Gallivanting in Europe

By Phillip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 50 of the June 2015 issue.

(Second of two parts)

Last month I related the first part of my experiences during a 6-month European tour in 2014. Today I am continuing my story.

Ireland Road Scholar tour

Next on my program was a tour of Ireland, a country through which my late wife, Flory, and I had bicycled by ourselves many years ago. 

On the 2014 tour, the 18-day “Ireland’s Coasts from North to South,” June 23-July 9, offered by Road Scholar (Boston, MA; 800/454-5768,, one of my Dutch cousins, Marion, accompanied me. Before I tell you what we did, I would like to give you a little bit of Irish history.

In 1845, the Great Famine — caused by the blight that affected the country’s potatoes, the staple food of the Irish — altered Ireland forever. Successive crops from 1845 through 1847 also suffered as the result of this affliction. Many Irish emigrated to the US, often under dismal circumstances, resulting in a marked decline in the Irish population.

While the country became prosperous once more as of 1995, a recession raised its head in 2008, with mounting unemployment levels. Fortunately, since 2011, Ireland’s economy has been slowly expanding again. 

The present island of Ireland is divided into two parts: Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK (with sterling as its monetary unit), and the much larger, independent Republic of Ireland (in which the euro is king). 

The Troubles

Before our group started on the tour (program 19446, for which I paid $4,989, including a single supplement), knowledgeable lecturers gave us a thorough overview of “the Troubles,” as this part of Northern Ireland’s turbulent history is called. 

The Troubles lasted from 1968 until 1998 and pitched the Unionists, the mostly Protestant majority that wanted to be part of the United Kingdom, against the Nationalists, the almost entirely Catholic minority, who desired to be part of the Republic of Ireland. During this period, 3,600 people were killed and as many as 50,000 people were injured.

It is now safe to visit the entire area, as the warring between the parties has ceased and there are no longer official, manned border crossings between Northern Ireland and the republic. The only way that you can tell one region from the other is by looking at the license plates of the cars, which display the European Union emblem in the south and mimic the British license plates in the north.

Our tour

Our tour started in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, where it rained incessantly, something I had expected. Interestingly, I didn’t see many Belfasters wearing raincoats, even when it drizzled.

We began with a visit to the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, also called the Stormont because of its position in the Stormont Estate of eastern Belfast. The Assembly meets in a majestic white building lying at the top of manicured sloping lawns and striking flowerbeds. 

While seated in the Assembly’s gallery, we had the good fortune to listen to the legislative deliberations. We also were privileged to meet with a member of the Assembly, who spoke to us.

The following day we toured the Giant’s Causeway, a natural amphitheater made up of large, hexagonally shaped basalt rocks, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Subsequently, we entered the Republic of Ireland, overnighting first in Galway City, an area where the Irish language and music still predominate.

Circumnavigating Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, was next on the program. This lovely peninsula presented a striking medley of fascinating coastlines, moorlands, marshes, gardens, mountains and sleepy settlements.

As if this were not enough, the day after, we covered the well-known Ring of Kerry, an approximately 200-kilometer scenic loop in County Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. 

On the way, we visited Killarney National Park, a craggy, mountainous region, where we toured the 19th-century Victorian mansion of Muckross House and its outstanding gardens on the shores of Muckross Lake. This lake is one of Killarney’s three bodies of water, renowned for their magnificence. 


After visiting Waterford, with a tour of the Waterford Crystal Works, we spent several days sightseeing in Dublin, which is divided into two parts by the River Liffey. 

On our first day in Dublin, many in our group couldn’t wait to visit the library in Trinity College to see the Book of Kells, an exquisitely illustrated manuscript of the Four Gospels that was created by Irish monks around the year 800. 

On the next day, all Road Scholars pointed their cameras’ lenses toward the Ha’penny Bridge, an old iron footbridge that crosses the Liffey and is one of Dublin’s renowned charms. 

Another remarkable sight was The Dawson Lounge (25 Dawson St.), the city’s tiniest pub, which holds 50 to 60 people in an overcrowded space. Despite its being so small, it is always full, as it serves the cheapest Guinness in the city.

Our Ireland visit ended with a Liffey River cruise, which, I thought, was one of the highlights of our program.

Having been on land so long, I subsequently embarked with my cousin  Marion on an 8-day voyage from Budapest to Nürnberg, “Romantic Danube,” offered by Viking River Cruises. 

The last cruise on my itinerary

Finally, to top off my 6-month journey, I took a 56-day cruise from IJmuiden (the new port for Amsterdam in the Netherlands) up north with Holland America Line (877/932-4259, www.holland
, July 13-Sept. 7. For a verandah stateroom on the Prinsendam, I paid $20,860, including a single supplement. 

This 56-day cruise actually is broken up into four 2-week circuits. Each circuit started and ended in IJmuiden and then went north again. 

While most people took the 2-week tour, several diehards took two circuits back to back for a 4-week excursion. I was the only one who stayed on for 56 days, as far as I know. On the one cruise to Iceland, my two Israeli cousins joined me.

I will give you just a short synopsis of one of the 2-week cruises, the “Kiel Canal & Baltic Explorer” cruise. 

“Kiel Canal & Baltic Explorer” 

On the “Kiel Canal & Baltic Explorer” cruise, we traversed the Kiel Canal and docked in Rønne (on the Danish island of Bornholm), in the cities of St. Petersburg (Russia) and Tallinn (Estonia) and in several Scandinavian ports.

The Kiel Canal is the waterway that connects the North and Baltic seas. It is a very crowded channel, and our ship had to wait five hours before we could enter the first lock. 

An adjacent foot/bike path with hardly any traffic, together with the nearby attractive, hilly and wooded countryside, make this a favored place for hikers and cyclists. It reminded me of the many bike paths my wife, Flory, and I traversed when we pedaled through Europe in the past.

Rønne, with its typical red-roof Danish houses, was a replica of the Danish mainland. While summers there are warm and delightful, tourists stay away during the winters with their violent storms.


Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, has a population of around 430,000. The Soviet Union (USSR) occupied the country in 1940. This was followed by the German occupation from 1941 to 1944. After the Nazi withdrawal in 1944, the USSR invaded it again. Finally, in August 1991, the country became independent. 

 The city consists of three parts: the Upper Town and the Lower Town, which together are referred to as the Old Town, and the New Town. The Old Town of Tallinn dates from the 13th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Upper Town, aka Toompea Hill, with its castle and cathedral, was until 1877 a separate municipality, where the aristocrats lived. Nowadays, it is the home of the legislature and government bureaus.  

On our shore excursion, while walking through the fascinating, narrow, twisting lanes of the Lower Town, we gazed at the well-preserved medieval churches, monasteries and merchants’ houses, which, in places, were surrounded by remnants of the ancient town wall. Most lanes eventually merged onto the center of the Old Town, the large Town Hall Square, where buildings towered over us and where markets regularly take place.

The third part, the New Town, extends all around the Old Town and consists of typical Soviet-style, concrete structures, which now have been joined by modern Western buildings.

 I hope that the description of my 90th birthday travels will inspire seniors of all abilities and many others to travel and enjoy the adventure, beauty and culture that our world has to offer.    F

Dr. Wagenaar welcomes questions but may not be able to answer them individually. Write to him c/o ITN.