Tartu: As Sweet as it Sounds

Had somebody told me that Tartu was the Estonian equivalent of Oxford and Cambridge I would have visited years ago. Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city has the instant charm of the aforementioned English towns and I can only presume its long-established and widely-respected university is the reason for its laid-back vibe.

University of Tartu

Tartu dates back over a thousand years with the university being founded in the 17th Century during Sweden’s rule of Estonia. To be honest, modern-day Tartu seems like a town attached to a university. Whatever way you perceive the city, the locals are proud of it and its position as a long-held seat of learning, particularly in the sciences. At one stage, one in three pharmacists in Russia were trained at Tartu University.

Town Hall with statue of kissing sudents

The University of Tartu Museum is currently hosting Measuring the World, an exhibition highlighting the feats of six Estonian explorers and is cleverly divided into hot and cold climate sections. Running until February 2018, the exhibition is thoroughly engaging and informative, and comes highly recommended.

Another must-see exhibit is the Estonian National Museum located 2km outside the city centre. Everything you want to know about Estonia is here in an interactive display and housed in a new construct which has courted controversy. Set aside at least half a day for this excursion.

Estonian National Museum

I never visited Tartu Art Museum but I certainly got a good look at the outside of the building. In a way it looks like an art piece in itself.

Tartu Art Museum (aka The Crooked Building)

Tartu is a gorgeous, friendly and safe city to stroll around, whether meandering through its relaxed pastel-coloured streets or walking along the banks of the Emajogi River. Its compact size will be easy on the feet as will the abundant supply of cafes dotted around the city.

Town Hall Square

Town Hall Square looking eastwards towards Emajogi river

Café Werner is legendary whilst the aroma of chocolate at Pierre’s on Town Hall Square is so pervasive it’ll linger in your hair and clothes afterwards!

Cafe Werner

When I first heard of Tartu it sounded like a calorific treat best served with a cup of tea or coffee. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that Tartu is as sweet as it sounds…in every sense of the meaning.

© Hazel Joy 2017

Costa de la Luz

It was an Irish Times travel article on Tarifa that opened my eyes to the possibility of a beach holiday on Spain’s Atlantic coast. And whilst I never reached Tarifa – the beach looked far too windy for sunbathing – I discovered the gorgeous sandy beaches of the southern section of the Costa de la Luz, the Coast of Light and Spain’s best kept secret.

And it was this secrecy surrounding the area that made the holiday a difficult one to plan. Where would I stay? What were the best beaches? Was it expensive? With little information to hand I simply scrolled along the coast on Google Satellite and took a gamble on Conil de la Frontera as a base, an excellent choice as it transpired. Conil de la Frontera, a seaside pueblo blanco* 25-30 miles south of Cádiz city, has been a fishing port for centuries. It blends its old heritage with contemporary cosmopolitan to perfection and is hugely popular amongst Spanish holidaymakers of all ages. The lack of international tourists meant brochures and menus were only in Spanish. Nor can I remember speaking anything other than Spanish to locals.

Plaza de España, Conil de la Frontera

And as excellent the restaurants, cafes and bars may be, Conil is all about the beach. And there are miles of it, subdivided into playas, running an almost uninterrupted stretch down to Cabo de Trafalgar (Cape Trafalgar), the site of the 1805 battle of the same name. In a strange coincidence, a relative of Cuthbert Collingwood’s was said to have lived in the house that my father grew up in. Collingwood was second in command of the British Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Playa de los Caños de Meca with Trafalgar Cape & Lighthouse in the distance

Los Caños de Meca is the nearest urban settlement to Cape Trafalgar. It has a hippy-feel but not as many cafes, restaurants etc as Conil. Between Cape Trafalgar and Conil de la Frontera the long stretch of beach is known as El Palmar and Zahora.

El Palmar (north)

The drive from Los Caños de Meca to Barbate goes through the pine forest of the Parque Natural de la Breña y Marismas del Barbate and has fine views of the coast from the summit. This park has excellent hiking opportunities particularly along the coastal cliffs. Barbate’s fishing industry is quite industrialised and the town more built-up than Conil.

