Archive for the ‘Ireland’ Category

Back Home

May 5, 2009 - 9:07 pm 2 Comments

Descending over Newark, the familiar landscape was nauseating. Haze blanketed colorless, boring apartment buildings and industrial structures. Even the grandeur of Manhattan’s skyline was dulled by familiarity.

Everything was nauseating. The gate we arrived in, the little restaurants, the brand-name retail stores, and even the people walking around in the airport all looked depressingly familiar. Whenever you lose yourself in another country for a few days, coming home is always a bit of a jolt, no matter how much you prepare yourself.

Ireland is a beautiful country of velvety green grass, medieval ruins, and rusty bacon. I’m amazed with what we did and saw in six days. Everything went like clockwork. Definitely the smoothest vacation I’ve ever taken.

Getting the car was key. We were able to drive at our own pace and stop for snacks or a photo whenever we wanted. The roads are narrow and slow, but the distances are short and the traffic is light. The late sunsets (didn’t get completely dark until around 10pm) made it easy to get most of our driving done during daylight. And the GPS was a godsend.

Traveling east to west is definitely the way to go. On our trip, each day was better the last, with the sights getting bigger and better and the scenery getting greener and wilder every time we stopped the car. At the end of our trip, winding down in the quieter towns of Galway and Ennis was perfect.

And we completely lucked out with the weather. It was raining when it didn’t matter and sunny when it did.

The Irish people are a genuinely friendly, confident, talkative, and happy, with a quick tongue, a great sense of humor, and wonderful little expressions like “That’s grand!” or “He wouldn’t beat an egg!” Stef loved the accent, falling in love with every Irish guy who spoke in her general direction.

A few of the locals mentioned to us that Ireland is in pretty serious economic trouble, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the way they carry themselves. The Irish have an easy, laid-back, no-stress attitude and enjoy the simple pleasures in life like talking and drinking and laughing. This a happy people who take nothing for granted.

And there are no losers or dicks in Ireland. Everyone seems to respect each other. Liam was a tall, gawky kid who actually plays an accordion, and he was a confident, polished speaker. And the bartenders and bouncers and cops and taxi drivers, generally arrogant assholes back home, are all friendly and helpful.

Still have no idea where all the tourists were. The attractions and roads were virtually empty. Is spring the off-season for Ireland?

B&B’s are everywhere. In some neighborhoods, every other house is a B&B. TripAdvisor was immensely helpful, allowing us to sort through hundreds of listings and pick out the best and more affordable ones only a day or two before we came into each town. Each was pleasant and homey, with small bedrooms having clean beds and a tiny TV mounted high on the wall or on top of the wardrobe.

Staying in a B&B every night starts to get a bit expensive, but such is the price of luxury. With the cheap flight, average meals and drinks, and a good price on the car rental, I’d say it was a fairly priced vacation overall.

Part of the reason we were able to do and see so much in six days was that we were flexible. The key to flexibility is knowing your options. We had a basic idea of what we wanted to do, but due to research we did before the trip and a few minutes here or there on the laptop, we were able to make educated decisions on the fly that allowed us to cram in as much as possible into each day. It’s amazing how everything worked out.

Do we have any regrets? Maybe some small ones, like the fact that we didn’t get to catch a traditional Irish dancing show or that maybe we stressed a little too much trying to cram as much as possible into our tight schedule. But like I said, everything went so smoothly that it’s hard to complain about anything.

Despite the various leg injuries, Stef had a fantastic time. It was really the first time she has taken a big trip like this, and everything was new and fresh for her. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling, and new places are surprising me less and less, but one thing I never get sick of is being away from home.

Stef loved how un-American everything and everybody was. It’s a more familiar experience for me, but Stef began to see that America really is backwards in a lot of its habits and attitudes for the first time. After a few days, Stef was saying that she wanted to move to somewhere like Ireland. After few more days, she said she wasn’t going home.

Maybe it really is time to live in another country. It’s an idea that I’ve been kicking around for a while, but perhaps it’s time to really start looking into it.

For now, we’re back in America, where guys piss everywhere in the bathroom except in the urinal, where slow drivers drive in the fast lane, where turn signals make the drivers around you accelerate, where cars honk loudly and often, where people are afraid to make eye contact, where fat people are unhappy but beautiful people are unhappier, where we need too much and need it yesterday, where one flavor of Coke isn’t enough, where we need it faster and bigger and louder but not better, where news and advertising is about fear and urgency, where everyone moves too fast or too slow but nowhere in between, where people push other people but not themselves, where people hate their jobs but whine when they can’t keep them, where no one’s interested unless they’re getting money or sex, where no one takes responsibility, where no one even tries to be articulate, where courtesy is a courtesy and not a standard. I’ve made most of these observations in the past, but international travel really brings them out in relief.

So what’s next? Got some potential trips in the works. Maybe a long weekend in Yellowstone, maybe Israel, maybe Rio for New Year’s. My Mom is even talking about taking the family on a Mediterranean cruise. We’ll see what happens…

Last Night in Ennis

May 5, 2009 - 8:19 am No Comments

Another easy drive, this one down the N18 to Ennis. We found our B&B just outside of town. We checked in, chatted with proprietor Anne, and then asked her where we should go for dinner and music. She recommended Brogan’s, a pub in Ennis that was sure to have live music.

