Church of the Saviour on spilled blood - Commissioned in 1883 by Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II who was assassinated at this site in 1881

From Peter the Great to February 1917

With two revolutions in St. Petersburg during 1917, Russia dominated news headlines that year. The February revolution (March in the Gregorian calendar) saw the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II bringing an end to several hundred years of rule by the House of Romanov. And whilst the political landscape of the city underwent vast subsequent change evidence of royal rule remains throughout.

Although Peter the Great was born in Moscow his years of travel convinced him to found a Baltic coastal city in 1703 inspired by what he saw in Amsterdam. He named his city after Saint Peter with the burg part coming from the Germanic name for a fort. A decade later he declared the city Russia’s capital and the Peter and Paul Fortress became its first major building.

Given St. Petersburg’s large size I’ve summarised the main royal sites and the monarch involved in each.

Peter the Great (1682-1725)

Entrance to Peter and Paul Fortress from St John's Bridge (Ioannovsky most). This defence fort was used as a prison. The fort's cathedral is the burial place of all but two of Russia's tsars.

Entrance to Peter and Paul Fortress from St John’s Bridge (Ioannovsky most). This defence fort was used as a prison. The fort’s cathedral is the burial place of all but two of Russia’s tsars.

Nevsky Prospekt - St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare

Nevsky Prospekt – St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare


Alexander Nevsky Monastery


The Grand Cascade garden feature at Peterhof Palace, the elaborate and spectacular royal summer palace located approximately 20 miles west of St. Petersburg.

Elizabeth I (1741-1761)


Winter Palace – Commissioned by Empress Elizabeth in 1754 the building was complete in 1762 where it became the official imperial residence until 1917


Smolny Cathedral

Catherine II better known as Catherine the Great (1762-1796)

Statue of Peter the Great better known as the Bronze Horseman Statue

Bronze Horseman Statue – Unveiled in 1782 Catherine II commissioned this in honour of Peter the Great and it was re-named after Pushkin’s epic poem. The square in which it is situated was the site of the 1825 December uprising.

Alexander I (1801 – 1825)

Rostral Columns - These lighthouses on the right of the picture are located on Vasilyevsky Island

Rostral Columns – These lighthouses on the right of the picture are located on Vasilyevsky Island

General Staff Building on Palace Square which is now part of the State Hermitage museum

General Staff Building on Palace Square which is now part of the State Hermitage museum

Kazan Cathedral - Although commissioned under Paul I construction and unveiling were during Alexander's reign

Kazan Cathedral – Although commissioned under Paul I construction and unveiling were during Alexander’s reign

Nicholas I (1825-1855)

St Isaac's Cathedral - Although commissioned under Alexander I construction took place during the reign of Nicholas I. It opened in 1858 during the reign of Alexander II

St Isaac’s Cathedral – Although commissioned under Alexander I construction took place during the reign of Nicholas I. It opened in 1858 during the reign of Alexander II

Alexander Column (right side of picture) - Located in Palace Square and built from 1829 - 1834, Nicholas I dedicated this to his older brother Alexander I for defeating Napoleon.

Alexander Column (right side of picture) – Located in Palace Square and built from 1829 – 1834, Nicholas I dedicated this to his older brother Alexander I for defeating Napoleon.

Alexander II (1855-1881)

Original Mariinsky Theatre with Mariinksky II to the right of the picture

Mariinsky Theatre – the Tsar named the home of the world class ballet and opera in honour of his wife

Alexander III (1881-1894)

Church of the Saviour on spilled blood - Commissioned in 1883 by Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II who was assassinated at this site in 1881

Church of the Saviour on spilled blood – Commissioned in 1883 by Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II who was assassinated at this site in 1881

Whilst the Romanovs commissioned some of the most architecturally elaborate and aesthetically-pleasing buildings in the world construction involved a large amount of slave labour, labour which grew increasingly frustrated with the opulent lifestyles of the monarchy versus their own impoverished conditions. In January 1905 striking workers gathered in Palace Square to present a working conditions petition to Nicholas II but were met with force by the Winter Palace guards.

