Iceland Cruise – Akureyri

Iceland! I’m in Iceland! And we are sure not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Hell, we came through the Arctic Circle last night! In fact, I’m pretty sure you can’t get further from Kansas if you tried. We are in Akureyri today which is considered the capital of northern Iceland – which, btw is only about 103,000 sqkm, or as our guide has said, roughly the size of Kentucky… Being Australian, that means SFA to me, but the Americans all smiled and nodded knowingly, so yeah, all good. 😀 There is also only about 325,000 people in Iceland which equates to 3 bods per sqkm, compared to 10 bodies per sqkm in US and about 250 people per sqkm in UK. Can’t remember what Australia comes in at… WHO knows? 

Iceland’s incredible tundra-like landscape is shaped by fire and ice, primarily through the last Ice Age and more recently, through extensive volcanic action. Earthquakes can occur quite frequently and are usually about 6.5-7.0 on the Richter Scale, as the constant venting of geothermal energy means it never builds up enough for anything stronger… Which the Icelanders are quite happy about. They also have a very active volcanic geography, as you would expect, and volcanoes erupt about every four years or so, as the magma under the island is really quite close to the surface here. The landscape is simply ‘incomparable’ as our shore destination expert, Ken, would say.

There are no mineable minerals or oil in Iceland, but they do drill for hot water to power large geothermal power stations. Icelanders pay about 1/3 of the cost of what people pay for electricity and heating in the UK or other Scandinavian countries which probably makes up for the earthquake thing a bit.
The official language is Icelandic – when the first settlers came to Iceland nearly all Scandinavians spoke approximately the same language. However, due to its isolation, Icelandic has remained closest to the older traditional Scandinavian language. The closest language to Icelandic is Faroese which shares about 50% common words – a bit like Italian and Spanish. Children used to learn Danish in schools as a second language, but now everyone learns English in primary school, adds Danish in high school and if they go to college (and apparently most do?) they end up learning at least one more language usually German, French, Italian or Spanish.
Ingólfur Arnarson was chieftain of first Norse settlers who arrived in 874AD in Reyjavik. Yay!!! Vikings!!! Woo!!! Sorry, bit excited to be here. Anyway, they built a farm to see if they could make a life here and, importantly, to decide if they could make it through the winter! After a couple of years, things must have been going ok because in 930AD, the first Icelandic Parliament was settled in Þingvellir (going there, day after tomorrow) and the Parliament stood until 1798… Though it is not exactly a Parliament as we know it, they met for only two weeks every summer and would set law and carry out arbitrations and judgements etc. but no politicians.
Things must have gone swimmingly for quite a while until a period of unrest started when all the power and influence had gathered into just a few families. In 1264, the Icelanders signed a treaty with the Norwegian and then became subjects of Norway, and subsequently became part of Denmark when Norway did.
In 1602, Akureyri was still primarily a merchant port and it wasn’t until 1862 that they formed a town charter for their enormous population of some 150 people. A century and a half later and there is now 18,000 people living here.

Iceland didn’t become independent until 1944 but it was Jóhann UnpronounceableSurname who was almost solely responsible for Icelandic independence. He studied politics in Denmark and felt Iceland would never truly progress without independence.

In 1864 King Christian IX came to Iceland to celebrate the 1000 year jubilee of continuous Icelandic settlement and he gave Iceland a copy of their Constitution, which was meant to be symbolic gesture, but was taken by the people as encouragement to make moves towards an independent Iceland.
In 1918, Iceland became independent but was still sort of under Denmark, much like the Faroe Islands still are now, and it was not until 1944 that Iceland became completely independent from Denmark. Iceland was occupied by Germany at the time so poor old Denmark didn’t really get to have much to say about the matter. Relations remain really good though, and many Icelanders go to Denmark to study and live – about 5000 of them live there now.

