History of Poland, 1797 – Today

When we left off last time, Poland had just been partitioned for the third time, resulting in ALL of the Polish lands being given to other countries. Poland was gone. Clearly, considering that Poland is a country today, that’s not where the story ends.

This statue is of Tadeusz Kościuszko, the man who led the uprising that resulted in the Third Partition. He also fought on the US side in the American Revolution and returned to Poland afterward where he joined political reformers in pushing for the creation of a constitution. In 1791, Poland became the first European country to adopt a constitution.

After the Third Partition, the Poles continued to resist, grasping at anything that might lead to their victory and independence. They fought with Napoleon Bonaparte against Russia, but he was defeated in 1815 by the “Holy Alliance” of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, formed to guarantee the elimination of any radical movements. Two more Polish uprisings were attempted in 1830 and 1863, and both were crushed.

Despite the lack of a Polish state, the Polish people continued to make their mark on the world. Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), the famous pianist and composer, grew up in Warsaw. In 1853, Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz developed the modern kerosene lamp (fun fact: his family was Armenian! Of course haha). The scientist Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) was born in Warsaw, earned two Nobel prizes for her work in physics and chemistry, and named the element “polonium” after her beloved Poland.

The Chopin memorial in Warsaw.

The Marie Curie Museum in Warsaw.

Russian was made the official language in the Russian-controlled areas in an attempt to stifle Polish culture, and the Prussians and Austrians similarly tried to keep control of their Polish subjects. However, the Polish people were determined to keep their language and history alive and operated unofficial education centers. They also advocated for Poland to the enemies of their invaders, waiting for a chance to get their land back.

That opportunity came in 1918 at the end of WWI. Poland fought with the Allies and was rewarded with land and independence. The Second Polish Republic was born, coming into the world with the simple task of rebuilding and uniting a country divided for over 120 years. Adding to this strain, Poland quickly entered a border war with Russia until an unexpected Polish victory in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw crippled the Soviet forces.

When Poland was formed, it was placed under the control of a “chief of state”, Józef Piłsudski, who had been a general during WWI. A new government and constitution were created in 1921, but the first president was assassinated after only one year. Unimpressed with the new government and certain of its collapse, Józef led a coup in 1926 to restore order and served as a quasi-dictator, working to stabilize the country, until his death in 1935.

Poland never even got a chance to catch its breath. In 1939, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed an agreement to split Poland between them. On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, marking the start of WWII. On the 17th, Russia invaded from the east, splitting the country into two. Poland fell in 27 days, and its government fled to exile in London.

I took this picture from the western side of Warsaw. This was the side occupied by the Germans and was almost completely destroyed. The Soviet-occupied side of the city was across the river.

WWII was not kind to the Polish. On the Russian side of the country, the invaders quickly worked to bring the Polish people under their control. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned or killed. In one incident, the remains of 4,500 Polish officers were discovered in a forest in April 1943. The Soviets tried to blame the massacre on the Nazis who, despite committing countless atrocities during the war, were not responsible for that one. After the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, Russia and the exiled Polish government signed a peace treaty. Russia released its approximately 200,000 Polish POWs, but after the discovery of the massacre and continued disagreements about where the Polish-Russian border should stand, relations between the countries remained tense.

On the Nazi side of the country, people were sent en masse to concentration and, eventually, extermination camps. The Nazi plan was to keep the Poles as slaves, but that required an uneducated population. The educated were killed, schools were closed, and any resistors were sent without second thought to concentration camps.

These wires show the outline of a bridge that used to join the two sides of the Warsaw ghetto. The only way for Jews to pass between the two sides was using this bridge.

The Jewish population, which had been thoroughly integrated into the Polish population thanks to years of tolerant policies, was separated out and placed in ghettos. The ghettos were emptied in 1943, and the Jews were sent to be killed at the Auschwitz and Treblinka extermination camps (Treblinka was about 60 miles from Warsaw and was the second deadliest camp in Poland, responsible for killing 700,000-900,000 Jews. About 1 million Jews are estimated to have been killed at Auschwitz).

This cattle car is an example of the ones the Nazis used to transport people to their concentration and extermination camps.

WWII ended in 1945, but that was too late for the approximately 6 million Poles who were murdered, 3 million of whom were Jewish.

Poland was “liberated” in 1945 by the Soviets. The exiled government returned from London, and under pressure from Russia, it became more and more communist over the next few years. The government of the “People’s Republic of Poland” was nothing more than a Soviet puppet. During the post-war negotiations, the entire country was shifted west. Russia took possession of the eastern land that it wanted, and some of the eastern part of Germany was given to Poland. About 2 million people were resettled as a result of this shifting. For much of its history, Poland was extremely multi-ethnic. Between WWII and the following resettlements, it became very homogenously Polish.

The forced communism of the post-WWII years made Poland’s rebuilding process much slower than in Western European countries. Instead of having a chance to recover from the impact of the war, the Polish people continued to fight for their rights. There was constant unrest, and protests were always brutally suppressed. In 1970, demonstrations against rising food prices were met with violence from troops, killing many of the protestors.

This monstrosity, the Palace of Culture and Science, was built as a gift by Stalin after WWII. Soviet workers were sent to construct it. As you might imagine, it’s a bit controversial. As out-of-place as it looks now, it was even more ridiculous when it was first built because most of Warsaw was in ruins from the war.

In response to this disaster, a new leader took control, Edward Gierek. He attempted to make things better by borrowing from the west to raise the standard of living. The problem came when the loans needed to be repaid, and there was no money to do so. In 1980, food as much as doubled in price, and workers went on strike across the country.

In the city of Gdansk, shipyard employees went on strike, leading to the formation of the “Solidarity” Trade Union which quickly spread across the country. At its peak, there were 9 million members or about 25% of the Polish population. Eventually, Solidarity managed to break Soviet control. In 1988, freedom of the press was finally granted, and a portion of the Polish Parliament went up for a free election. Nearly all of the available seats were won by Solidarity members, starting the transition from communist to capitalist and a new form of government, a liberal parliamentary democracy. The first elections of the Third Polish Republic were conducted in 1989.

The Cold War ended in 1991, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Poland passed a new constitution in 1997, joined NATO in 1998, and joined the EU in 2004.

What a journey, huh? After all that, I’m sure you’re ready to get out of the classroom and start exploring! Next time, Warsaw!