Munster v. Leinster

Cans of Bulmers

We drove into town, found a great parking spot (seems my parking skillz are international), and ordered a steak dinner. Stef had seafood chowder for the eighth time in a row. Despite complaints from her stomach, she loves it and has ordered it every chance she gets.

We shuffled to the back of the bar to listen to the music. Stef ran into a group of people from New Jersey and wasn’t terribly happy about it. I started chatting with the Irish guy sitting next to me, a truck driver named Kevin. He lives in Amsterdam but was back home for the weekend. The conversation became livelier when Kevin’s friend Pete (pronounced “Pet” in his thick, Northern Irish accent) joined us.

The drinks were flowing. I introduced Kevin and Pete to the SoCo and lime shot, and Pete danced with Stef. We stayed until the bar closed, laughing, singing, and dancing.

Good times. A fantastic ending to a fantastic trip.

Pete & Stef Dancing

Kevin & the Band

Together at Brogan's

Brogan's

We got a few hours sleep before dropping off the car at the airport. We traveled a total of 1033 km (642 miles) in the car, and I only filled up the car one and a half times. I’m not sure if it’s the less stringent emissions requirements or a different grade of fuel in Ireland, but 40 mpg is pretty damn good.

Sadly, airport security took Stef’s two cans of beans in tomato sauce (a staple of the Irish breakfast) as we went through the metal detectors. We got a few last minute snacks and boarded the plane.

Our last glimpse of Ireland was of the grassy fields and wetlands surrounding Shannon Airport. It wasn’t long before white clouds obscured our view, turning our six-day Ireland vacation into a memory.

We’re back over the Atlantic, heading the other way. This Continental Airlines crew is grumpy and impatient. They are definitely not Irish.

Winding Down in Galway

May 4, 2009 - 3:02 pm No Comments

The last day of our Ireland adventure…

Woke up this morning and had a chat with Eddie, one of the proprietors at 4 Seasons, over breakfast. Instead of the regular concentrate that everyone else had, I was delighted to find that Eddie served freshly squeezed orange juice. So good that I had three glasses.

Eddie is an interesting, funny guy. He taught us a bit about Irish history and attitudes and discussed Ireland’s affection for Obama. Like a lot of the Irish, he had a quick way with words. “If America sneezes,” he said, “we all catch a cold.” He also told us funny stories about rude Americans that have stayed with him in the past. To him, most Americans, especially the ones from New York City, are rude and a little slow-witted. He told us the story of how one woman was so impressed with his scrambled eggs that she asked him for the recipe. He recounted the conversation quickly and articulately, which served to make it even funnier:

“I make scrambled eggs at home, but they don’t taste as good. How do you do it?”

“Well, you got a pan and you add the eggs, butter, a little salt, and a bit of milk. Then you take your whisk and mix it up a bit to get some air in there, but not too much.”

“Well that’s what I do, but it doesn’t taste as good as yours.”

“How were you stirring? Clockwise?”

“Yes.”

“Well you have to turn it anti-clockwise.”

“Ahhhhh, OK.”

Eddie also mentioned that he goes to America quite often to go shopping and gloated how economically he was able to shop over there. With his $7 sweater and his $10 jeans, his whole outfit cost him less than $50. Eddie was also a part of Ireland’s clean-up operation in Iraq after Desert Storm. He showed us the empty shall casings he kept and now uses to decorate his fireplace and hold umbrellas.

Stef & Eddie

While we were eating, an Irish guy in socks slipped down the stairs in a very Kramer-ish way and popped into the dining room. We struck up a conversation with him and learned that his name was Liam. He was an 18-year-old student living at the B&B for several months while he studied for an exam to get into university. Liam wants to be a teacher. Even from our brief conversation, we could tell that Liam was friendly, charming, mature, confident, respectful, and well-spoken, like most Irish people we’ve met and unlike just about any 18-year-old or 28-year-old or 38-year-old would be in America. Stef and I really respect the people of Ireland.

We asked about Irish dancing, the last thing on our list of things to do and see in Ireland, and Eddie said we probably wouldn’t find it in Galway, especially since it was a Monday and a Bank Holiday. Slightly discouraged, we headed into Galway anyway for a quick look around, going at a leisurely pace due to Stef’s bum Achilles. She could hardly walk.

Swans on the Corrib

Stef Under the Spanish Arch

Shop Street

At lunch, we had our first Bulmer’s pear cider. Delicious.

Pie & Cider

We didn’t find much else of interest in Galway, so we’ve decided to pack up the car and spend our last night in Ennis, a town near Shannon. We figure it’s a good idea to stay down there since we have to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch our flight home out of nearby Shannon Airport. ?