Our first stop today was the Laufas Folk museum which sounded kinda twee (as anything ‘folk’ tends to!) but was really kinda cool. The museum consists of a series of connected traditional Icelandic farmhouses. The farmhouses are dug into a hillside with minimal wood in the construction, instead using turf and stone. Mostly built in 19thC, some sections of the farmhouses date back to the 16thC. Most of the first settlers made their homes out of wood, as they were traditionally used to doing, but they used up all the timber in Iceland in just a couple of decades so they needed to find other ways to build… hence the stone and turf. It is estimated that 25% of Iceland was covered in timber originally, but now it’s only about 2% and even some of that planted. The newer building technique of digging their homes into the ground used minimal timber, only for the gables and roofs.

The farmhouses are all connected inside so the inhabitants did not have to go outside during the depths of winter to visit their neighbours – so many families would have lived in the interconnecting houses. The occupants of the farmhouses raised sheep, spun and wove wool, and bred and raised eider ducks. Eider is very, very soft but very expensive as it takes a lot of ducks to make eider items. The ducks were quite prized and very well cared for and protected, so the farmers can keep collecting the eider. Eider ducks are still raised in Iceland as eider is still so much In demand, that the locals call it, ‘soft gold’.
Our next stop was to Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods. As local history tells it, the Parliament, in 1000AD, gave the (not inconsiderable) responsibility to Lawspeaker and Chieftain Þorgeir Þorkelsson to decide if Iceland should become Christian or stick to their older Viking/pagan ways. He apparently laid down under a rug and contemplated for 24 hours, and eventually decided that Iceland should be Christian. People were still allowed to worship their Norse gods privately in their homes and it was a very peaceful transition with no persecution – which hardly sounds very religious! Anyway, to set a good example for the people Þorgeir threw his idol statues of the Norse gods Odin and Thor into the waterfalls and they say the waterfalls have been called the Waterfalls of the Gods ever since. Nowadays, most Icelanders belong to the Lutheran Evangelical church.

 People travel to Iceland specifically for the fishing – Icelandic salmon and trout in the fresh water rivers. Sheep farming – sheep released into the wild slopes at the beginning of summer in June. And rounded up September in a community effort and all the sheep are divided back up and given back to the right farms. It might take a whole day to round the sheep up. A whole day!

 The main trees here are birch ‘what do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? stand up ‘ trees font grow very high in these conditions.
We also stopped in at the Botanical gardens, which are one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world. Started by two very determined amateur gardeners, (I didn’t catch their names, but I imagine they were probably Ester and Betty, or some thing similar) who planted over 2000 exotic trees and flowers… many of which shouldn’t really grow in these conditions but have somehow survived.
Currently, Akureyri is having their coldest summer in 30 to 40 years – seems climate change is messing up shit everywhere. Generally the snow starts in end of September and will go away by May and Akureyri’s climate is heavily affected by ocean temperstures which have been really cold this summer: 0° to -1°/-2°. The hottest recorded temperature was about 31° and coldest recorded about -30°, and apparently the weather is very unpredictable which makes agricultural pursuits diffucult. The only vegetable grown outdoors here are potatoes and turnips, and all other vegetables are grown in greenhouses – tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers etc. Iceland grows about half their vegetables can’t grow any fruit at all. So all fruit needs to be imported along with the other half of their veggies.

After wandering the Botanical Gardens for a while and admiring the late summer blooms, and gorgeous enormous bumblebees, we went for a walk down town to hunt for some Brennavin for my extra special, second very best friend, JarlNiall, who asked me to keep an eye out for it. As luck would have it, alcohol is only sold in state controlled stores run by disapproving grannies, and this afternoon was likely to be my only chance to look for it. Walking about ‘down town’ was rather strange – things felt shut and it was difficult to tell 1) if a building was a store, 2) if it was a store, what the hell are they selling and, 3) are they even bloody open?! I ended up asking a little lady from the Red Cross stall in the centre of town for help : “Excuse me. I’m obviously an annoying tourist and have no idea… but can you point me to the hard liquor please?”
The poor lovey was very helpful, but I couldn’t understand her directions and she ended up abandoning her stall and walking me down the street to point out an ugly distant grey building called the Vin Buildun (*facepalm* … the Wine Building). Anyway, managed to acquire the required Brennavin though I have no idea how much I paid as both the ISK and the AUD are fluctuating like mad! And now all I have to do is nurse it through 20 more days of travel and get it home in one piece! Wish me luck. 😀

 PS – tastes fucking foul!