History of Poland, 996-1797AD

Are you ready for a Polish history adventure? I hope so because this is a long one, but in order to understand the Poland of today, I think it’s important to know the history behind it. Let’s go waaay back…

The Polish lands have been occupied on-and-off since prehistoric times. Starting in the Iron Age (around 700BC), there’s evidence that Celtic tribes and Germanic tribes settled in the area, followed by Baltic peoples and eventually, around 500AD, Slavic tribes moved in. The “Slavic” ethno-linguistic group is the largest in Europe and basically encompasses all of the European countries to the east of Poland and in the Balkan region (Croatia, Serbia, etc.).

“Poland” as a country is usually cited as being founded in 966AD when the first documented ruler, Mieszko I of the Piast Dynasty, converted to Christianity and thus declared all of Poland to be Christian. The first coronation was held in 1025AD. Bolesław the Brave became king, and the Kingdom of Poland came into existence for the first time.

Throughout the rule of the first dynasty, the Kingdom of Poland warred with the Romans and Mongols. They managed to hold their borders and even expand the Kingdom. The second-to-last Piast king, King Casimir the Great, ruled over a Polish golden age. The first university was founded in Kraków in 1364, laws were reformed, and Jews were protected, resulting in a large influx of Jewish people from less tolerant countries.

University of Krakow

In 1384, the only Piast remaining was a woman, Jadwiga. She was crowned king at age 11, reigned until her death at age 25, and is known as one of Poland’s greatest monarchs, establishing and restoring schools, hospitals, and churches across the country. At the beginning of her reign, she chose to marry the ‘elderly’, 35-year-old Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello (called Władysław after his baptism) for political reasons, rather than her young Habsburg fiancée. This was the start of the Jagiellonian Dynasty period, and the marriage joined Lithuania and Poland in a union that lasted for 400 years.

This is inside the courtyard of the palace in Warsaw. There are three coats of arms represented – Poland, Lithuania, and Austria. These are the countries of origin of the wives of the last Jagiellonian king.

The strength of the Polish-Lithuanian Union helped in fighting outside threats. The greatest threat of this time was the Teutonic Order, a Christian crusading army that arrived in 1226 to convert the neighboring Prussians to Christianity. Eventually, however, they began to attack the union, despite the fact that Poland and Lithuania were both converted countries. The Order was decisively defeated at a battle in 1410, and a treaty was signed in 1466.

In the early 1500s, the government was reorganized, giving the nobles a great deal of power. No decisions could be made without their approval. Despite this, Poland experienced its greatest golden age and the Polish Renaissance. Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric theory of the universe in 1543. There was a policy of religious tolerance that attracted persecuted people of all religions. Prominent artists from across Europe moved to Kraków, the Polish capital. Poland was influential in Europe, both culturally and politically, and it grew territorially.

The Academy of Sciences in Warsaw with a monument to Copernicus in front.

Then, in 1572, the last Jagiellonian king died without an heir, and the government was restructured again. The nobles continued to hold most of the power, and the “king” became an elected position. Poland and Lithuania made an even stronger union, joining together to become the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was the largest, and perhaps most powerful, country in Europe.

The whole “elected king” concept is a bit strange… it resulted in the election of kings who were also eligible for the throne in other countries. For example, the first elected king left soon after beginning his rule… to claim the throne in France as King Henry II. Later, Polish King Zygmunt III was heir to the Swedish throne and was crowned King of Sweden DURING his rule as monarch of Poland. So he was king in two countries at once. He is also the one responsible for moving the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw so that it would be closer to Sweden.

King Zygmunt III stands on top of this column outside of the palace in Warsaw.

The mid-1600s were the beginning of the end for the Kingdom of Poland. The country was weakened by internal uprisings by their vassals and an invasion by Sweden called the “Swedish Deluge”. The conflicts ended with Poland as “victor”, but they took a toll, both economically and physically. In Warsaw, about 80% of the population was killed as the city was captured and recaptured repeatedly during the conflicts.

The last great victory of the Kingdom occurred in 1683. At the Battle of Vienna, the armies of Poland, the Roman Empire, and the Habsburgs joined together to fight the Ottoman Empire as it attempted to expand farther into Europe. Led by Polish King Jan III Sobieski, the Ottomans were defeated and their European expansion halted.

The palace in Warsaw

By the 1760s, Poland was a disaster. The governing structure meant that a single noble could veto any measure, and the government was completely paralyzed. Stanisław Poniatowski was elected king in 1764. He was romantically involved with Russia’s Catherine the Great, and she helped to place him on the Polish throne, as it was in Russia’s best interests to keep Poland weak and divided. However, after his election, he refused to be a puppet king under the Russians and tried to stop the country’s collapse by introducing reforms.

Meanwhile, Russia was in the middle of a war with the Ottomans. They were doing well, and Austria began to worry that it would lose territory to Russia. It threatened to join the war on the Ottoman side. To avoid this, Russia and Austria agreed to redirect Russia’s expansion to the west, into Poland. Poland was weak and unable to resist, so on August 2, 1772, the Polish Parliament (called the Sejm) ratified a treaty between Russia, Prussia, and Austria that took about 1/3 of Poland’s land (and ½ the population) and divided it between the three. This was the “First Partition of Poland”.

Here’s a map from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica that shows the land lost in the First and subsequent partitions. It explains the losses much better than I could with words.

This map from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica shows the land lost in the three partitions of Poland.
In the first, green went to Austria, dark red to Prussia, and dark grey to Russia.
In the second, bright orange to Prussia and light purple to Russia.
In the third, yellow to Austria, dull orange to Prussia, and pink to Russia.

So as you can see from that map, the First Partition wasn’t the end. Poland continued trying to pull itself together by adopting a more liberal constitution. A conservative confederation was formed in response, and it asked Russia to help bring back the old constitution (because who better to ask for help than one of the countries that clearly has an interest in destroying you). Russia said, “Sure!” and came into the country with the Prussians. They forced the Sejm to sign another agreement that led to the Second Partition of Poland, giving away more than half of Poland’s remaining land.

Finally, in 1794, an uprising in Poland was squashed by Russia and Prussia. The two of them, along with Austria, made a deal to divide the remaining Polish lands. On January 26, 1797, the Third Partition of Poland was officially settled, and Poland was completely wiped from the map of Europe.

The End.

Just kidding! Obviously Poland exists as a country today. So, what happened between 1797 and today? Read the next post to find out!

The Land of Petrified Trolls

Continued from the previous post

Our next stop was to see a glacier! I was excited because it was our first one of the trip. We weren’t sure if it was worth stopping just to take a look, but we figured why not? The glacier is called Mýrdalsjökull (jökull = glacier), and we went to this one part that sticks out a bit called Sólheimajökull. At least that’s what I think the situation is with the names, but honestly it’s a little hard to keep track, especially with all of the crazy Icelandic names. Mýrdalsjökull is on top of Iceland’s largest volcano, Katla, which is due for an eruption anytime. The big eruption in 2010 that sent ash all over Europe was from a smaller volcano nearby… and usually, the eruption of one leads to the eruption of the other within a decade. Katla is very closely monitored because even minor eruptions can result in major flooding from the glacier melt.