An Island, a Cliff, and a Poem

May 3, 2009 - 11:00 pm No Comments

Pretty cruisy morning. Decided to be crazy and had scrambled eggs and smoked salmon instead of the traditional Irish fare for breakfast, then made our way down the road to the pier near Doolin. The air is crisp and fresh, but the smell of rusty bacon is replaced with salty spray and the smell of decomposing seaweed.

No Driving Off the Cliff Allowed

I had pre-booked tickets for the Aran Islands and Cliffs of Moher day trip, so they were waiting for us when we got down there. The ferry out to Inisheer (ih-nih-SHEER), the smallest of the three Aran Islands, was a little bumpy but pretty quick. Once ashore, we rented bicycles and spent the morning riding tiny paved roads up and down hills and through pastures sectioned off with rock walls, stopping to climb around a shipwreck, take photos of a lighthouse, or talk to horses. It’s been years since I’ve ridden a bike, and Stef quickly proved how much better shape she’s in than me. By the end of the day, it felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my perineum.

Graves at Teampall Chaomha?in

Graves at Teampall Chaomha?in

Inisheer Horse

Plassey Wreck

Stef & Jeff

Inisheer Lighthouse

Ireland is a beautiful country, but it’s difficult to photograph. The beauty surrounds you, and it’s hard to capture all of it in a single shot. Panoramic shots seem to do a better job of capturing the beauty than any single shots can.

360° of Inisheer

O'Brien's Castle

O'Brien's Castle

After hopping back onto the ferry, we headed back to Doolin to drop off some passengers and pick up some new ones before heading out to the Cliffs of Moher. I’m not sure if it’s because we were heading into the wind or what, but these waves were massive. Our boat was thrown around quite violently. That, and the diesel smoke wafting up from the engine on the back of the boat, turned me and Stef the finest shade of Irish green. The bouncy boat, salty spray, and my nausea made it hard to take any photos at all, and Stef could barely lift her head.

Back at the pier, Stef and I collapsed in our parked car and passed out. About 45 minutes later, we came to, feeling a bit better and ready to continue our adventure.

Walking around Doolin for souvenirs and postcards, I noticed that a photographer named John Hinde seems to have monopolized the fine photography postcard/calendar market in Ireland the way Peter Lik has in Australia.

Fisher Street

Old Bike

Gus O'Connor's Pub

Guinness on Tap

We decided to stop for a quick lunch at at O’Connor’s. On the walls above the bar, people have pinned hundreds of dollar bills, each with names and dates and places written on them. Stef and I decided to leave one of our own, with a limerick written on it that went something like this:

There once was a girl named Stef
Who traveled with a boy named Jeff.
Came to this pub
To grab some grub,
And in spirit, they’ve never left.

Our Limerick

After Doolin, we headed over to the Cliffs of Moher, this time by land. Driving on the tiny road up the hill and out of Doolin, I stopped to take a few more pictures of Doonagore Castle. I pulled over onto the side of the road and hopped out to take a few shots. Leaning over the fence, I was setting my camera up when I felt my left knee seize. I recoiled, for a moment losing all concept of space and time. When I regained my senses, I realized that I had just touched an electric fence. Stef, who heard my screams and saw my confused expression through the car’s rear view mirror, laughed at me for about 20 minutes.

The Cliffs of Moher are quite spectacular. Steps take you up to a viewpoint, where the walkway was sunken into the ground and it was impossible to get close to the edge for a good view.

Cliffs of Moher

Angry Irish Sunset

Moher Cows

We followed everyone else and hopped over a wall to walk along the edge of the cliffs at their highest point. There is nothing between your feet and the sheer drop hundreds of feet down to the crashing ocean below. It is NOT for the squeamish. Even I got the willies a few times while trying to take photos close to the edge.

Cliffs of Moher

Crashing Waves

Cliffs of Moher

Cliffs of Moher

We were going to brave the chilly winds and wait until sunset, but it was clouding over and I was pretty sure sunset was going to be a bust, so we left.

We hopped back it the car and headed to Galway (GAWL-way), our last stop for the night. Again, the drive was narrow, bendy, and easy. Hardly any traffic at all.

Finally rolled into the 4 Seasons B&B at about 10pm. Stef and I were both so tired that we just turned on the TV and relaxed. Stef fell asleep instantly, but I stayed up a bit to work catch up on my blogging. We’ve been so busy on this trip that staying up to date has been nearly impossible…

Ring of Kerry and the Mad Dash to Doolin

May 3, 2009 - 1:21 am No Comments

We woke up and met with Rose at breakfast, asking her to turn on the Internet for us like she had promised, but she went into this story about how her computer’s hard drive made some funny noises a few days ago and that she lost everything. Then she told us that she was instructed by her “computer guy” not to turn her computer on while they are cooking. Perhaps her computer sits on the stove? In any case, it was breakfast, and we couldn’t afford to wait. We headed into Killarney’s city center to find some more information about the rally on the Ring of Kerry and assess our options.

At a tourist information center, a helpful woman named Michelle told us that only a small section of road on the Ring was closed for the Rally of the Lakes and that we’d be just fine since we were getting a late start. The bonus was that all of the tour buses and most of the other tourists had left Killarney several hours before, meaning that there should be very little traffic on the Ring. We cursed Rose, got our morning scone, and hit the road.