At the outbreak of World War I, St. Petersburg changed its name to the more Slavic-sounding Petrograd and found itself fighting the Austro-Hungarian & German empires. In February 1917 thousands once again gathered around the Winter Palace and Palace Square but this time the Tsar’s experienced troops were fighting on the Eastern Front and so the job of quelling protestors fell to a small number of inexperienced soldiers who eventually sided with the protestors. A provisional government was set up in the Winter Palace and Tsar Nicholas II abdicated a number of days later. Russia ceased to be a monarchy but what followed later in 1917 would not only change St. Petersburg but would have repercussions throughout the world up to the present day.

© Hazel Joy 2017

Bye Bye Winter, Hello Biddy

Winter can be an unforgiving time in Ireland given the precarious nature of Atlantic weather systems. So it’s with great relief we welcome spring on 1st February. For our ancestors who lived in a more agrarian society this date was the start of a new farming season and celebrations were held in honour of the Celtic goddess Brighid who was said to have agricultural fertility and protection as her function1. Since the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in the 4th Century the first day of February is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day (Lá Fhéile Bríde), named after the saint that had a similar role as her Celtic goddess equivalent.

The locality of Kilgobnet in Mid-Kerry continues the custom of welcoming the spring by engaging in “The Biddy”, a tradition where members of the community travel from house to house to entertain local residents. All music, song and dance is of the traditional Irish variety. In essence, it’s a travelling carnival and is said to have originated from the pagan festival of Imbolg2, one of the four ancient Gaelic festivals.

Kilgobnet Biddy Group. Masters of dancing in confined spaces.

Kilgobnet Biddy Group. Masters of dancing in confined spaces.

The Kilgobnet National School Biddy which features in this blog post functions as a fundraising activity for school running costs. At this point I must declare my bias as I’m the Chairperson of the school’s Board of Management. The school’s 5th and 6th classes have their own Biddy groups and they fundraise for charities.

The Biddy is led by a captain who decides on the route and houses to visit, and asks permission to enter each house. In some cases the group gets a specific invite to a house or public venue. The Captain carries the group’s sign and is followed by a person holding the Biddy doll, an effigy of St. Brigid. Once inside, the group entertains the residents and departs with a donation.

Captain Danny O'Sullivan leading the way.

Captain Danny O’Sullivan leading the way.

St. Brigid's effigy

St. Brigid’s effigy













The Biddy costume comprises of white trousers and shirt with green and red trimmings. Participants attach a small St. Brigid’s cross over the heart position on their shirts. The costume’s pièce de résistance is the straw Biddy hat, the making of which is a craft in itself.

Biddy hat made from straw

Biddy hat made from straw

Weather is no impediment to this Biddy group although excess rain can damage musical instruments. Kilgobnet’s Biddy comprises of 20-30 people and the camaraderie is obvious. The enthusiasm in both participation and in receiving the Biddy is immense as is the stamina needed by its members to entertain for hours on end.

Such a unique endeavour doesn’t go unnoticed with the Kilgobnet group featuring in mainstream media, most notably on RTE’s main news bulletin3. Sean Hurley of Radio Kerry accompanied the group on the same night as I did for his Kerrywide show4.

St. Brigid’s Cross. Made from field rushes we learn how to craft these in school. It is tradition for houses to display one on St. Brigid’s Day

It’s astonishing to see a sizeable amount of artistic talent in an area with such a small population but this is the result of Kilgobnet’s holistic school ethos. Above all, activities such as the Biddy are part and parcel of our heritage and culture, and the preservation of this tradition is a testament to the strength and spirit of this small but big-hearted community. Long may this community and tradition continue.