Me with Sólheimajökull! Mýrdalsjökull, the full glacier, is the 4th largest in Iceland.

I thought the glacier was awesome, but we were pretty far away so we didn’t get the full effect. It would have been cool to do some glacier hiking or whatever it’s called. I’ll have to add that to my list of things to do when I go back to Iceland one day!

Mike, me, and Tony

Sibling pic on some petrified trolls. Mike said I could go on a higher one so that I could be taller for once. Thanks, Mike.

This is where the craziness of Iceland’s landscape diversity comes in… We were at a glacier, and then 30 minutes later, we were on the beach. Reynisfjara is a black sand beach, but the really cool thing is the rock formations there. They look like a bunch of pencils bundled together and sticking up at different heights. There are two options for how they were formed:

  1. The columns are trolls that were turned to stone when they were caught outside at dawn.
  2. They’re basalt columns (basalt is one of the rocks formed by lava). They’re formed when lava cools and contracts, making hexagonal rocks.

Guess which option I prefer.

It was more of a pebble beach than a sand beach. The ground looks super cool!

Mike holding up the entire cave with his super strength

There’s also a cave at the beach which, of course, has a name of its own: Hálsanefshellir. The rock formations in there are similar to the petrified trolls, but since it’s a cave, they’re coming in from all directions instead of being just straight up and down. I think we got lucky because we were there at low-ish tide, so we could get into the cave. It was still a bit of an adventure because we had to run towards the ocean as the water retreated to get to the other side of the troll rocks and then run away as the waves came back in, re-separating the two parts of the beach. And, we had to watch out for sneaker waves…

I love all the shades of blue and grey in the water and the sky

Inside the cave

Tony and Mike messing around

Full view looking out from the cave

Sneaker waves are basically waves that are much bigger and come much farther into shore than the others, hence the “sneaker” part of the name because they can sneak up on you. The concept of sneaker waves is not at all funny… people have died from getting swept out to sea by the strange and unpredictable tides. We were quite entertained by the signs though, and the fact that they’re called sneaker waves never fails to make me giggle.

The sign says:
DANGER
– Very dangerous sea currents
– Deadly sneaker waves
– Never turn your back on the ocean
– Supervise children
The graphic in the middle shows the danger zone close to the waves that you should avoid, the light blue ones are “ordinary waves” and the dark blue ones above are “deadly sneaker waves”.
To the right, it gives information about a tourist death due to the waves.

I kept imagining someone standing on the beach with a big cartoon wave behind them, tapping them on the shoulder… Surprise! The signs tell you to “never turn your back on the ocean!” We had a lot of fun yelling that at each other. And then we turned our backs on the ocean a couple times (unintentionally!) and found ourselves sprinting up the beach to avoid getting soaked by surprise waves. So that’s what we get for not listening. (Strongly recommend that you heed the signs.)

Standing at the edge of a foamy wave, definitely keeping one eye out for sneaker waves…

Mike doing some earthbending

I found the perfect spot to protect me from the sneaker waves!

Cool rocks near the cave

There are also some rock formations out in the water, Reynisdrangar. In typical Iceland fashion, each of the three rocks also has its own name because why not. They are the remains of two trolls who went to help tow in a large ship… and then the dawn came and petrified the trolls AND the ship. Trolls must be extinct considering how many rock formations are attributed to their failure to keep track of time.

Hooray for black sand beaches!

We had a little more driving to do before we got to our campsite for the night, but we still had plenty of daylight (thank you, super long days). We’d hit all the major destinations for the day, so we consulted Aunt Judy’s list of notes to give us some ideas for a few more stops to make along our route.

On our way to see a cave from her list, we passed a sign marking the start of a hike on Hjörleifshöfði mountain. I have no idea what convinced us to do it, but we had some time and why not? Okay, I’ll take the blame. I didn’t think it seemed that long. In the end, I’d say that at least 50% of it was underwhelming mostly because the entire world was brown (it’s probably fab in the summer), but in terms of Icelandic history significance, it wasn’t a complete bust! We trekked across the treeless mountain, through mud and snow and little ground plants, until we finally reached the top of the mountain where there’s supposed to be an amazing view of the surroundings… and guess what? A heavy fog set as we were approaching the top, so we couldn’t see anything except the faint outline of some strange stone structure.

Looking back at the path as we climbed up

Mike surfing a dirt wave on a dirt surfboard

Multicolored mud

So. Weird.

Ground plants!

Mike paying his respects

It turned out to be a Viking graveyard! This is one of those situations where we wouldn’t have been surprised if we had done ANY research or had even just read the signs before starting the hike because it’s kind of a big deal. Oops. Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson is buried there, the “second settler of Iceland”. His brother was Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler. Hjörleifur only survived one year on Iceland before he was killed by his slaves. He was avenged by his brother, and apparently, the mountain is now haunted by him… add that to the list of things we didn’t know. Maybe that explains the fog.

The graveyard itself was very confusing. There was this big cylinder/cone thing that was next to the plot of land where the graves were. I thought maybe it was some weird Viking burial thing since it didn’t seem to serve any obvious purpose, but turns out it’s a marker built by Danish surveyors.

Hjörleifur’s grave

Family plot from some more recent inhabitants of the mountain with Hjörleifur’s grave mound in the background

Finally, as we started to walk down from the gravesite, the fog cleared and we had a view of the seemingly endless lava fields stretching in every direction. The mountain we were on must have dropped out of the sky because it’s the only one in the area, and around it is flat, flat, flat.

Going down

Mike and Tony, thrilled to be here

The top of the mountain was weird

Lava fields stretching to forever

On the way back to the car, we passed some ruins/old foundations of two farms. The former farm inhabitants are buried on a plot next to Hjörleifur. I thought the whole thing was kind of cool. Mike and Tony were probably just trying to figure out why they’d listened to me about the hike. Sorryyy.

Farmhouse ruins

Walking back down into the valley

Hjörleifshöfði cave

Since we were already so close, we did stop by our original target (2 hours later…) Hjörleifshöfði cave. It was probably worth a quick stop, but at that point, I think we were all tired and hungry and slightly grumpy. After a brief poke around, we headed to the campsite for another much-needed sleep on the cold, hard ground. This night was extra cold. Ugh.

Little caves along the base of Hjörleifshöfði mountain

Our car outside of the cave. Doesn’t this look like a car ad?