Setting off to the Ring of Kerry, we knew that we were about to begin the more scenic part of our trip. Except for one wrong turn that took us the wrong way for a few miles, our GPS and maps met our navigation needs perfectly. That GPS has been a godsend.

Like County Wicklow, the scenery of the Ring of Kerry was varied and beautiful. One minute, you’re gazing at the openness of Dingle Bay, then you’re driving along the edge of a thickly gorsed cliff, then you’re passing through a town that smells like rusty bacon, and then you find yourself in the middle of a rocky, scrub-filled mountain range.

The roads themselves were like many of the roads we’ve been driving for a few days: narrow and bendy. Not a problem, though, since there were hardly any cars around. We don’t understand it. All the books we consulted say that traffic on the Ring is a bit of a pain, especially from the tour buses clogging the roads. But we had entire stretches of road to ourselves several times, and we saw only two tour buses the whole day.

But the posted speed limits on these roads were ridiculous. We’re supposed to drive 100 km/h around a turn along the edge of a cliff? With no guardrails? It was a challenge driving even half the speed limit in most places.

The drive took us through the small town of Cahersiveen. Having done some research on my last name, I know that “veen” is old Dutch for “bog,” and the town of Cahersiveen seems to be surrounded by bogs. I guessed that the town might have been originally settled and named by the Dutch. Turns out that “Cahersiveen” comes from the Irish “Cathair Saidhbhín,” meaning “town of Little Sadhbh.” Oh well.

Daniel O'Connell Memorial Church

We stopped for a seafood lunch at the Lobster Bar in the coastal town of Waterville. It was here that I first tasted Bulmer’s cider. Now that is good stuff! Apple juice with a kick. I wasn’t into Guinness, but this stuff I could drink every day. Seems that Bulmer’s also has a pear cider. Can’t wait to try that one.

Lobster Bar

On the Ring of Kerry

Stopped in Sneem for some really delicious honeycomb and raspberry ripple ice cream. In the end, our whole trip around the Ring of Kerry took about six hours.

Sneem River

Ring of Kerry

Jeff and Stef in Killarney National Park

We returned to Killarney and then headed northward. My ambitious goal was to catch a car ferry across the Shannon River and reach Cliffs of Moher (mow-HAIR) for sunset. I was pretty sure that the cliffs would provide us with something pretty dramatic.

We headed up to Talbert to catch the ferry to Killimer, in County Clare, on the other side. By the time we got there, it raining so hard that I pretty much gave up on the sunset. But when we came to port on the other side, the clouds blew away, revealing blue sky and a blazing sun. The wet roads shined, the grass glistened, and all the flowers and colored houses brimmed with color. I had renewed hope for my sunset.

Wind Turbines in the Sun

Cows and a Wet Road

I pushed the pedal to the floor and took off for the Cliffs of Moher, blazing down the straightaways and wrapping around the turns, zipping by any locals driving too slowly. Stef was scared holy shitless, grabbing her seat with one hand and my neck with the other. She likes sunsets as much as anyone else but is not willing to risk her life to see one. What does she know?

Approaching the cliffs and sensing that we might not make it, I pulled over to snap a few shots. Good thing I did, because when we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher a few minutes later, it was closed and there didn’t seem to be any way to get to the cliffs. I was a little disappointed, but we might try to get out there again tomorrow.

County Clare Sunset

County Clare Sunset

County Clare Sunset

A few minutes later, we were in Doolin. Tucked into the hills near the coast and accessible by the tiniest of roads, Doolin is really just a single street of shops and pubs. Even at night, it didn’t take us long to find our B&B just around the corner.

Doonagore Castle

I love the name of the place we’re staying, Doolin Activity Lodge. For some reason, it makes me think of kindergarten arts and crafts class, where you glue together popsicle sticks and use rubber cement and construction paper to make “art.” But it’s a beautiful place. Very clean and nicely laid out, with cool-looking skylights in each of the rooms.

It was late, and we hunted for a place that would still serve us food. We went to O’Connor’s, the biggest pub in Doolin. Our waitress told us that the kitchen was closed but that she might be able to scrape up some Guinness beef stew for us. She did. We wolfed it down, had a few drinks, and enjoyed the live Irish music played by locals in the bar.

Live Music at O'Connor's

Tomorrow, we take a day trip out to the Aran Islands and cruise along the Cliffs of Moher on the way back. Stef and I are really looking forward to it.

We don’t want to jinx things, but the entire trip up to this point has gone like clockwork. Everything has been timed perfectly, we have done more than we had ambitiously planned to do, and every problem has resolved itself. Getting the car has proven to be the best decision we’ve made, allowing us to see and do everything at our own pace for less money than buses or trains would have cost. Overall, we’re pretty amazing at how well things are going…

Three Castles and a Kiss

May 2, 2009 - 12:51 pm No Comments

Up early once again. We had a big day ahead of us, and we couldn’t let the pouring rain slow us down.

