Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kiss it! Kiss it!

Day Five- Blarney and Cork

**Another car game- There are no signs in Ireland. I guess people just know where to go. When you do see a sign, yell, "Reassuring sign!" and point out the window.**

It's an early day and we're off toward Cork, or final city. County Clare has the best roads in all of Ireland. They are more frequently marked, paved, and have lines painted on them. Praise be Clare! On our way to Blarney Castle, we pass this bit of ruin on the side of the road. No sign, no anything until you park. It was beautiful.

We finally stopped to eat in a small town called Buttevant (tee hee) at Lyla's Kitchen on the main road. Good, full Irish vegetarian breakfast. I think I'm going to turn into an egg after all the ones I've eaten. Every morning, it's what's for breakfast. I never want to see another delicious egg for months! The bathroom is a venerable outhouse. You have to wind your way outside, it's kind of cool.

The sun comes back out (we really lucked out for weather) when we reach Blarney. I don't think I knew what to expect, but I was surprised at how vast the grounds were. We have the most fun climbing all through the castle, up to the top to kiss the stone. I had been warned by multiple people not to actually kiss it, but I don't think I would have needed to be told. I just have to close my eyes and think of the tens of thousands of people that come through there, not to mention local trouble makers, to never want to physically touch the stone. It's amazing how far back you have to lean. Were it not for the guy holding on to me, I think hundreds would fall to their death annually. It was actually a bit scary!

Our B&B in Cork City is located outside the downtown area, which is an island. Kent House turned out to be one of our larger rooms, but the view was of the train station. Who cares really? I'm not here to sit in my room. If it's clean, I'm happy. We take another nap, a reoccurring theme, then are off in search of dinner. Cork is largely industrial, though there is a college there and some nice shopping. The downtown area reminded us of the Santa Monica Promenade- mostly fashion chains and some fast food. No bars. Are we still in Ireland?! Once again we get lost trying to find our restaurant but thankfully it is still open when we get there.

The Quay Co-op was the other vegetarian restaurant on my list of musts. It was recommended by several people as well. Again, we are served a heaping plate of food and no way to take it back with us. Such a bummer. I had a spinach and cottage cheese quiche, coleslaw, and green salad. I tried this Elderflower soda and it was amazing! Slightly sweet with only a hint of the floral taste you might expect. I wish we sold it here in the states! Everything was super yummy.

We walked about a bit and tried to remember where we were told a couple bars were at. In keeping with our themes, we left our pocket map at the B&B. Giving up, we head back towards sleep and stop in at a pub along the way. It must be 8-2 male. Of course, all the big rugby matches are going on the same week we're there as well as horse racing, so the sports bars have been packed. We met a fiance at his bachelor party dressed as a leprechaun, poor thing.

All in all, Galway has been the best city so far. It's location is perfect to explore the whole west coast of Ireland and the night life can't be beat.

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Day Four- Cliffs of Moher and Every Body's Irish

**This is Bunratty Castle, but you can't throw a rock without hitting a bit of castle or a bit of ruin. Another car game: Yelling out "Bit of castle!" or "Bit of ruin!" We also saw a bit of Castle with row houses built off of it. Must be easy giving directions: Just go to the bit of castle and count down 4 doors.**
The sun is shining when we leave and we're hoping for another slightly warm day as we head south to the Cliffs of Moher. The roads from Galway through The Burren are tough to say the least. Most are barely wider than one American lane and the speed limits 100 km (about 70 mph). What drunkard came up with that? There is a lot of deep inhales and held breath as we pass cars barreling towards us. The drive is beautiful though. Even the seriously dangerous curves are no match for how we're feeling. At least most of these roads are paved, right?

It's overcast once we get up the cliffs (214m or about 702 ft) and the wind is trying to push us off the edge. Still, it is a beautiful sight. You can see the passage of time in the striations of the cliff face. There is a bit of a museum attached, mostly talking about climate change and wildlife but it's interesting. The visitors center boasts it's Green initiatives which I full support. Our geek-dom highlight at the end is the ridge where parts of "The Princess Bride" were films. As you wish!!!