Iceland History

Iceland is the world’s largest volcanically-formed island. Like other volcanic islands, it’s located on a “hot spot” on the earth’s surface. These hot spots occur where magma from the earth’s mantle layer (the one between the crust and the core) breaks through the crust. In the cases of islands like Hawaii, the hot spot is in the middle of a tectonic plate (the big pieces of the earth’s crust that the different land masses are attached to), and as the plates shift, the hot spot leaves a trail of islands behind it. In the case of Iceland, the hot spot coincides with a ridge between two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. There are a few places on the island where you can actually go and stand between the two continental plates! They continue to drift farther and farther apart, moving at a rate of about 2cm per year (a little less than an inch). That maybe doesn’t sound like much, but we’re talking about massive portions of the earth’s crust. That’s insane!!

This is one of the areas where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible on land. The North American plate is on the right, and the Eurasian plate is on the left. I’m standing on a bridge that spans the gap between the two.

Here’s a helpful sign showing the locations of the tectonic plates with a star on Iceland

According to estimates, the island started to form around 20 million years ago when magma broke through the earth’s crust, came up through the seafloor, and quickly cooled and hardened. This area grew and grew over time, and due to its location on the ridge line, there are a lot of earthquakes, geysers, and volcanoes. The volcanoes grew the island even more, adding new land with each eruption. On average, there’s a volcanic eruption in Iceland every three years! One-third of the lava that has reached earth’s surface in recorded history has come from eruptions in Iceland.

It looks like this lava could have cooled about 5 seconds ago…

Iceland is considered very young in the scheme of the world’s land masses, but get this: between 1963 and 1967, a new volcanic island was formed about 32km (20mi) off the coast of Iceland! It’s called Surtsey, and it was quickly claimed by the Icelandic government. In 1967, it was about 2.7km2 (1mi2) in area, and now, less than 50 years later, it has eroded to half that size. It’s really cool because it’s completely uninhabited by humans, and scientists are using it to understand more about how plants begin to grow on new land and how animals move in and affect its development. There are currently more than 65 plant species and 16 bird species found on the island! In some places, the land is still incredibly hot. Temperatures can be as high as 100 degrees C (over 200 degrees F) just slightly below the surface!

There are plenty of places where you can see steam rising up from the ground in Iceland. They have an abundance of geothermal heat! That’s the primary source of energy for heating homes and water, and there are some geothermal power plants. They also produce a lot of hydropower from all of the glacial rivers and waterfalls on the island.

The first serious settlers came to Iceland around 870AD. Before that, Nordic Viking explorers came and went, learning more about the island and seeing if it would be feasible to settle there. It started with just a couple families, and at the end of the 9th century, there was an influx of settlers from the British Isles and the Nordic countries, especially Norway due to the oppressive and barbaric king at the time.

This is a statue of Ingolfur Arnarson. He and his crew were the first to settle in Iceland, specifically in the now-capital, Reykjavik. They named it Reykjavic, or “Smoke Cove”, after the steam coming from the hot springs. The statue also depicts various figures from Norse mythology.

People were free to claim land as they came, and within about 60 years, the habitable land on the island was fully settled. During this time of settlement, the people were mostly led by various chieftains, but by 1930, they recognized that there needed to be greater coordination to establish order. As a result, the “Althing”, the world’s oldest nationwide parliament, was formed. It met each summer at Thingvellir to make laws, settle disputes, and organize trade.

The settlers arrived as pagans, mostly worshipping the Norse gods (you’re probably familiar with at least one of them, Thor). When a new king came to power in Norway in 995AD, he decided to make a project of converting the people of Iceland. He sent missionaries who were semi-successful, and this led to conflict both on the island and between Iceland and Norway. To avoid civil war, the pagan Law Speaker (responsible for reciting the laws at Althing sessions) at the time was given the authority to decide the official religion. He concluded that Iceland should become Christian, mostly to avoid further conflict, but people should be allowed to continue their pagan worship practices in private.

This flagpole marks the believed location of Law Rock, where the Law Speaker would stand to read the laws to the attendees at the beginning of each annual Althing session.

This picture (from a sign at Thingvellir) shows the Law Speaker standing on Law Rock. He is reciting the laws to the people standing below.

The rocky area near Law Rock.

This picture (from a sign at Thingvellir) shows a meeting of the Law Council. This was the time when new laws were enacted and legal disputes were settled. The people were then responsible for the enforcement of the laws. The Law Speaker was elected by the chieftains and served as the moderator.

And so, all was generally calm for a while. Writing was introduced in the early 12th century, and this led to the Age of Writing. A written lawbook came first in 1117 and was followed by various history books and sagas. Then, in 1220, the peace was broken when power struggles arose between one of the most powerful clans on the island, the Sturlung clan, and others. During this “Age of Sturlungs”, the clans fought each other in a bloody civil war. Even after the Sturlungs were defeated, fighting continued sporadically for years and years. Finally, in 1262, the Althing signed the “Old Covenant” with Norway, agreeing to become a province of the Kingdom of Norway and ending the clan conflicts.

Iceland was part of the Norwegian kingdom until 1380 when Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were unified. Denmark was the dominant power, and unlike Norway, it didn’t have a need for Icelandic goods, and it didn’t care much about Iceland. Without this trade, the Icelanders struggled, and the next few centuries under Danish rule were difficult. The Black Death and other widespread diseases wiped out large portions of the population. A climate shift made it difficult to grow crops. Hundreds of people were kidnapped into slavery by pirates from North Africa. A volcanic eruption killed thousands, eliminated most of the livestock, and caused the eventual starvation of thousands more. A trade monopoly implemented by Denmark made it impossible for the economy to grow.

Finally, in 1843, Iceland started to make moves towards independence again. The Althing, which had been virtually powerless for centuries and shut down in 1800 by the Danish king, was reestablished. In 1874, Denmark granted the Althing limited power and allowed the creation of a new constitution! One thousand years after Iceland’s settlement, the people were finally back on track to become independent. In 1904, Denmark recognized Iceland as a sovereign state, and Iceland continued to use Denmark for defense until World War II when Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany.

Iceland was declared neutral and was determined to stay out of the war. After the occupation of neutral Denmark by the Nazis, the UK worried that Iceland was next. Despite Iceland’s insistence that they be left alone, British troops were sent to occupy the island. Iceland protested the invasion for violating its neutrality but cooperated under the assurance that the troops would leave after the war.

This sculpture, Sun Voyager, is located in Reykjavik and is “a dream boat and ode to the sun”. It symbolizes “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.”