We started with an early morning drive around Kilkenny, stopping first at St. Canice’s Church, which wasn’t even open yet. I snapped a few photos outside of it before we went to Kilkenny Castle. Pretty cool from the outside but pretty bland on the inside. I almost didn’t mind that they didn’t allow photography in there.

St. Canice's Cathedral

Kilkenny Castle

Kilkenny Castle

The weather cleared up nicely for our drive to Cashel. Stef wanted to give driving in Ireland a shot, so we switched places. She drove for about 45 seconds before we nearly clipped a tractor and simultaneously missed a head-on collision. I screamed like a little girl, and we switched places again.

Meadow in Kilkenny County

Irish Cows: Distrustful

The Rock of Cashel is a very old and very picturesque castle sitting on top of a rocky hill. Pretty cool place. We walked around a bit, snapped some photos, and then stopped for lunch in Cashel.

Rock of Cashel

Hall of the Vicars Choral

Inside the Cathedral

Doorway to Ireland

Doorways and Arches

Outside Cormac's Chapel

It was in the pub in Cashel where I first encountered the mysteriously named “brown sauce.” Along with ketchup and vinegar, there were little packets of it in a bowl on the table. I questioned our waitress as to its flavor and composition, but all she could tell me was that it was good. Squeezing it onto my plate, it was the color and thickness of BBQ sauce. I dabbed a French fry into it and took a bite. To my surprise, it tasted quite floral, like the perfume of a 14-year-old girl, quite the opposite of what I expected it to taste like. Subsequent research reveals “brown sauce” to be a malt vinegar base blended with fruit and spices popular in the UK. After lunch, we hit the road again.

The Road Through Cashel

It’s amazing how green everything is. Velvety green grass, some of it silky and long and some of it smooth as a putting green, covers the whole country. It seems that the gentle sunshine and mushy ground is the perfect recipe for it. I haven’t seen a single dead blade of grass in Ireland yet.

Every small town we passed through was composed of tightly packed shops and pubs along the main road through town and a church. And all of them shared a very distinctive smell: green freshness combined with the sharp, smoky smell of bacon. And there’s also a metallic, almost rusty element to it. All together, it smells like “oldness.” It’s how I imagine all of these towns smelled in medieval times. Stef and I can’t figure it out, but it’s always there when we drive into a town and disappears when we drive out.

On the radio, announcers went on and on about the upcoming Heineken Cup rugby match between Munster and Leinster. The local stations were all about Munster, reigning champions the huge favorite. (Munster lost.) Then they’d go on about the swine flu and about how some guy on the east coast suspected of having it has been locked inside his house. Then they’d go back to rugby. Music stations played a crazy variety, from classical to rap to top 40. One of the stations had hosts who were disconcertingly American.

Back roads would lead us to numbered “N” roads, small expressways that cars share with enormous tractors. Slower Irish drivers courteously stay in the slow lane, so the driving is pretty quick. Just before Blarney, we hopped on our only “M” road, which is about the closest thing you’ll find to a superhighway in Ireland. With our GPS, it was all a piece of cake.

Our goal for the day was to get to Blarney Castle to kiss the Blarney Stone before it closed, and we got there with plenty of time to spare. Lots of space in the tiny parking lot and no line to get in. How is one of the most famous tourist attractions in Ireland nearly empty?

Stef Crosses the Square

The grounds around the castle are pretty impressive, and with hardly any people around, it was easy to take photos. Then we walked over to the castle itself.

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle

The Blarney Stone experience wasn’t what I expected. Never having seen pictures of it, I had always imagined it as a cute, little, Excalibur-like boulder on top of a hill with the sun beaming down on it, surrounded by Irish dancers and rainbows and leprechauns. But it’s not like that. It’s at the top of a hulking castle. We took the winding staircase up to the top, finding it completely empty except for two guys near the Blarney Stone: one to hold you while you are suspended upside down, the other to snap your photo for purchase on your way out. The stone itself is built into the castle wall and would easily go unnoticed if it weren’t for the two guys.

Irish Meadow

At the Top of Blarney Castle

Stef and I took turns laying back and kissing the Blarney Stone. There are rumors that locals piss on the stone, and who knows what other fluids might be on it. If I didn’t have swine flu before, I have it now.

Stef Kisses the Blarney Stone

Jeff Kisses the Blarney Stone

Blarney Castle Grounds

Our Sexy Little Yaris

With time to spare, we hopped back into the Yaris and headed into nearby Cork for dinner. We stopped at a little outdoor patio on trendy French Church Street called Restaurant 14A and had a delicious and very relaxing dinner outside. It’s Saturday night, and after dinner, the streets began to fill with young Irish folk looking for a good time. Cork seems like a pretty lively place, and it would have been nice to stay a bit longer.

Walking Down French Church Street

It was getting late, so we hit the road again for Killarney, our stop for the night. Coming into town, the streets were clogged with kids in their low-cost, highly modified, very loud cars. We sat through a few minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic before finding our B&B.