Zahara de los Atunes was a considered choice for a base. And whilst it is blessed with fine facilities and a gorgeous beach it just lacked the atmosphere that Conil had in abundance. Playa Arroyo Cañuelo, south of Zahara, was another beautiful beach although it involved climbing through a pine forest and had no facilities upon arrival.

Playa de Zahara south end – Zahara de los Atunes

But in terms of gorgeous beaches I’ve saved the most scenic till last. Bolonia is a substantial drive from Conil but it was worth it. Therapeutic mud is to be found at the southern end of Bolonia but, to be honest, this view of Bolonia was therapy in itself.

Bolonia beach

Despite being part of the Atlantic, the beaches of the Costa de la Luz were warmer than expected but gradually became windier the further south one ventured. The only thing I would change about my visit was the manner in which I reached Conil. Jerez is the nearest airport with Seville quite reasonably distanced also. Flying into Faro Airport in Portugal is perfect for Huelva province, the northern Costa de la Luz, which forms the Spanish border with Portugal. What I wouldn’t recommend is flying into Faro to reach anywhere on the southern part of the Costa de la Luz as it’s not possible to take a short-cut along the Huelva coast into Cádiz – Parc Nacional de Doñana blocks that route. Lesson learned for the next visit!

* A traditional Andalucía ‘white village’

© Hazel Joy 2017

Ellis Island

Few national monuments and visitor sites chronicle the entire modern history of a country like New York’s Ellis Island does. Opened in 1990, the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and charts the history of immigration to America from pre-independence colonisation to the present day.

Entrance to main Ellis Island Building

Given that immigrants have played a pivotal role in making modern America, by highlighting the immigrants’ collective stories the Ellis Island experience gives a historical account of both the US the immigrants arrived to and the countries they migrated from. An astonishing 40% of Americans today have ancestors who passed through this New York harbour island, reinforcing Ellis Island’s importance in shaping the US and illustrating how much a united states of people the country actually is.

A gift to the USA from France and first unveiled in 1886, Lady Liberty greeted seafaring immigrants.

Operational from 1892 to 1954 Ellis Island was America’s largest immigration station and processed 12 million immigrants during that time. The peak immigration period at the island dated from its opening year up to 1921 when the open door immigration policy was restricted to a country-quota system.

Access to Ellis Island is currently via a ferry from Castle Clinton in Battery Park, Manhattan. Strict airport-like security is in place prior to embarking the ferry. The trip encompasses Liberty Island and a spectacular view of lower Manhattan.

View of Lower Manhattan from inside the main building

The original wooden Ellis Island building was destroyed by fire so the current one designed by Boring & Tilton dates from 1900. The ground floor was the Luggage Room for arriving immigrants whilst the actual processing of applications took place upstairs in the elegant Registry Room. It was here dreams and hopes were either realised or, in a small percentage of cases, denied.

The Registry Room

The Luggage Room contains a highly informative exhibition entitled Journeys: The Peopling of America 1550 – 1890. It was here I learned that Germans constituted the largest immigrant group in the US in 1890 whilst the Irish were a close second. 49 million Americans of German descent are currently the largest ancestral group in the US followed by African Americans and Irish at 41 million and 35 million respectively.

Illustration outlining the origin of immigrants in 1890. The largest immigrant group were the German-born.

The first immigrant to arrive at Ellis Island was Irish teenager Annie Moore on 1st January 1892. Famous names to pass through Ellis Island include actors Bob Hope and Cary Grant from the UK, Prague native and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, illusionist Harry Houdini from what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and film director Frank Capra from Italy.

The story of immigration wasn’t without setbacks.