Interestingly enough, the war helped to turn Iceland’s economy around. The occupiers flooded the economy with foreign money and hired locals to work on their projects, dramatically lowering the unemployment rate. Meanwhile, the people voted to become a fully independent republic in 1944. After the war, Iceland received aid that the new government used to improve the country’s industrial infrastructure, ensuring that the prosperity and high employment levels enjoyed during the war would continue.

I don’t know about you, but my head is just about spinning. It’s crazy how quickly Iceland’s luck turned around! Within 100 years, it went from poor and weak to thriving and independent. Now, it has booming tourism, aluminum, and fishing industries, among others, and is in no danger of returning to its pre-WWII economic struggle.

Usually, historical context is helpful for understanding the sights in a place. Since Iceland’s most well-known features are primarily natural, that doesn’t necessarily apply as much in this situation. Even so, I think it’s interesting to see how different countries have gotten to where they are today and how they’ve interacted with the countries around them in the past. Recently, I’ve changed the way I think about history, seeing it as a big, complicated story instead of just a school subject where you’re forced to memorize lots of dates and names. It’s changed everything for me because who doesn’t like stories?? (I know, it’s right there in the name. Silly Lara.) Now, when I go to a new place, I can’t wait to learn another part of the story of the world.

Inside the Tower

In my last post, I explained some of the history behind the Tower of London. Obviously, many things look a lot different than they did during the palace and prison and torture days, but there are some things that haven’t changed much.

Outer wall of the Tower

Certain parts of the Tower have been tourist attractions since the 17th century. One of these is the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept! I made a beeline for the jewels when I got inside because everyone says that the line gets very long later in the day. I don’t know much about precious gemstones and jewelry, but even I could tell that the stuff they have in the Jewel House is ridiculous. They have the coronation crown which weighs 7 pounds. Imagine having to wear that on your head! There’s also the world’s largest clear-cut diamond. It’s 530 carats which means nothing to me but apparently the average size for an engagement ring diamond is around 1 carat, soooo… it’s 530 times that. The oldest object, the anointing spoon used in coronations, is from the 1300s. Most of the other objects are much newer because the originals were melted down when the monarchy was abolished in the English Civil War (1649).

The Jewel House

My personal favorite object in the Jewel House was a “punch bowl” that was made of solid gold and, according to the sign, could hold 144 bottles of wine. 144 BOTTLES. Now, I know I’m just a commoner who doesn’t know how anything works, but could someone PLEASE explain to me why that’s necessary?? I couldn’t wrap my head around most of the things in the room, to be honest. The gemstones weren’t that impressive because my brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t rhinestones, they were real. I thought about how people save up to buy gold jewelry… how many rings and necklaces do you think you could make with a 144-bottles-of-wine-sized punch bowl? Insanity.

When I was finished gaping at the jewels, I went on a Yeoman Warder tour. The Yeoman Warders, popularly called Beefeaters (though the origin of that name is unknown), are the keepers of the Tower, responsible for guarding any prisoners (historically) and watching over the crown jewels. There are 37 of them who live within the Tower walls with their families. To qualify, they must have served in the armed forces for at least 22 years and been awarded a good conduct medal. They give free tours throughout the day, explaining the history of and telling stories about the Tower. The whole thing is a kind of theatrical experience and is very well done.

Tower views

The Tower complex is HUGE. After the Beefeater tour, I checked out the torture devices, walked along the walls, and explored a bunch of different towers before going into the White Tower. Today, it’s filled with exhibitions of armor and weaponry. I can’t say I’m terribly interested in either, but the collection was still impressive which is pretty much the point. Originally, its purpose was to show the monarch’s right to rule and awe visitors.

While I was walking around, I bumped into a big group that was part of an interactive skit. I don’t know how well you can see, but one of the guys in this picture is dressed up as a knight. They explained all of the different groups in history who tried to seize control of the Tower. At the end, they explained that the only group that ever successfully infiltrated the castle was the peasants during the Peasants Revolt. It was a fun way to learn about history! (Definitely geared towards kids, but no matter.)

View from the White Tower looking towards Tower Green

Armor display in the White Tower

This book made me laugh because it’s HUGE. According to the label, it’s 914 pages of inventory, spanning from 1675-1679. Imagine if it was your job to write in this monstrosity.

One of the unsolved mysteries of the Tower of London took place in the White Tower. In 1483, King Edward IV died. His son, Edward V, was next in line for the throne, but he was only 12 years old. Edward V’s uncle was put in charge until he was old enough to rule, and he brought Edward and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, to the Tower of London. After their uncle was crowned king, the boys disappeared and were thought to have been murdered, though their bodies were nowhere to be found. In 1674, during some construction work, the bones of two children were found underneath a staircase in the White Tower. They were assumed to be the bones Edward and Richard and were reburied in Westminster Abbey; however, they haven’t been tested to confirm that assumption. And so, the mystery continues.

The building in the corner is the Queen’s House. It is the home of the Resident Governor of the Tower of London. It was built around 1540 and is architecturally significant because most other buildings in London from this time period burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. This one survived thanks to its location within the Tower’s stone walls.

Interior Tower views

The Traitors’ Gate was the water entrance to the Tower. A lot of the prisoners kept in the Tower throughout history were brought in through the Traitors’ Gate.

As you can see, it was a slightly foggy day… Crazy how the tops of those buildings completely vanish.

Me with the White Tower!

Another former attraction at the Tower was the “Menagerie”, basically a predecessor of modern-day zoos but way less functional. The royalty used to receive exotic animals as gifts from leaders of other nations (actually, fun fact: the Queen STILL receives animals as gifts – what?!?! – but now they’re sent to the London Zoo). The Tower housed this collection starting the early 13th century, including now-extinct Barbary lions, leopards, a polar bear that used to fish for food in the Thames River, monkeys, bears, an African elephant that was fed wine every day in an attempt to keep it warm (!?!? And then it died after four years because obviously that didn’t work), a hyena, wolves, an ostrich that died from eating too many nails thanks to ignorant visitors who thought ostriches ate iron, birds, snakes that were wrapped in blankets and put on a stove to keep them warm, and more. They weren’t terribly well-kept, partly because the people in charge didn’t know much about how to take care of some of them, and would attack each other and sometimes visitors. The Menagerie was opened to the public in the 18th century, and admission was either 3 half-pence (cents) or a dog or cat to feed to the lions. I promise I didn’t make that up. In the 19th century, the animals were moved to Regent’s Park, now the site of the London Zoo where they are properly cared for.

There are animal sculptures around the Tower as a reminder of the good ‘ole Menagerie days.