Although I had confirmed a reservation at one of the B&B’s with an e-mail that said, “OK, we’ll take it! See you soon!” we arrived to find that our room had been given to other guests. Granted, it was late, but what more could I have done to confirm? In any case, we were homeless. The inhospitable but otherwise friendly B&B owner made a call for us and told us to visit another B&B, but he could not give us an address (he laughed at my request) and his directions were shit. Didn’t take us long to get lost. My GPS, Stef, and I were tired and frustrated, so we stopped at the only B&B that still had its lights on and knocked on the door. A friendly woman name Rose let us in and gave us a room.

Seems to be standard routine for the owner of the B&B to have a little friendly chat with you before showing you to your room. It’s kinda nice. We told Rose about our drive into Killarney and our plan for tomorrow. She explained that there was a huge student rally on the Ring of Kerry early the next morning, and that’s why there was so much traffic in town. She went on to say that the Ring of Kerry, the sole reason we had come to Killarney, will be closed off for the once-a year rally tomorrow morning.

For the first time all trip, Stef and I are a little discouraged. We can’t do any research, because Rose had to turn the Internet off for whatever reason. We’re discussing our options and will make a decision in the morning.

The Road to Glendalough

May 1, 2009 - 12:54 pm No Comments

We woke up to a traditional Irish breakfast: a fried egg, two sausages, a runny pile of baked beans, and a thinly sliced, fried piece ham (the Irish version of bacon), served with orange juice from concentrate and your choice of tea or coffee. Fills you up nicely, but it’s a bit heavy. I found that Weetabix, which looks like it’s made of compressed bran flakes about the size and shape of a bar of soap, cuts through the grease nicely.

River Liffey

This was our last day in Dublin, so we were on a mission to see what we missed yesterday. We first stopped at the old but surprisingly unremarkable St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s nice, but not nearly as ornate or colorful as some of the other cathedrals we’ve been to.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

St. Patrick's Cathedral

St. Patrick's Cathedral

After doing some online research, we went to a few of the famous U2 spots I wanted to see, including a hearing aid store named Bonavox, the store from which U2’s lead singer Bono took his name, and Windmill Lane, the graffiti-covered street marking the location of the old studios where U2 recorded their early albums, including Joshua Tree. The studios are no longer there, but the street has become a mecca for graffiti-spraying U2 fans.

Bonavox Hearing Aids

Windmill Lane

Windmill Lane

Windmill Lane

Windmill Lane

All the walking left Stef with a bum knee. But we were finally done with Dublin, so we zipped over to Budget to pick up our car, a sexy little silver Toyota Yaris. Even with all the insurance and extra fees tacked on, it was still a pretty good deal. And it only took a few minutes before I was driving right-hand drive, manual transmission car on the left side of the road like a pro.

We packed up our stuff and flipped on my GPS, onto which I had downloaded maps for all of Europe just before coming out here. Thankfully, it recognized that we were indeed in Ireland. It directed us out of Dublin and onto the small country roads of County Wicklow.

The scenery is magnificent. Narrow roads take you past farms and fields filled with sheep. Glens are covered with velvety green grass and splotches of yellow gorse. Hills offer open views of the countryside. The air is filled with the smell of crisp freshness and the smoky goodness of cottage fireplaces. The rugged and varied terrain covered with sheep reminds me a lot of New Zealand.

Trees of Wicklow

Sheep of Wicklow

As you go on, the roads get narrower and bendier. Before you know it, you find yourself surrounded by the mountains and mushy soil of Sally Gap. Valleys filled with rocks and angry vegetation make me think of Scotland. I’ve never been there, but that’s how I imagine it looks. It’s no surprise that many scenes from Braveheart were filmed in this area.

Stef Somewhere Near Glencree

Angry Clouds of Sally Gap

Valley in the Wicklow Mountains

Finally, we arrived at Glendalough (GLEN-duh-lock), ruins of a medieval monastery set alongside a couple of lakes and surrounded by mountains. The few intact structures were surrounded with hundreds of gravestones, some of them old and illegible and some of them more recent.

Monastic City of Glendalough

Leaning Gravestones

Thick gorse along the trail filled the air with the smell of buttery coconut. A walk through the forest along a trail dotted with dandelions took you to a sweeping view over the lakes. There was hardly anyone else there. A strangely magical place.

Grass of Glendalough

Glendalough Woodland

Stef & Jeff

Upper Lake

Back in the car, we continued through the hills, very easy to drive due to the 9pm sunsets and the lack of other cars. We’d sometimes drive for 10 or 20 minutes without seeing another car. Where are all the tourists? Do they all just stay in Dublin? Is it now the slow season for Irish tourism?

It was still light out when we came upon the wide-laned, curbed roads and strip malls of suburban Kilkenny. We finally pulled up to the Dunboy B&B, the place we had found on TripAdvisor and run by a very sweet woman named Helen and her husband Tony. It was getting late, so we grabbed a traditional Irish dinner at the last open restaurant in town. Stef had the bangers and mash, I had the lamb stew. Decent, but not fantastic. I’m finding Irish food to be a little bland overall, and every one of Stef’s meals has looked and tasted better than mine.