Jarlshof… Where the history comes from.

Woo-hoo! I’m in the Shetland Islands! Last time I was Scotland was in 1995 with BigSal and BluddyMary as part of our huge Slappers Grand Tour of Europe, but we never made it quite this far north. The Shetlands are an archipelago of some 100 islands, barely 16 of which are permanently inhabited and today we visited Lerwick – pronounced either ‘Lerrick’ if you’re from any else where in Scotland or ‘Lerwick’, if you’re from the creatively named, Mainland – Shetland’s largest island. Lerwick, meaning literally, ‘muddy bay’ is a home to about 7,500 of the Shetland’s 23,000 people. It’s really sort of nice to be talking about population in the thousands after the ‘small towns’ of China coming in at around 5 million. 

TIL Lerwick is officially only a town, not a city… In the UK, you have to have a cathedral and associated bishopric in order to be a city. I did not know that. Anyway, in the remote ‘township’ of Lerwick our first stop was Fort Charlotte. Built in 1665, Fort Charlotte is a coastal defense fort on the Bressay Sound during the Second Dutch War. It was reconstructed in 1781-82 during the American war of Independence and named after George III’s Queen. The Fort has a battery of cannon facing the Sound and is one of several pentagonal forts built around that time – much like the Dutch inspired pentagon fort we visited in Hakodate Japan a couple of months ago.  

  After the Fort, we happened upon the Lerwick Town Hall, which might be the most beautiful civic building I have ever seen. With a gorgeous and imposing stone exterior, the town hall is comprised of offices and small conference rooms downstairs, and a function room upstairs in which every wall is covered in the most amazing stained glass l. The north wall had an enormous rose window covered with heraldry, one assumes belonged to important people connected to Lerwick, and the other two exterior walls were covered in windows depicting important persons from the Shetland’s Scottish/Scandinavian history. Absolutely stunning room for a town hall… actually scratch that, it was a stunning room to be in any sort of public building. 




 After admiring the stained glass we made our way down to Commercial Road and Market Cross to do a spot of shopping (again with the crazy creative names). We stopped in on some lovely knitwear stores, gift shops and some jewelry stores that all selling lovingly crafted local items inspired by the Shetlands and their traditional arts and crafts – including the famous Fair Isle knitwear. I particularly loved the De Rosa-Rinconada ceramics collection complete with gorgeous otters and puffins (totally would have bought some of these if I thought I could get them home safely), the Mirrie Dancers Northern Lights of the Shetlands jewelry collection (which I might have bought if they came in gold as well as silver) and the Fraser Knitwear (which I nearly did buy because it’s bloody cold!). I did buy a lovely woolen scarf (predictably, in burgundy) and of course a tourist pin for my collection. Mostly I’m just listing these other things here so I can look them up later. 😀

Next on our agenda was the Shetland Museum and Archive. Situated down on the waterfront this free museum is full of all the cool history of the Shetlands spanning back to the Stone Age. I took so many photos here of Scots, Norse and Viking artifacts that I think it might have to go into a post of its own to keep it all straight… The museum covered everything local from stone axes through to Victorian mourning attire. It was very interesting. 

After having been wait listed to get on a ship your to visit the Jarlshof Ruins, I can’t tell you how pleased and relieved I was to be getting the chance to see this unique site – and that is what our afternoon had in store for us. We met up with our tour group back at the tender pier and set off with our local guide, Melvyn, towards the ruins. 