Spotted! The Tower ravens are allowed to roam freely within the complex, and I stumbled upon one of them during my explorations

There are still some animals on the Tower grounds… ravens. Six ravens are kept due to the superstition that if the ravens depart, the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will follow. No one is completely sure how or why the superstition and tradition came to be, but there’s no turning back now! The Tower ravens are cared for by one of the Beefeaters, the Ravenmaster. One of the signs said that they each eat 170g of raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood each day. So that’s gross. And sometimes, for a special treat, they get a sheep’s heart. Double ew.

The ravens’ cages

By the time I left the Tower, it was about to close, along with everything else I was considering seeing. So much for my ambitious plans for the day! I should have known, though, because never in my life have I gone through a museum quickly.

You can see the two layers of walls and the White Tower rising up behind them. Imagine planning to attack the Tower and seeing this view as you approached (plus a moat!)… I don’t think I would have very high hopes for my chances.

Walking across the bridge.

I made one last stop at Tower Bridge, the famous bridge next to the Tower. Even though the two look similar, the bridge was built during Victorian times (late 1800s). It was required to “blend in” with its surroundings and be built in the Gothic style, hence why it stylistically looks much older than it is. Even though it’s not THAT old comparatively, it’s still pretty impressive that they made an operable bridge 120 years ago that worked for 70 years (the hydraulic system was replaced in the 1970s).

Me with Tower Bridge!

Tower Bridge! It’s a little weird to see a bridge built in Gothic style but with steel components. Those absolutely give it away as a modern (relatively) addition.

View of the Tower of London from Tower Bridge. I know, the view is simply breathtaking because it was such a beautiful and clear day.

After that, I went snack shopping (my favorite part of travel days!) and headed back to my hostel to get ready to go to the airport. Next stop: Iceland!

I had to take a picture of this sign because I don’t think I agree with its claim that the Tower Bridge is the most famous bridge in the world. Personally, I would have guessed that the Golden Gate Bridge is more famous, though I’m not sure how you measure fame. What do you think is the world’s most famous bridge?

History of the Tower of London

I had ambitious plans for my last day in London, and of course, they were way too ambitious. I thought I’d spend maybe four hours at the Tower of London and then I could go to either the National Gallery (one of my favorite London museums) or the Tate Britain (Maddy’s favorite museum which I haven’t been to).

From the very beginning, I failed to follow the plan. I wanted to get there at 9:30 because it opens at 10, but I read that they usually let people in a bit early. I had to pack my stuff up before heading out for the day because I was headed to the airport that night, so I didn’t leave even close to on time. I made it to the Tower around 11:30 and surprisingly still managed to beat the crowds. Maybe people were slowed down because of the dreary weather.

I didn’t know much about the Tower before I went, but now my brain is full. My gosh there’s a lot of history in that place. Here’s where I attempt to summarize masses of information and not bore you to tears…

The White Tower, the central structure in the Tower of London complex, was the first structure built in the mid-11th century by William the Conqueror. He believed that he had a rightful claim to the throne of England, and when it was given to another, he and his army successfully invaded from Normandy. He was declared king in 1066. As a show of his power and in an attempt to intimidate the Londoners, he ordered the construction of the 90-foot-tall tower (with 15’ wide walls!!) which would have been, by far, the tallest building they’d ever seen.

The White Tower

During its early years, the Tower was used as a royal residence and prison for wealthy and high-profile people. Many of the kings were afraid of the people, making the idea of living in an easily-defensible castle very appealing. It did a decent job of keeping people out and a much worse job of keeping people in. In fact, the very first prisoner, Bishop Ranulf Flambard, escaped! As the legend goes, he organized a bit of a party for his guards, got them drunk on wine, and snuck out using a rope that was smuggled in at the bottom of the wine container. He wasn’t the last person to escape either… others successfully bribed the guards to help them out!

There aren’t many original furnishings and decorations in the Tower, but in some spaces, historians have tried to recreate what the royal living quarters might have looked like.

Ceiling in one of the towers

The Tower was expanded a few times. An inner ring of walls was constructed and was soon followed up by a second layer of walls, giving it 21 more towers and a moat. Generally, the monarchs who were most concerned with the upkeep of the Tower were the ones who were most disconnected from and fearful of their subjects.

There were multiple times throughout history when people tried to siege the Tower. The only time anyone was successful was during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. They were protesting excessive taxation and managed to make it inside the White Tower. They found the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer in this chapel inside, two of the men leading the government on behalf of 14-year-old King Richard II, dragged them out to Tower Hill, and executed them. There’s speculation that the peasants were let into the Tower by guards who were sympathetic to their cause.

This pathway runs between the inner and outer walls. I’m standing on an inner wall.

Archer defending the Tower!

The outer walls and the area that used to be the moat

The rack

Starting in the 16th century, the Tower was less popular as a residence among the royals, and it transitioned into other roles. Mostly, it became known as a terrifying prison with horrible conditions and widespread torture. In reality, prisoners were still generally of high-status, were imprisoned for only short time periods, and with enough money, could live in comfort. Torture, while rare, did happen. There were less than 50 recorded incidents of torture at the Tower, but the methods were rather brutal. The most well-known method (though not often used) is probably the rack, where a person’s wrists and ankles are fastened and pulled in opposite directions, stretching the body and dislocating the joints. Another less-used contraption compresses the body by pushing down on the back of someone curled up with their shins on the ground. Others were put in shackles, sometimes hanging from the ceiling. One of the most famous people tortured at the Tower was Guy Fawkes who was part of a plot to blow up Parliament on 5 November 1605 (if you’ve seen the movie V for Vendetta, you’re probably familiar with his name).

“Besides the Rack, the principal kind of torture in England is called the ‘Scavenger’s Daughter’. It is the complete opposite of the rack… The prisoner’s body is folded into three with the shins up against the thighs and the thighs against the stomach. The torturer then forces the ends of two iron bows together and locks the prisoner inside, almost crushing his body with a hellish compression. The is an inhuman torture, in every way worse than the rack…”.

There are carvings all over the various rooms of the Tower where people were imprisoned. Some of them were what I expected, little scratchings that are about as profound as “Lara wuz here”, but then there were also impressive works of art like this one.

Many of the prisoners held in the Tower were eventually executed, either by hanging or beheading. The majority were taken to a nearby hill (Tower Hill) where their deaths were public spectacles. A select few were given the honor of being killed inside the Tower walls on Tower Green, including Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Apparently, out of “kindness”, he hired an expert swordsman for her execution (to me, “kindness” is a strong word in this situation because he still had her killed…), ensuring that she would be successfully beheaded on the first strike. In other cases, it wasn’t uncommon for the executioner to have to take a few swings before hitting accurately enough to kill the person. That. Sounds. HORRIBLE. I read somewhere that executioners didn’t perform enough executions to become truly skilled (I guess that’s a good thing) and were probably a little drunk because how else could you do that job?