© Hazel Joy 2017

  1. The Lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance – Dáithí Ó hÓgáin,




First Flight

So where did the travel experience begin for me? Like most Irish people, the UK was my first international destination via airplane but I did the journey as an unaccompanied minor twenty five years ago this month. Much was I looking forward to the new experience that I didn’t let nerves or security concerns get in the way of my enjoyment. The ignorance of a young solo traveller is a blissful state of mind. The destination was my sister’s house in the south of England.

It was an evening flight onboard a small loss-making airline called Ryanair founded a few years previously. My older brother drove me to Kerry Airport and it was his globe-trotting knowledge which guided me as far as the security point which, at the time, was a room no bigger than our kitchen. Unlike nowadays, the passage through security was swift and there was no need for a thorough investigation of my luggage which mainly consisted of puddings (black and white), Taytos (cheese and onion flavour), and Barry’s Tea: the usual contraband for Irish emigrants.

The buzz of the airport had me transfixed as I watched the travelling stereotypes: the self-confident men in suits, the striking-looking airline staff and the nervous travellers sinking pints for courage. A blue haze of cigarette smoke infused most parts of the building and my lungs. The pushing and shoving in the boarding queue surprised me and despite my years of travel since, I will never get used to this disrespectful behaviour.

With collective seatbelts fastened, the plane made its way to the end of the runway. Moments later, I was propelled into the back of my seat as we speeded down the airstrip. The plane ascended and I heard a groaning noise emerge from the engine. Other passengers appeared unconcerned so I did what the cabin crew advised us all to do: sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the flight.

My senses remained heightened during the flight such was my enthusiasm. I had no sooner finished my complimentary soft drink when I noticed the front of the plane dip downwards. A few moments later the outside landscape changed from a blanket of darkness to a never-ending metropolis of lights. The luminosity of night-time London was breathtaking and was in stark contrast to the scantily-lit village of Farranfore where the aircraft began its journey.

I was awe-struck by the space-age appearance of a night-time Stansted Airport.  As per my brother’s instructions, I followed the confident-looking passengers and arrived at the automatic train. Such technology amused me no end and within seconds I and others were in the expansive surroundings of the main terminal.

A couple of more steps brought me to the end of my journey where I was greeted by my eldest sister and my uncle in the arrivals hall. I had finally completed the landmark event with nothing more than the ignorance of youth and a sports-bag of groceries to accompany me.

So what has changed in the intervening twenty five years? Kerry Airport has grown bigger as has Ryanair. But my curiosity to see the world remains, the travel experience still transfixes and I do most of my travel solo. Here’s to hoping the next twenty five years will be as fulfilling.

© Hazel Joy 2016

Saint Petersburg: Cultural Colossus

St. Petersburg is deservedly known as Russia’s cultural capital. It’s breadth and depth of cultural heritage is astonishing and in this post I’ll attempt to distil several hundred years of various art forms into a couple of paragraphs.

Aleksandr Borodin, Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich are the three prolific St. Petersburg natives in the classical music world, the latter two amongst the twentieth century’s greatest composers. St. Petersburg attracted a plethora of talent from other parts of the Russian Empire including Rachmaninoff, Mussorgsky and Prokofiev. But it was a certain Pyotr Tchaikovsky who is now synonymous with the city having composed The Nutcracker and Swan Lake ballets for the Mariinksy Theatre.

Original Mariinsky Theatre with Mariinksky II to the right of the picture

Original Mariinsky Theatre with Mariinksky II to the right of the picture

Renowned French choreographer Marius Petipa presided over the Mariinksy’s development into the world’s premier ballet troupe and collaborated with Tchaikovsky on The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, it and its associated opera company were renamed the Mariinksy in 1860 and all three underwent two more name changes post-1917, most famously the Kirov in 1935, before returning to Mariinksy in 1992. Given Mariinksy’s prominence in ballet, it produced and attracted household names such Nijinksy, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and local prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. During my visit I had the immense pleasure of attending a ballet at Mariinksy II, a magnificent concert-hall opened in 2013 adjacent to the original theatre.

Auditorium of Mariinksy II which opened in 2013.