On the way there, Melvyn caught us up on plenty of local Shetland colour and trivia. Housing in Lerwick can be as much as £500,000 with the price going up the further up the hillside the property was located. All the ‘wicks’ – Sanwick, Hoswick, Lerwick – refer to square shaped bays. The little Shetland ponies we saw as we were driving through the countryside were originally beasts of burden, particularly sturdy and useful for collecting peat, but now are of little commercial use, but people love them anyway. In fact, Shetland ponies and sheep are the only domestic animals that thrive up here, and I can fully believe it – conditions today at the end of summer were a bit iffy, but it looked like it would be downright bleak in winter. What else? Ahhh, the locals believe that if the cows are sitting down its a sure sign it’s going to rain (not a bad bet – they seem to have pretty high average rainfalls). And the black fishing nets that seem to live on every other street corner are used to cover rubbish to keep seagulls out of the trash. He told us how people used to harvest peat from the bogs by cutting it into banks to use as winter fuel, but this was falling out of fashion as it is very labour intensive and time consuming. It’s hard work to dig up the peat, it takes weeks to dry it out and you have to transport it home. Peat is like a precursor to coal and is a finite resource as it doesn’t replenish… But Melvyn seemed to think Scotland had plenty of it and mentioned that some people were turning back to peat due to the rising cost of oil and other fuels. I wasn’t aware of this, but a large storms can shift an entire peat bogs by causing landslides when the water gets underneath the peat layer. He also told us how many Shetland graveyards are located close to the coastlines, as many visitors coming to funerals and to grave sites, are often coming by boat. Melvyn was full of weird and wonderful informative tidbits… And I just realized I probably should have dot pointed that wall of text, but too bad! 🙂 

Then there were the Jarshof Ruins, that evidences 5000 years of continuous and uninterrupted human history. It is rightly considered the most important historic site of the Shetlands and no doubt lists right up there with Newgrange in Ireland for somewhat obscure yet intrinsically important historical sites worldwide that document human history.  


 Jarlshof, literally means, ‘earls house’ and the site provides evidence for how humans had lived uninterrupted in the area from the Neolithic Period right up until the 1600s. Each new era building beside, rather than on top of, their predecessors dwellings… So in a rather condensed space you can see how people moved from one area to the next, abandoning the previous building styles. 

Originally the archeological site would have been far more extensive, but it’s precarious location by the sea has seen much of the site destroyed by erosion. What remains however is fascinating. The site was unearthed in 1905 unearthed by a storm which gave a glimpse to the stone work below what would have looked like an ordinary grassy mound. Excavation of the area commenced and in 1925 the site was claimed as a historic site. In 1950 all excavation was finished and the site is now as it was then. Visitors can move through the complex and observe the changing conditions of the people who lived here at the different eras…

Neolithic period is the oldest period represented as being the earliest dwellings on site. Pottery fragments dating from 2500BC were found in these late stone age period residences, dating this section of the ruins to be 4500 years old. 


 Further on are Bronze Age dwellings, the age of which was (obviously) determined by objects made of bronze in what was a working smithy. Remarkable about these bronze finds is they also provide evidence of extensive trade some 4000 years ago – bronze, as we know, is a copper and tin alloy, and while the Shetlands do have copper deposits and copper mines, the nearest tin mines are in Cornwall in the very south of England and must have been traded north. The bronze artifacts found here are similar those those found in Dublin from the same period. The residences in these Bronze Age homes were rounded alcoves that would have had conical wooden roofs… Though wood is no longer plentiful in the Shetlands. 

The next residences belong to the Early Iron Age and are similar in construction (conjoined round alcove housing) to the Bronze Age homes but are slightly more elaborate in comparison. They have also found several soutterrains – underground natural fridge spaces in two of the Early Iron Age dwellings.  


 The Mid Iron Age homes nearby are in the form of a typical Scottish broch – a multi storied round stone building that would have housed several families living in one space. The circular, double brick building had no windows and a timber roof and were built up to 15m high and approximately 16m across at the base. The broch at Jarlshof was built around 400BC-100AD and only half on the circular building remains as the other half has long since been claimed by the sea. 