More prisoner carvings.

A memorial in remembrance of the people who were killed on Tower Green.

This big, grassy area is Tower Green, where the most important people were executed, away from the eyes of the public.

This church, the Royal Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, is the burial place of some of the most famous people who were executed on Tower Green and Tower Hill.

In the 1800s, the moat was filled in with dirt because the water was gross, and people were getting sick from it. The Tower was used to hold prisoners for the last time during WWI and WWII, and some were executed by firing squad within the Tower walls. The final execution was of a German spy in 1941.

Now, the Tower is mostly used for ceremonial purposes and is a huge tourist attraction. I’ll tell you about my visit in my next post

Cardiff

Here we go, back at it! To reorient you, we’re in England. I spent a few nights in Bristol on the suggestion of a random couple I met in Georgia, and while I was there, I did a couple of day trips: one to Bath and one to my final random-stranger-selected destination of the UK, Cardiff. Here’s where I once again embarrass myself by admitting that the only thing I knew about Cardiff was that it’s in Wales, and I only knew THAT because the previously-mentioned random strangers told me as much. It took me more than half the day to realize that Cardiff isn’t just some city in Wales, it’s the capital. Only slightly more embarrassing is the fact that I learned this from the city buses, branded as, “capital transport for our capital city”. Oops. On the bright side, travelling alone means less talking which means less opportunity for me to accidentally say something stupid before I figure things out.

Here’s a map to help you get oriented… The blue diamond is London, the purple house is Bristol, the orange heart is Bath, and the green star is Cardiff.

For anyone confused by the whole UK/Great Britain/England thing, here’s a five-second explanation. England is a country. Great Britain is the name of the island that contains the primary land area of England, Wales, and Scotland. The UK (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a collection of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. London is the capital city of both England and the UK as a whole. The UK countries have the same currency, military, and overall government (the Queen, Prime Minister, and the two Parliamentary houses), but they are four distinct countries with their own smaller executive governments, education systems, cultures, flags, and even languages. There are four Celtic languages spoken in various parts of the UK. In Wales, about 20% of the population can speak Welsh. Fun side fact: the blue, white, and red UK flag is the one you’re probably most familiar with. It’s a combination of the flags of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

That was more than five seconds, I know, but even that is a SUPER simplified explanation. The full details are enough to make your brain explode. Now that we have the essentials covered, here we go. Once again, I was advised that the best way to get to my destination from Bristol was the train. I still don’t understand how the train can possibly be the cheapest option, but I’m not going to question it!

When I walked out of the station in Cardiff, I had this feeling that I couldn’t completely understand… I felt like I had been there before. Things seemed familiar. Since I had definitely never been to Wales, I disregarded my feeling and kept moving. But still, it was disconcerting.

My initial thoughts:

  • Wow it really does look different than England! (*facepalm* at my ignorant past self)
  • There are so many flags here! Guess they don’t want you to forget that you’re in Wales! (Yeah, plus it’s the capital… silly Lara.)
  • Is that Welsh on those signs? Whatttttt? HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT?
  • Hm… sooo where should I go?

First impression street. Welsh flags everywhere! (Also, prepare yourself for TONS of pictures.)

I guess maybe I should’ve done some planning beyond flagging things on Google maps on the train ride from Bristol. It’s hard to plan when you’re going somewhere new every day! So maybe it wasn’t my best-planned day, but I knew I at least had to go to Cardiff Castle and decided that the rest would work itself out.

St. John the Baptist on the approach

I have a never-fail strategy for times when I don’t know where to go: Look at the people around you, and walk like you have a clue. I followed the crowd, impulsively turned into a cool-looking building, and found myself in the central market! Okay, so I didn’t actually realize that’s where I was until after I walked out… Whoops! Thank you, GPS and Google maps. But it was on my list of things to see, so be impressed with my intuition and natural directional abilities. The market has two levels – the ground floor and a balcony that wraps around the perimeter. It’s been around since 1891, and the stalls sell a WIDE range of things, from produce and prepared food to souvenirs and vintage vinyl (side note: in case you were wondering, there is such a thing as NON-vintage vinyl. Apparently, vinyl is making a comeback and you can actually get records for new music). I had fun just walking around and checking out the offerings.

From there, I made my way to Cardiff Castle, popping into St. John the Baptist City Parish Church along the way (I think they need a few more words in that name. Way too short).

View inside the market from the balcony level

St. John the Baptist Church

Inside St. John the Baptist Church

The first known fortification at the site of the castle was a 3rd-century Roman fortress, but there were probably smaller Roman defenses there starting in the 1st century. It still blows my mind that the Roman Empire stretched all the way to Wales. I know it was huge, but like… whoa. After that, a castle was built on the site in the 11th century. Throughout the years, it was held by various forces and owners who all made their own additions and modifications. It didn’t become the property of the city of Cardiff until almost 1950!

Some of the original Roman walls!

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before (just kidding… I’m sure I’ve mentioned this at least 100 times), but I LOVE CASTLES. Sometimes when I say that, especially in front of jaded backpackers who have been wandering around Europe for far too long, the response is an eye roll, a knowing smile, and the question, “How long have you been in Europe?” Their assumption is that I haven’t spent much time in Europe because if I HAD, I would be bored with castles like they are because EVERY town has a castle and they think they’re all the same and oh how cute that this little amateur traveler still finds castles exciting. You know what I have to say to those people? I have been to A LOT of castles, and guess what? I still think they’re all exciting. And a lot of churches. And I’ve walked a lot of bridges and visited a lot of cities and seen a lot of amazing views… but I’m not sick of any of those either. I think that if you’re sick of those things, you need to go back to wherever you lost your “awe” glasses and put them back on because the fact that other amazing places exist doesn’t make the one you’re at any LESS amazing. End rant. Sorry. I had to get that out. But seriously. If you’re travelling and you’re not surprised or amazed by anything, take a pause and check yourself because the world is freaking incredible. Okay, NOW I’m finished.

Entrance into the castle

Outside the castle walls

Like I was saying, I LOVE CASTLES. Even better if you can walk along the walls because my favorite thing to do (feel free to judge me for this) is walk along the walls and pretend I’m a princess. Or better yet, a queen. (As I get older, I more often go in the queen direction.)

The wall walk. Perfect for princess strolling. It would be better if you could see over the walls while strolling, but it’ll do. I’m not too picky.