Kilkenny seems like a quiet town, probably a good place to stop for the night before continuing west. Tomorrow, we check out the sights in Kilkenny, visit the Rock at Cashel, and then head to Cork to kiss the Blarney Stone.

Stef passed out next to me. It’s takes a lot of self-motivation to stay up late writing these things when you’re completely exhausted and your travel companion is sound asleep…

Exhausted in Dublin

April 30, 2009 - 11:10 pm No Comments

The fluffy, gray clouds began to disperse, revealing the rough, green coastline near Dublin. As the plane touched down, Stef vibrated with excitement. Nice to be here.

We made our way to get our bags and then to the main terminal to find our bus to our B&B. Dublin Airport’s a bit smaller than I expected, but it looks like they’re building a huge expansion on it.

Our double-decker bus, #41, took us right to our B&B on Upper Drumcondra Rd. in about 20 minutes. We were greeted at the door by Joseph, a guy with a think Romanian accent and the proprietor of the house. He sat us down in the living room, asked us about our plans in Dublin, brought us some tea, and did everything he could to make us feel at home.

It was chilly and drizzling outside, and we were pretty tired, but we knew that we had to make the most of our first day and see as much of Dublin as we could if we were to stick to our schedule. We reviewed our plan with Joseph, he recommended some buses to take, and we headed into the city center.

We could already tell that the Irish were friendly and outgoing, but in an uncommon display of Irish rudeness, the bus driver would routinely slam the door shut after an arbitrary number of people got on and then take off when people were about to step on. What’s with that?

We got off the bus at Trinity College, finding that it was a good spot to hit all of the things on our list.

Pomodoro Sculpture

Homeless Guy

After a stroll through Trinity, we made quick stops at Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral. We got a bit turned around but eventually found our way to the Guinness Storehouse.

Bedford Tower at Dublin Castle

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

The Storehouse is pretty much a museum for Guinness beer. A single path leads you through the whole exhibit so you don’t miss anything, which is great for a self-guided tour. The first few floors are a veritable beer museum, describing in detail the brewing process, where the ingredients come from, and how the company was started. As you work your way upward, the focus shifts to advertising and marketing. When you finally get to the Gravity Bar on the top floor, you redeem your ticket stub for a pint of Guinness. Everyone says that this particular pint is the best Guinness you’ll ever have. I must admit that I’m not a beer person, so it was really nothing special to me. But when it’s poured into a shiny Guinness pint glass, the tiny bubbles cascading around and slowly forming that creamy head is a beautiful thing.

This Way to the Guinness Storehouse

Guinness: Water

Two Pints of Guinness

St. James Gate Brewery

As we walked around, we would stop at various Internet cafes to snack and research our travel plans for the next few days. Still waffling back and forth between taking a train or bus around Ireland, we checked the Budget web site and found a ridiculously low fare: €58 (US$79) for five days. I couldn’t believe it. I scanned the web page to make sure that this was the total rate and not the daily rate. We could get a car for quite a bit less than the trains or buses, and a car would give us the flexibility we really needed. So we booked it. I just hope they don’t screw me over with fees and insurance costs when we go in to pick it up.

Our last stop was to meet up with a guy named Dave. I’m a big U2 fan, and we found that this guy offered U2 tour around Dublin, showing people where they grew up, where they played their first gigs, where they recorded their early albums, and where they currently hang out. At the scheduled time, we went to our meeting place but couldn’t find him. After 30 minutes, we gave up and headed over to the trendy Temple Bar area to grab some dinner. Stef was fed up with all the walking, and I was literally falling asleep at the table. It was a full day, and we were done.

The Temple Bar

We popped into a pub in Temple Bar for some live music and a quick drink before heading back to the B&B. On the bus, a group of kids got on drinking from open beer cans. How cool.

We’re pretty happy with what we got done today. Tomorrow, we finish Dublin and maybe hit some of those U2 spots before picking up our car and hitting the road.

And We’re Off!

April 30, 2009 - 3:08 am 2 Comments

So here I am, finally on my way to Ireland with Stef…

The taxi ride on the way to the airport was a bit of an adventure. Our driver enjoyed the brake pedal but did not enjoy main roads, using every conceivable back road to get us to the airport. And we were in a bit of a rush, since Continental Airlines had called us earlier to tell us that our flight was canceled and that we had been put on an earlier one. In the end, our new flight was delayed so that it was leaving at about the same time that our old flight was scheduled to leave, so it all worked out. We caught our connecting flight, and we are finally on our way, over the Atlantic at the moment and on our way to Dublin at this very moment.

Newark to Dublin

This flight was off to an ominous start. First, there’s a reason they board the planes from the back to the front. Why don’t people realize this? Especially the ones who just have to sit in 16C when they are boarding rows 30-40? Do they just HAVE to get on board first? Is it SO important for them to warm up their seat before takeoff that they need to delay the hundreds of passengers behind them for a few moments? It is in these cases that I like to use math to quantify selfishness. Ten seconds times 200 passengers inconvenienced equals 2000 Selfish Points (SP).