 The next era represented is the Late Iron Age ‘wheelhouses’ which were built approximately 200-300AD. So named because they resemble a wheel when viewed from above, the wheelhouses again had no windows, were circular in construction, but this time had only one entrance, a small central ‘hall/hearth’ area with alcoves emitting from the central space. The stone pillars supporting the ‘spokes’ widen as they are built higher providing a triangular support which would have enabled a heavier stone and timber roof. Again these wheelhouses housed several families in one structure and would have been particularly cramped – with storage areas but no sleeping areas, people probably huddled together to sleep rather than laid down.


 From there the next period is that of the Viking longhouses from approximately 800AD. The Viking Norsemen came to Scotland looking for farming land – as there were limited agricultural lands left in various Scandinavian/Viking areas. The change in architecture is very noticeable. Gone are the round alcove housing and in their place the long rectangular Viking longhouses are apparent. Corners are square, buildings are more structured, people lived at one end of the long house and animals at the other. Future houses were built perpendicular to the main Viking longhouse. The Vikings brought to Scotland their language, their building techniques and their boat building techniques… much of which is still evident in the modern Shetlands. 

After the Viking period which flourished for some 400 years came the Medieval farmhouse, which was established around 1200AD and was characterized by yet another style of building. These buildings were of drystone construction and had internal and external walls with an earthenware core. 

  Following on from the Medieval farmhouses, the most recent buildings wee from the period where the Scottish took over the Shetlands. The Scottish period started when James III of Scotland married Margaret, daughter of King Christian of Denmark in 1469. Margaret brought the Shetlands as dowry to James III, and even though Christian intended to eventually purchase them back, he never had the capital. For some time the property remained occupied by the Norwegian Sumburghs. Eventually, the Laird’s House and Hall were built and given to Sir Robert Stewart (an illegitimate uncle to James VI) to maintain Scottish governorship of the Shetlands. In 1593 Earl Robert died leaving the property to his son, Earl Patrick Stewart who built further on the property in the rubble bedded lime and mortar style. Earl Patrick met a messy end after being arrested and incarcerated for six years for tyrannous treatment of his tenants. Eventually he was executed in 1615 (the six years of incarceration was apparently because he had to recite the Lord’s Prayer before being executed, and because he was illiterate and took him that long to learn it…stalling much?). After the Stewarts downfall, the Scottish Bruce family took over but without being occupied, by the end of the 1600s the buildings were in ruins. 


 1969 saw the 500th anniversary of the Union of the Shetlands into Scotland which was marked by finally designing a Shetland flag – being a beautifully simple, ‘Azure, an offset cross Argent’. The design is intended to equal symbolic weight to the fact that Shetland was part of Norway for 500 years and Scotland for 500 years, so it is a combination of the typically Scandinavian offset cross and the national colours of Scotland. Very cool… But I wonder what took them so long. 

Other than all these crazy cool things, the Shetlands are known for fishing and fish processing – including salmon and mussels and all good seafoody things. They’re also pretty reliant on oil and natural gas, tourism and agriculture. The only other thing the Shetlands are really known for are their midgees…. Fucking annoying little sand flies getting about biting you when ever the wind dies down. I don’t think I could live in a place that had them year round like this. Little buggers. 
Then there’s the Up-Helly-Aa Fire Festival that is held on the last Tuesday of every January to mark the end of winter. About 800-900 torch bearers walk through the streets in full Viking costumes to the main park in town for the main event of the festival which is the burning of a Viking long ship! People spend months making their Viking costumes (sound familiar?) and the festival lasts nearly 24 hours ending in the 2.5mile procession where participants then throw their torch into the longship. Participants are called Guizers and they follow the GuizerJarl or Earl of the Festival. There is also a junior Up-Helly-Aa held with about 120 kids. Much like the Iditarod – I think it’s something I’d love to attend but can’t quite see myself coming to the Shetlands or Alaska in the winter time! 
Oh, and tomorrow marks the day that Queen Elizabeth II breaks Queen Victoria’s record as longest serving British monarch. I wonder if the royalists will be celebrating in the streets back in London… If they are, we will unfortunately miss it as we will be on the open sea heading for Iceland via the Arctic Circle! 😀 

If I had landed at Plymouth, I would have kept on going!