The one word that encompasses what Ellis Island means is hope. Immigrants arrived with determination and courage hoping that a new, more optimistic and freer life of opportunity lay before them. The story of immigration and integration in the US isn’t without its setbacks but one wonders if the hope which immigrants arrived with is the genesis of the sense of optimism and confidence which is so much part of America nowadays. Ellis Island was my first excursion in New York and perhaps that sense of hope set the scene for what was a wonderful visit to the Big Apple.

© Hazel Joy 2017


Nickname e-Stonia

Ever since achieving independence in 1991, Estonia has kept a low profile, quietly beavering away at shaking off its despised Soviet past. Looking firmly westwards, Estonia joined the EU and NATO in 2004 and adopted the Euro currency in 2011.

Apart from a few reinforced concrete architectural monstrosities I struggled to gauge any soviet-ness about the place or similarities with Russia. Despite having a sizeable ethnic Russian community Estonia feels Scandinavian. Only by force and conniving could the country have been part of a political entity dominated by their large neighbour, which is exactly what happened as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Worse was to follow when Stalin deported or killed a large section of the Estonian population post-World War II.

Freedom Square monument to the War of Independence

Freedom Square monument to the War of Independence

Estonia’s recent road to independence is called the Singing Revolution. Like other eastern bloc countries in the late 1980s anti-communist protests in Estonia took place although the annual Song Contest proved to be the largest protest of all.

Song Festival Grounds overlooked by statue of Gustav Ernesaks, eminent choir leader and composer

Song Festival Grounds overlooked by statue of Gustav Ernesaks, eminent choir leader and composer

In August 1989, in solidarity with their Baltic neighbours in an effort to achieve independence, two million people held hands and formed the Baltic Chain, a human chain from Estonian capital Tallinn south through Latvia to Lithuanian capital Vilnius. Given that Estonia’s population is only 1.3 million it is said that 1 in every 3 Estonians took part in the chain.

Estonia’s topography didn’t impede the chain as the country is as flat as a board. This, combined with an excellent road infrastructure and low level of traffic, makes Estonia an easy country to drive around. However, public transport between cities is efficient and inexpensive.

Tallinn's excellent tram system

Tallinn’s excellent tram system

Other aspects of Estonia which holidaymakers will love are the widespread availability of WIFI and an exceptionally high fluency in English. There is no expectation for tourists to learn Estonian, save the courtesy basics, as the language is apparently one of the most difficult in the world to learn.

And now for the best bit: Estonia has a rich tradition in liqueur production. Given its inclement weather these liqueurs are excellent warmers and I couldn’t have picked a better country to get a respiratory infection in! Estonian cuisine is a pleasant surprise where local meats are combined with berries harvested from the plentiful woods. Fish is widespread and commonly cured for lasting as Estonia’s coast freezes during winter. Estonian bread, dark in colour, is made from rye. Although rye doesn’t agree with me everyone else agreed that it tasted delicious.

A small sample of Estonian liqueurs. Sugar crystals line the bottom of the Kannu Kukk bottle.

A small sample of Estonian liqueurs. Sugar crystals line the bottom of the Kannu Kukk bottle.

Between October and April Estonia’s weather is unforgiving. I visited in October where the temperature hovered between +3 and +8 degrees Celsius combined with a bracing Baltic wind. Snow fell soon after I left. A cheap flight has a lot to answer for! These temperatures didn’t seem to hamper travellers’ desire to visit as I counted 15 different nationalities on the walking tour in Tallinn. I guess Estonia’s position as a geographical crossroads lends itself to attract touring folk. North and west lies Scandinavia, Russia is 2.5 hours east and the remaining Baltic countries lie south.

Estonia is a thoroughly modern country, a model which we could all draw inspiration from. Even the political process is tech-orientated with election voting taking place online. So if you’re putting off a trip to Estonia because of an expected antiquation just remember the country is the home of Skype and has an IT-inspired nickname: e-Stonia!

© Hazel Joy 2017


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,


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhN52teEF3Y
  1. http://media.radiokerry.ie/mediamanager/embed/player/podcasts/55/item/52587


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