Auditorium of Mariinksy II which opened in 2013.

But it’s St. Petersburg’s role as a writer’s hub which has assured it a prominent place in world cultural history. Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame and Ayn Rand of Atlas Shrugged fame were born here as was Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky. Nikolai Gogol and Maxim Gorky lived in St. Petersburg as did poet Anna Akhmatova whose family suffered the full wrath of the soviet regime. The Akhmatova and Nabokov museums celebrate the lives and works of these respective authors. Aleksandr Pushkin, considered by many to be the Father of modern Russian literature, died from injuries sustained in a duel on the Vyborg side of the city. The Bronze Horseman statue near the Alexander Garden was re-named after his epic poem of the same title.

Statue of Peter the Great better known as the Bronze Horseman Statue

Statue of Peter the Great better known as the Bronze Horseman statue

Fyodor Dostoyevsky spent his final years in St. Petersburg and his home in the Vladimirskaya district is now a museum. His classic novel Crime and Punishment about the unhinged Raskolnikov is the definitive fictional take on the city, Arctic Noir so to speak.

Dostoyevsky Museum

Dostoyevsky Museum

Regretfully, my few days in St. Petersburg couldn’t do the city’s art collection justice. Firstly, the State Hermitage is one of the world’s largest museums and is home to over three million international works. The Hermitage is comprised of several buildings including the General Staff Building and the iconic Winter Palace. The Russian Museum houses an extensive collection of native artists. This list of two is far from definitive but to see all works in both museums one would need several years!


Winter Palace - Home of the Romanov royal family up to 1917 and now part of the State Hermitage museum

Winter Palace – Home of the Romanov royal family up to 1917 and now part of the State Hermitage museum

General Staff Building on Palace Square which is now part of the State Hermitage museum

General Staff Building on Palace Square which is now part of the State Hermitage museum









A site which serves as a common denominator to the arts in St. Petersburg is Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, final resting place of notable city residents, amongst them Borodin, Mussorgsky, Petipa, Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky.

Alexander Nevsky Monastery where Tikhvin Cemetery is located

Alexander Nevsky Monastery where Tikhvin Cemetery is located

I’m only skimming the surface of St. Petersburg’s cultural heritage so apologies to the city for what I’ve omitted. But I hope I’ve conveyed St. Petersburg’s sense of artistic achievement and highly recommend a trip to this thoroughly engaging and visually impressive city.

© Hazel Joy 2016

Frankfurt’s Way

Frankfurt is Europe’s second-busiest transport hub and with direct flights from there to Kerry, my local airport, it was only a matter of time that I would visit. Ever since the “Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way” pre-election declaration in 2011 by the then Irish Labour Party leader I’ve taken an interest in visiting the German city which is home to the European Central Bank (ECB), the Irish taxpayer’s nemesis. In an affront to the basic fabric of commerce, Frankfurt got its way by bullying Ireland’s terminally-ill Finance Minister into unfairly burdening Ireland with private bondholder debt1. In an affront to democracy, the ECB failed to co-operate with the Irish Banking Inquiry despite contributing to Ireland’s financial crisis2.  Even the IMF has criticised the ECB’s actions towards my home country3.

Frankfurt is synonymous with finance as skyscraper office blocks dominate the horizon, none more so architecturally-nauseating than that of the old ECB HQ building near Willy Brandt Platz. The new ECB main building on Sonnemannstrasse isn’t much of an improvement despite its €1.4 billion cost with EU taxpayers footing that bill. However, the walk along the River Main into the city centre from the new ECB comes recommended.

The old ECB HQ

The old ECB HQ

The current ECB HQ

The current ECB HQ

What Frankfurt bankers lack in style, humility and democracy, the locals more than make up for in terms of friendliness, helpfulness and cultural endeavour. Given Frankfurt’s reputation as a travel hub I expected a city frantically coping with masses of commuters and travellers. The reality is actually the opposite and I was pleasantly surprised with its laid-back organised vibe.