Ah, nothing like having the prettiest room in the house with the largest, most magnificent bed… and the soggiest soft mattress you have ever encountered in your entire life. The direct result of this was being awake off and on from about 0230 and definitely being awake enough to watch the dawn peep through the curtains. new-haven-dawn.jpgWe are off to Plymouth today, via a town called Mystic, which is renown for its beautiful seaport and being the place where the a replica of the Amistad slave ship resides. Unfortunately, being a moving target, the Amistad was not in residence at the Mystic Seaport Museum and Shipyard today – probably had the good sense to seek warmer climes – so we decided the $USD50 for us to go into the remainder of the museum was a bit on the steep side.mystic-seaport-anchor.jpgInstead, we had a look around the port area and the funkiest nautical themed gift shop ever. *curses American Airlines yet again for their luggage capacity rules!*mystic-seaport-shop-hat.jpgmystic-seaport-1.jpgmystic-seaport-boat.jpgmystic-seaport-2.jpg
After staying outdoors as long as we dared, we took a bit of a drive around Mystic to check out the houses (did I mention how much I love the property market up this way?), and to try and find the Mystic Pizza shop. 🙂 Yes, I know it’s an old movie and I am pretty sure I saw it at some point, but stuffed if I can remember anything but it!
mystic-real-estate-1.jpgmystic-seaport-3.jpgmystic-seaport-2.jpgimageTa da!
Then it was back on the road again and heading for Plymouth. We wanted to take the scenic route and stay by the coastline, but that was altogether too much for Sondra (our GPS) and she ended up taking us via the highways all the way there, which was quicker, but I dare say, not as pretty. Eventually we get to Plymouth Bay and discover that the town of Plymouth is pretty much NOT open for business yet… maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, but it seems like most of them are kinda holding out for better weather. Now the upsides of this is that we were able to find a park no problem (heaps of beach side parking here!), and no need to view this seemingly sacred but actually kinda ordinary rock surrounded by tonnes of screaming 8th Graders, but the downsides were – it’s still freezing, and hardly any of the shops or bars and restaurants in the area were open! So Plymouth felt rather… inhospitable on the whole.plymouth-bay.jpgplymouth-rock-cover.jpgplymouth-rock.jpgNaturally, there is also in the area some little National Park bookshops full of books on the history of Plymouth and the Pilgrims, and trinkets made by local artist and not so local artists (you’d be surprised how many ‘souvenirs’ you turn over and find out they are stamped ‘Made In China’). pilgrim-huts.jpgplymouth-tourist-ready-.jpg
Nearby is a commemorative memorial recognizing the contributions of the Women of the Mayflower voyage, donated by the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) on the 300th anniversary of the historic landing in 1920.pilgrim-women-statue.jpgIf you have a look at the ‘not yet cleaned up for tourist season’ pond around this statue, you will see it’s partially frozen even though it faces due East and probably gets plenty of sun!! Nearby is a replica of the Mayflower itself, and I have to say, it is a LOT smaller than I was expecting. Having traversed a few seas by modern cruise ship, I’m not so sure I’d have the intestinal fortitude to get on a dinky little ship like this and cross the North Atlantic, no doubt the crossing was less than pleasant for many on board.mayflower-1.jpgmayflower-2.jpg
Yet again, we found ourselves driven indoors by the absolutely brutal weather on the coast. It wasn’t quite as bad as previously at East Haven, but the strong winds made it exceedingly enticing to seek refuge where ever possible. I haven’t done my research, but something tells me the pilgrims did NOT land on Plymouth Rock in winter, else they would have kept on sailing until they hit some more agreeable weather for certain! Luckily, we did find one establishment that was keeping its doors open in spite of the weather – The Office Bistro, where we were forced to order the Kentucky Bourbon boneless short ribs, and the local Scallops wrapped in bacon, all served with delicious fresh veggies. It’s a hard life, but someone has to do it.