Even before getting to our seats, we could tell that the air conditioning didn’t work. The cabin was disgusting. And the video system didn’t work. Rebooting it 48 times didn’t seem to help, so they just turned the units off. No maps or movies or games for us. After pulling back from the gate, the air conditioning nozzles started blowing cool air. I could feel swine flu landing all over my face.

Just before take-off, one of the flight attendants (the woman with long blond hair and a little monkey face) stormed down the aisle yelling “Turn that computer off!” and “Hey, bring that seat up!” Seriously?

Stef and I were not sitting together on the full flight, but just after takeoff, I asked two of the crewmembers who were having some sort of conversation if I could change seats with another passenger so that I could get two seats together. They looked at me as if to say “You think I give a shit?” In the end, I managed to charm a gnarly toothed but very friendly Irish gentleman sitting in the last row to get two seats together. So that’s where we are now. Stef had some ear issues and was squirming around in her seat when we took off, but she seems to be relaxing at the moment.

There are downsides to these seats. I am arm’s reach from a toilet emanating so much cleanser stench that I’d rather it was just filled with shit. And I get knocked silly any time one of the loud, pushy, and borderline rude crew members turns from the service area and walks by. One of these women has thighs like Serena Williams and the forward momentum of a schoolbus filled with overweight children. There is no stopping her.

Shortly after takeoff, dinner was served. Can someone explain to me how airport security, when they are doing their job, will strip you of any metal, plastic, wooden, cardboard, or cloth item which may be used as a weapon on board, but dinner is served with a shiny metal steak knife? My dinner of chicken and rice was decent.

Continental Airlines Roll

After the meal, Stef collected all of our garbage on one tray to make their job easier. “You’re not doing us any favors by stacking the trays,” the guy sneered as he fumbled to get our tray into the slot on his little cart.

He came back a few minutes later for tea and coffee, asking the German guy who had the window seat what he wanted.

“Coffee.”

“I don’t know what that means. Do you want it black or with milk or cream?”

Seriously? The German guy seemed to take it in stride, but I was borderline offended with the guy’s rudeness. Afterwards, with the lights dimmed, the crew happily clattered coffeepots, slapped trays around, and spoke in their OUTSIDE voices in the service area behind us when it was obvious that most of the people on the plane were trying to get some sleep.

What is with this crew? Did Continental Airlines recently slash their pay? Overall, this rude, conspiring crew is the worst I’ve ever had on an international flight. Perhaps this is why the tickets were only $400?

And I’m convinced that it’s impossible for even a normal-sized person to find a comfortable sleeping position in a middle or aisle coach seat. You’re too upright in your chair, so your head teeters around a bit while you are on the brink of consciousness before decisively falling in one direction and jarring you back into the reality that you are sitting in an uncomfortable coach seat. (And I have tried those little U-shaped flight pillows. Don’t work.) You can’t fold your arms and lean forward because the woman in front of you will inevitably plop down in her chair like a 600 lb. gorilla, kicking her seat back and turning you into a C2 quadriplegic (just learned THAT lesson a few minutes ago). And you can’t lean one INCH into the aisle because the crew will come through like a herd of elephants and take off whatever bit of shoulder you leave exposed. In the six hour duration of this flight, I’ve gotten about fifteen minutes of solid sleep. Stef has her head down next to me, but I think she’s faking it.

I hear the bustle of crewmembers and smell hot garbage, so it must be time for breakfast.

Planning Ireland

April 29, 2009 - 2:55 pm No Comments

We’ve put quite a bit of planning into this trip, coming up with the most detailed, structured itinerary I’ve ever made for a vacation, mostly because it’s one of the shortest. Weird how the less time you spend somewhere, the more carefully you need to plan it. With only five days in Ireland, we really want to be efficient. There is so much to see and do, and we want to make sure we hit all of the highlights.

Our provisional itinerary is as follows:

4/29: Dublin
4/30: County Wicklow, Glendalough, Kilkenny
5/1: Kilkenny, Rock of Cashel, Blarney Castle, Cork, Killarney
5/2: Killarney, Ring of Kerry, Doolin
5/3: Aran Islands, Cliffs of Moher, Galway
5/4: Galway
5/5: Shannon

Once again, trying to use international web sites to book accommodation and transport was extremely difficult. Many of the crappy sites feature drop-downs that only go up to 2007, forms that won’t submit, pages that don’t display in certain browsers, and web page font selections from 1996. I don’t think these businesses realize how much money they are missing out on by not having good web sites. They are certainly losing out on my business.

TripAdvisor’s objective traveler reviews and rankings might be the best resource for international accommodation, and we used it to find and book our first night’s accommodation in Dublin. We are still trying to make sense of all of the train timetables and bus routes around Ireland. In the end, might have to rent a car to give us the flexibility we need. The trains just don’t run the routs we need, and the buses don’t run as frequently or as late as we need. By all accounts, driving in Ireland is an adventure, so it should be an interesting few days.

The weather forecast for the next week looks cool and rainy, which I suppose is no surprise for Ireland.