Commuting will not be the only reason I’ll to return to Frankfurt. In fact, the plentiful supply of shops on Biebergasse, Keiserstrasse, and on the streets leading from Goethe Platz are a big draw as is the most famous of the shopping streets, the Zeil.

Frankfurt is relatively cheap with hotels and restaurants giving excellent value for money. I stayed in Hotel Europa Life near the Hauptbahnhof for €49 per night which was an absolute steal for the quality I experienced.

Frankfurt city centre experienced massive damage during World War II but small sections have been carefully and lovingly restored, none more so than the Romerberg, a square whose original dated back centuries.



I was particularly taken by Bethmannstrasse and the Eschenheimer Turm structure:




Eschenheimer Turm

Culturally, Frankfurt is the birthplace of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the colossus of German literature. His play, Faust, is based on the German legend of a frustrated scholar with whom the Devil makes a pact to deliver happiness in return for Faust’s soul, hence the term “Faustian Pact”. Given Goethe’s cultural significance the Goethe-Haus is a must-see attraction and also incorporates the Frankfurt Goethe Museum. I used a Goethe quote in my postgraduate thesis introduction many years ago and so had a personal interest in visiting.


Goethe Haus & Museum

Helmut Kohl championed peace, unity and equality in our continent and it was he who canvassed for Frankfurt as the location of the ECB during his tenure as German Chancellor. He may have done the city a disservice considering the vested-interest elite the seemingly unaccountable ECB now harbours, and we need to separate the friendly city reality from the negative reputation the ECB thrust upon it. Despite this conundrum, my love for Germany remains intact.

I’m not a Europhobe. In fact, I strongly identify with being European and deeply care about my home continent. My comments here reflect the reservations I have about the democratic deficit which has developed in some EU institutions giving rise to a profound inequality in Europe. Irish journalist and writer Fintan O’Toole says the EU “is turning itself from a community of equal nations into a fiscal penal colony with creditor guards and debtor prisoners. It is inequality – mostly but not exclusively economic inequality – that is making the western world increasingly anarchic”4.

Widespread unease exists regarding matters in Sonnemannstrasse. But I have no complaints about the rest of Frankfurt. In fact, I’m looking forward to a return.

© Hazel Joy 2016




Cuba Independently – Part 3: Trinidad

If you want to experience the physicality of rugby firsthand then I suggest you arrive in Trinidad by bus. The cackle, scrum and maul of casa owners waiting for the bus was quite extraordinary, if amusing. It was a hectic start to what was one of the most peaceful places I visited.

Plaza Mayor - The centre of Trinidad

Plaza Mayor – The centre of Trinidad

But the word I most associate with Trinidad is quaint. Most of the buildings date back to the sugar plantation days of the 19th Century and have been preserved to a tee. The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and rightfully so. The cobblestone streets add to the charm. They also reduce the noise levels as motorised vehicles, with the exception of mopeds, are unable to access the centre of the town. Aggressive taxi jinteros, the bane of my visit to Cuba, were thankfully absent although waited like vultures on nearby tarmac streets.


The Sierra del Escambray mountains form the backdrop to many streets

The town’s bars and restaurants were excellent, and bus station staff were friendly and efficient. In fact, the bus station was the only one in Cuba I could pre-book a ticket from. The town has a large number of art galleries and craft outlets. None of the sellers were pushy, making the shopping experience a pleasant one.

Casa de la Trova

The famous Casa de la Trova

The only downside of Trinidad was the trip to and from Playa Ancon. The shuttle bus from the Cubatur office was broken down (because it probably doesn’t exist in the first place) but there were plenty of taxis waiting outside (how convenient). Refusing to go along with this rip-off mentality I got a taxi from outside the Iberostar Grand Hotel. The driver didn’t stick to the original price agreed and, from what I could understand, threatened me if I didn’t pay. I threw the original sum agreed on the seat and got out of the car as quick as I could. This and other instances I experienced and witnessed convinced me that the safety of solo female travellers in Cuba is a concern. Other solo female travellers I met felt the same. Was Playa Ancon worth the hassle? It’s a nice beach but it isn’t paradise. It has good facilities and a choice of water-sports on offer, along with the trappings of beachside hotels.