Philadelphia Freedom

Philadelphia. Philadelphia. Philadelphia… word gets more ridiculous the more times you say it (says the girl from the country with places called Woolamaloo and Wangaratta). Started out this morning having a look out the window across the Delaware River to the New Jersey side and admired the snow that was still on the ground from last night’s delightful weather.
Had a bagel smeared with Philadelphia Cream Cheese (made in Illinois, go figure) and a cuppa before deciding to head into the Old City to have a look around at the historic sites, of which there are many, in Philadelphia.

First stop was the Visitors Centre to grab a map and try and work out how to maximise the touristy stuff and minimise the being outdoors stuff, seeing it was blue skies and sunny, but still below zero.
We went from there to check out the Liberty Bell Centre, and even though we were freezing cold, we were in high spirits – until we encountered the security staff there. On the way it, it was ‘No you don’t have to take off your coats, we just need to inspect your bags and see under your coats’… only my cross body bag was on under my coat, and I went to show it to the guy who then insisted I take my coat off in the freezing cold. I looked at him imploringly and said ‘Really?’ and the wanker, looking directly over my head and not addressing me at all said ‘Bags off people, coats can stay on’. So I stop dead and hold up the queue while I disrobe enough to take off my satchel. The least he could do, the VERY least he could do, was look at me while asking me to freeze my tits off to take my jacket and bag off… but apparently that is asking too much. Then Mr K cops an equally powertripping moron of a security officer who he goes to open his bag for, and she tells him ‘Don’t touch the bag’ and goes about opening his bag (all the zips) herself.

I tell you what, first impressions are being formed less and less by Visitors Centre staff, ticket selling staff and actual tour guides (in this case National Park Rangers), and more and more enduring first impressions of American tourism destinations – in this case historically important national monuments – are being formed by SECURITY STAFF. And this pair took our chilly but collective bonhomous countenance, and trampled it underfoot quick smart. We went from convivial and ‘Oh, isn’t the America fuck yeah, so quaint and amusing this morning?’; to being pissed off at our diffident treatment and ‘Fucking hell, we’ve had it up to the eyeballs with the Sepo Bullshit!’, in about 90 seconds flat. Dude, I don’t care if you hate your job, I don’t care if your country can’t be bothered paying you a decent living wage, I don’t care if you are cold standing around doing bullshit security checks on excited tourists all day and are dissatisfied with your life choices – you take a job like this, you are working with the public and with that comes a certain responsibility to treat with them some modicum of civility… such as looking at a person when addressing them!
Grrr. So much for the Liberty Bell. Given I was now thoroughly ticked off, and given there’s no point in arguing with security people because that never goes no where good – I wasn’t much in the mood for reading the information displays, so y’all will have to settle for the Wiki version of what the bell is all about:

“The Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of American independence, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Formerly placed in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House (now renamed Independence Hall), the bell was commissioned from the London firm of Lester and Pack (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) in 1752, and was cast with the lettering (part of Leviticus 25:10) “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It originally cracked when first rung after arrival in Philadelphia, and was twice recast by local workmen John Pass and John Stow, whose last names appear on the bell. In its early years, the Liberty Bell was used to summon lawmakers to legislative sessions and to alert citizens to public meetings and proclamations.”

So this broken arse bell ends up being really famous and important to the Americans, for allegedly having been rung on Independence Day – July 4, 1776 – even though there’s no way that could have happened due to there being no public proclamations announcing the Independence thing, available until the 8th of July (printing presses were somewhat slower at the time). So the import placed on the bell feels like a bit of a furfy. Oh well, moving right along.

