three hours we had a short stop in Limerick to see King John's Castle. The 13th century castle sits on the river Shannon as is one of the best preserved Norman castles in Europe. 

After another 1.5 hours we finally made it to the cliffs which are one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland.  The cliffs are gorgeous and it was so nice to see the Atlantic Ocean. 

The cliffs rise from 120 meters (390 feet) to a maximum height of 214 meters (702 feet).

The cliffs are mostly shale and sandstone.  The river channels that cut through the base of the cliffs show 300 million years of history.

O'Brien's Tower was built as an observation tower in 1835.  The tower sits at almost the midpoint of the cliffs, near the highest point, only 8 km (5 miles) away.

 The Aran Islands are part of the Gaeltacht where Irish is predominantly spoken.

After lunch in a small village we continued on to vist the Burren.  This is one of the largest karst landscapes in Europe.  The Burren is home to many goats and donkeys.

Corcomroe Abbey dates back to the 11th century.  The ruins stand on an old pagan site.

Our final stop was in Kinvara, a small village on the water where local fishermen were bringing in the day's haul of mussels.  Kinvara is home to Dunguaire Castle which was built in the early 16th century.

It was a long day but the tour was very well organized and the driver, Bud, was great.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dublin, Ireland

Dublin, in Irish known as Baile Átha Cliath, is the capital of Ireland.  It sits on the River Liffey and started off as a Viking settlement in the 9th century.  It became the island's main city after the Norman invasion in 1169.  More than +525,000 people live in Dublin but the greater metro area is home to 1.8 million people, more than ⅓ of the population.

Dublin Castle was built in 1204 on the orders of King John of England.  It remained the seat of British rule in Ireland until 1922.  Now the complex is home to government offices.

The General Post Office, on O'Connell Street, was the focal point of the 1916 Easter Rising.  Here's a Rick Steves video I found on YouTube about it.

Dublin has two cathedrals.  Both of which were converted from Catholic to Protestant on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I.  Christ Church Cathedral was founded in 1030.  It is the oldest building in Dublin and went through massive restoration in the 19th century.

St. Patrick's Cathedral is the largest church in Ireland.  It was founded in 1191.

The Ha'penny Bridge is a cast iron footbridge that crosses the River Liffey.  It was built in 1816.  There used to be a ½ penny toll to cross the bridge.  The toll eventually increased to 1½ pence but was dropped back in 1919.

Leinster House was built from 1745 to 1748.  Since 1922, it has been home to the Oireachtas which is the national parliament.

The Custom House is an 18th century building on the north bank of the river.  Originally used for collecting custom duties it became the headquarters of the local government.  In order to disrupt British rule, the IRA burnt it down in 1921 during the Irish War of Independence.  Heavy restoration took place in the 1980s and today it houses the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

Famime was presented to the city in 1997.  The bronze sculptures commemorate the Great Irish Famine of 1845 - 1849.  During this time, about 1 million people died and another 1 million emigrated, mostly to the USA.  The combination reduced the total island's population by about 25%.

The Temple Bar in Temple Bar (district)

Temple Bar isn't a single bar.  It is a district south of the river and is home to the city's best nightlife.

In Merrion Square is a statue of Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer and poet.  In the early 1890s, he was one of the most popular playwrights in London.

The Molly Malone statue, of the fictitious fishmonger, celebrates Dublin's millennium in 1988.

The Dublin Spire is the Monument of Light.  The stainless steel pin, located on O'Connell Street was completed in 2003.  The spire is 121.2 meters (398 feet) tall.  The top 12 meters (39 feet) lights up at night.  It was built during the good times of the Irish economy at a cost of €4 million ($5.56 million).

Trinity College is Ireland's oldest university.  It was established in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I as a Protestant institution, modeled after Cambridge and Oxford.  Eventually, Catholics and women were allowed to attend.  However, the Catholic Church wasn't too keen on young Catholics picking up Protestant values and banned Catholic students from attending.  Until 1970, Catholic students who enrolled at the university without special dispensation were excommunicated.

The University library is home to the Book of Kells, which is an illustrated manuscript written by monks around 800 AD.  Here's another Rick Steves video about it.

A great way to get your bearings in the city is to take one of the Dublin free walking tours.  A local guide takes you around the city for 2.5 - 3 hours.  You can normally find a free walking tour in most of Europe's major cities.