Playa Ancon looking towards Hotel Club Amigo Ancon 1

Playa Ancon looking towards Hotel Club Amigo

Trinidad was not on my initial itinerary. In her book, The Island that Dared, Dervla Murphy considered it too touristy. But the feedback from so many independent travellers couldn’t be ignored and thankfully convinced me to change course. So my first piece of advice? Give yourself at least two nights there. And my final bit of advice? Prepare to ‘play’ a contact sport upon arrival!

© Hazel Joy 2016

Wild Atlantic Way: Dingle to Tralee

There are two ways of travelling from Dingle to Tralee by road. There’s the N86 which commercial vehicles and commuters use. And then there’s the Connor Pass white-knuckle ride and it’s along this route that the official Wild Atlantic Way travels.

Starting in the Riviera-like Dingle town the R560 road travels in a north-eastern direction snaking up the mountains until the Connor Pass (An Chonair) viewing point is reached. The Connor Pass is one of the highest asphalted mountain passes in Ireland and has spectacular views of Brandon Bay to the north and Dingle Bay to the south.

View of Brandon Bay from Connor Pass

Looking northwards from Connor Pass

Next up, the white-knuckle ride section of the route. Jagged rocks protrude from the mountains for ascending southbound drivers. There’s a 1,000 feet drop into the above-pictured valley for northbound drivers descending the Pass. Neither are great options, hence the need for careful driving skills and putting the word Achtung* on an Irish road sign!

Pic 8

Descending from the Connor Pass

Less adrenaline-releasing options are available by the time the road levels out. The Wild Atlantic Way splits into two routes, both of which meet in Castlegregory. The R560 is an extension of the Connor Pass route but take the R550 road to Brandon (Cé Bhréanainn) and Cloghane (An Clochán) villages to experience one of the lesser-known treasures of Kerry.

Pic 35

Hikers may wish to stay overnight in either village as opportunities for climbing abound. For day trippers I highly recommend the walk to Brandon Point from Cloghane (12km approx) or Brandon (5km approx) as much as I recommend the bakery in Siopa an Phobail Bácús Bhréanainn in Cloghane.

Pic 19

View of Brandon Bay from ascent to Brandon Point

Pic 24

View towards Cloghane & Brandon villages from Brandon Point

If accommodation isn’t available in Cloghane or Brandon then Castlegregory, water-sports capital of Kerry, is the next best bet. Castlegregory’s expansive beach is one of the most popular beaches in Ireland for surfing whilst ex-professional windsurfer Jamie Knox has a long-established water-sports centre on the Maherees, a sand spit which juts out into Brandon Bay.

Pic 38

Fermoyle Beach, between Cloghane & Castlegregory, looking towards Brandon Point

The Wild Atlantic Way continues eastwards towards Tralee in a straight line with Tralee Bay to the left of the route. A trek in Glanteenassig Woods, south of Castlegregory, is another recommended walk as are the Sliabh Mish mountains which skirt along the right-hand side of the road into Tralee. Bear in mind that the area around the Knockmichael peak is reserved by the Defence Forces.

Pic 6

Glanteenassig Woods. There’s a Nordic Noir feel about the place!

Straight road from Castlegregory to Tralee

Straight road from Castlegregory to Tralee

The R560 becomes the N86 at Camp village and soon Blennerville’s windmill is visible. A three minute drive from cozy Blennerville along the canal leads into Tralee town and the journey comes to an end. One blog post doesn’t do this varied and inspiring section of the Wild Atlantic Way a great deal of justice so I will re-visit sections in the future. So see you later…or auf wiedershen as the Connor Pass folk might say!

Blennerville windmill

Blennerville windmill

* German word for Warning

© Hazel Joy 2016