We hightailed it away from the Busted Bell and the arsehole security, and onto the Independence Hall (previously known as the Pennsylvania Sate House), famous for containing the exact assembly hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776, AND the Constitution was signed there too on Sept 17th, 1787… both of the documents we saw at the National Archives back in Washington! This painting was commissioned from an artist named Glanzman in 1986 to commemorate the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence and features all the dead white dudes who were instrumental in bringing it about, all painted based on representations of them in contemporary portraits.

Independence Hall is a beautiful Georgian Building (I found this vaguely amusing, given they were working hard to get away from British rule and George III, and here they were adopting the predominant architectural fashions of the period most associated with good old George) with a lovely clock tower, a court room, an assembly room, a ballroom upstairs, an office/meeting room also upstairs and the militia storage facility. independence-hall-overall.jpg independence-hall-1-.jpg
With visitors interested in coming to see where the Declaration of Independence starting barely a couple of years after the incident occurred, the place turned to tourist attraction rather quickly and is very much today, as it was then – down to the unfortunately choice in interior paint colours.
Assembly Room, where the documents were actually signed, in the centre is George Washington’s actual office chair:independence-hall-signing-room-2.jpg The courtroom: independence-hall-assembly-hall.jpg
Desk set, including inkwell, used to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution documents:independence-desk-set.jpg Upstairs ballroom: independence-hall-ballroom.jpg Governor’s office and meeting room (that device on the end of the table is a telescope, believed to have once belonged to Mason and Dixon): dining-room-independence-hall-.jpg The militia storage room: independence-hall-militia-room-2.jpgindependence-hall-militia-room-.jpg Loved the militia room with it’s near row of rifles and paraphernalia.

After we finished our tour of Independence Hall, we wandered around the Old City for a while, there were several gorgeous buildings in the area, many of which have exhibits in them or (like this one), the State Library Building, as was, is awaiting an exhibit on Thomas Jefferson (as a weird co-incidence we noted that an exhibition of Jefferson’s personal writings and journals had just closed up at the Library of Congress in Washington, and wondered if it was coming here…?) independence-hall-library-hall.jpg

Then we made a weird decision to try and dinky little diner for lunch called Mrs K’s Koffee… to try a Philly cheesesteak sandwhich. Now, mostly you can get these all over the place from Louisiana to New York, so why did we wait to order on in Philadelphia?? You might think it would be the most obvious – when in Philadelphia, etc! But actually it was a West Wing hangover. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), goes a campaigning in Philadelphia and you guessed it – gets told to order the Philly Cheesesteak to make the locals happy, and promptly gets it all over his suit… which is the only reason Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches exist in my weird little mind. It turned out to be a somewhat dubious decision, as it was served with ‘cheese fries’ (even bigger mistake: ‘American cheese, ok?’, ‘Errr… sure.’). And this is what came out for lunch: philly-cheese-steak.jpg cheese-fries.jpg Thank goodness we didn’t order a sandwich EACH, and had sensibly decided to share. Bea, if you are reading this… I have a feeling this is what Cheese Wiz is like, only hot – don’t go there, just don’t. :S

After lunch we popped over to the Benjamin Franklin Museum, which was a very cool little museum focusing on the life and achievements of Benjamin Franklin, from his lack of formal education, to his time working as a printer, to his travels as an ambassador to the French court seeking support in the wars against the English, to his later years as a statesman, author and all round decent guy. It also focused on his keen inventors mind and his involvement in the United States Post Office – he was the first Postmaster General and from what we were told this was the first United States Post Office.
first-post-office.jpg We checked out the bookshops and giftshops around the area and by then (I think it must have been nearly 4pm) we had to call it quits to get out of the cold. One alarming (and absolutely weird) thing I did see today in a gift shop was the USA Boomerang… comes in red, white and blue… and comes in ‘Right Handed’ and ‘South Paw’ versions!