I had no idea how many parts there were to the castle complex. After my regal wall-stroll, I went INSIDE the walls. During World War II, the walls were used as air-raid shelters and could hold almost 2,000 people! As an important port city, Cardiff was heavily bombed during WWII, killing hundreds of civilians. In case you had trouble imagining that terrifying experience, there was a soundtrack that included air-raid sirens and planes flying overhead. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how it felt. Total darkness. Stale air heavy with fear. Silence except for the sound of breathing and the occasional cry of a child. Feeling completely powerless. I started feeling claustrophobic and had to go outside.

Inside the walls. This was the part without the windows blocked off. There was another section that was almost completely dark to help with the visualization process. It wasn’t nearly as pleasant.

They had old posters from WWII on display inside the walls. This was one of a series reminding people to watch what they say because the enemy has ears everywhere. In this one, two women are talking, and the wall behind them is covered in Hitler faces. It says, “Don’t forget that walls have ears! Careless talk costs lives”

This poster reminds you of the things that you should put into place before you go to sleep.
“LOOK before you sleep
All windows and inner doors open?
Water in buckets?
Sand in buckets?
Gas mask, clothes, and torch handy?
Good night!”
Eek.


This poster is asking for women to volunteer to help children from evacuated areas. The images show the various things that need to be done, such as getting the kids ready for school, preparing meals, sewing, supervising playtime, etc.
The best part is at the bottom where it says, “These are jobs which will have to be done. All women love children and like to help them. Offer your services.”
So, in case you were wondering, ALL WOMEN LOVE CHILDREN AND WANT TO HELP THEM. But we’re not going to generalize or anything.

This poster encourages people to grow their own vegetables throughout the year. It explains what things can be planted in each season, shows a plan for crop rotation, and gives detailed instructions about how your garden should operate.


This poster shows how to properly put on and use your gas mask. It firmly reminds readers that their gas masks should be kept on-hand at ALL times.

“In an air raid
If you are caught in the street
1. Don’t stand and stare at the sky
2. Take cover at once”
This is terrifying.


Heyy self-timer with the keep in the background

Flowers!

I had to take a picture of this because it was too darn stereotypical. The two boys you can kind of see in front of the keep were sword fighting with wooden swords.

After leaving the walls, I climbed up to the keep. The current structure was built in the 12th century, and for those of you unfamiliar with castle terminology, was the main stronghold of the castle. This one is basically just a very tall stone cylinder on top of a very natural-looking hill (or motte), and from the top, there’s a nice view of the city.

Approaching the keep. Check out that motte!

The keep

Looking out from the keep. You can see the foundations where there used to be more walls. The keep was once much bigger than it is now.

Inside the keep

At the top!

View of the House and Cardiff (and tower cranes)

The last building inside the castle walls is the “House” (their words), or more accurately, the mansion. The first structure was built in the early 1400s, but practically every subsequent owner made modifications, giving it a strong architectural-collage vibe.

The House. Can you see why I don’t think “House” (even with a capital ‘H’) is a sufficient name??

Clock tower

The inside of the mansion was predictably lavish, but the décor was surprisingly varied. There was one room called the “Arab Room” that was definitely not what I was expecting to find in Wales. Then, the next second, I was in the banqueting hall that looks like the set of a movie in the Middle Ages where people are meant to be swigging beers and slamming their glasses down on the table. There’s also an absolutely amaaaaazinggg library where I wanted to touch everything and, of course, was allowed to touch nothing.

The ceiling in the Arab Room

I couldn’t stop staring… like what is even happening on this ceiling? How the heck did they build it??

Staircase. I just wish it wasn’t so plain-looking.

Honestly, I don’t even understand what’s going on up there

This place is ridiculous

Details of the banqueting hall

Casual dining room ceiling

Isn’t this what your fireplaces look like?

First peek into the library…

One day, I’m going to have a library like this (even if I have to rebind every trashy novel I own in order to make it look this classy)

Isn’t it beautiful??

There’s also a falconry on the castle grounds

I was all castled-out after I finished walking through the “House”, so I started the long walk to my next destination, Llandaff Cathedral. To be honest, I have no idea why I decided to go there. I saw it on the map, decided it might be nice to walk around a bit, and apparently wasn’t deterred by the fact that it was three miles away… ha. I tried to at least pick a scenic route through some parks, and I saw lots of normal people doing normal things. That’s another one of my favorite things to do when I’m travelling: wander into the parts of the city where regular people live life.

Outside of the castle is the famous “Animal Wall”. Along the wall, there are 15 different animals that appear to be climbing out of the park and into the city.

This hyena (I think??) was my favorite. It looks confused/terrified.

Walking the tree-lined paths to Llandaff

Llandaff Cathedral from the back

This stone is right outside the cathedral and reads, “On 2nd January 1941, the cathedral was devastated by an enemy landmine which fell in this place now set apart to receive the cremated remains of the faithful departed. Remember them before God & honour this hallowed ground.”

The cathedral was massive and beautiful, as expected. The current building isn’t actually that old because it was built after WWII when the previous building was severely damaged. I wandered through the church and around the nearby neighborhood before heading back into town.

I really don’t understand the purpose of this archway and the huge cylindrical drum over it, but I think maybe it’s just art.

Inside the cathedral

They had some serious stained glass

Llandaff Cathedral

This park used to be the Bishop’s Palace. The ruins of the old palace were left in place, and now it’s a public park. This is another thing I just stumbled upon.

On the way out of the Bishop’s palace park

Street views

Flowers along my walking route!

I still had a few things that I wanted to see down on the waterfront, but when it started drizzling and I was near the train station anyway, I decided to call it a day. Plus, my feet were hurting. A couple minutes later, I patted myself on the back for a well-made decision because it started POURING rain. No, thank you!

At the end of the day, after all of my wandering across the universe, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been to Wales before. The houses, the terrain, the names of places… everything seemed too familiar. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized the reason why. Many of the early settlers of the area where I grew up in Pennsylvania were from Wales. In fact, the Welsh Quakers were granted a large tract of land west of Philadelphia and even attempted to make it a separate county with a local government that operated in Welsh. They established settlements with Welsh names, some of which have carried on until today, such as Bala Cynwyd, Bryn Mawr, Berwyn, etc. If you’re looking at those words and wondering how the heck you pronounce them, exactly.

So, there you have it. The very long story of how I went all the way to Wales just to realize that I could have walked around at home and gotten the same effect.

Peaceful and pretty!

Happy to be in the woods!

This house is literally 80% of the houses in my town

I took the scenic route on the way back to town

How slow exactly is “DEAD SLOW”?

What country am I even in anymore???

City Hall and pretty trees

City Hall