We get more interesting directions to the famous Dolman further into The Burren. Here, an estimated 300 bodies (all ash- the Celts cremated) were found buried in the tomb. Now, it just hangs out and we took a lot of pictures. Heading back down the cliffs, the sun comes back out and it warms up a bit. We stop in Ballyvaughan at The Soda Parlor for lunch. Really yummy crepes and milkshakes. After a quick nap at home, we're off to celebrate the most famous Englishman in Ireland.

There are people everywhere. If you live in a major city, it looks the same. College kids stumbling down the street, spilling beer on themselves and others. People taking their glass outside and dropping it, even though every bar offers plastic cups. It's loud and cold and fun. Our first stop was The King's Head. On any other night I think it could have been a nice place to hang out, but tonight it was full of college kids and we're just a bit too old for that. We grab a slice of amazing pizza then head to The Front Door (also in the guidebook, FYI). Here was more our crowd. It was packed to the gills, but after grabbing a Smithwicks for me and a Bulmers for my sister, we found a smoking patio on the 2nd floor. New Yorkers will recognize this patio as nothing more than a pass through to another building, but it has been re-appropriated for use with the bar.

Lesson I already knew but learned again from a drunk Irish girl: Guys are full of shite and lie.

For some reason, many people we've met along the way so far have thought we were Australian. They also commend us on waiting to visit until after Obama was elected, as our reception would not have been so nice. You're welcome America.

We meet some native Dublinites out showing their Canadian friend around and have some savage craic (sounds like crack- i.e. a really good time and good conversation). I totally want to bring this word back to the states. I love it!

Sadly, we are back at the B&B and getting ready for bed at 11:45. This has already been a lot of driving, and we're back at it again tomorrow. I really loved Galway and would come back for a few more days again. We never got out to the Aran Islands, and there is some beautiful country side and attractions North of the city. I'll keep my fingers crossed I have the opportunity again.

Next: Good Roads and Kissing the Stone


Day Three- Newgrange

**Everywhere we turn, there are sheep. It's become a game. We randomly yell out "Sheep!" or "Cow!" or "Baby Sheep!", as if we've never seen these animals before in our life. It's ridiculous and so much fun. **

Just North of Dublin is one of the oldest ancient relics still standing. Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids. The tombs at Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth are something everyone should see before they die. Just the thought that Stone Age man made these amazing and precise astrological artifacts is mind blowing. Even more, the landscape is breathtaking. It should go without saying that we get lost. Let me back up a bit for a second.

There is a saying amongst my circle of friends as well as my family, "Never doubt me". I always speak the truth and only speak what I know to be the truth. Am I sometimes wrong? Sure, who isn't. But, 9 times out of 10 I'm right. So, even though the street we're on hasn't listed a sign in miles I am still right in thinking we're going the right way. Getting places is interesting with two opposing personalities, lets just leave it at that.

When we finally make it to Brú na Bóinne (the visitors center). Our tour guide is amazing. He has a very dry humor we found delightful. You climb 2m up into the tomb and he places us around like human tetris in the chamber. Once arranged, he tells us how during the Winter Solstice, at dawn; the sun hits the entrance to the tomb and illuminates the interior like fire. There is a demonstration, hence our tetris organizing, played out with a light bulb. I actually get goosebumps. I love this place. Have you ever just felt connected to something? Sometimes its something you never thought you would connect with. Maybe it's a piece of your heritage. Whatever it is, I hope it happens for each of you at least once. I didn't want to leave. My sister asked if she could lie down in the tomb to see out the keystone set above the door. If we weren't afraid to get dirty (not us!), sure. YEA!!! I believed him when he said our feet were now at level with our head outside, but when you lay down and see little heads bobbing past, through a corridor that your brain tells you you should not be able to see out of, it's amazing. I only wish we could have taken pictures.

Ireland is not known for its motorways. There are a few, mostly from Dublin to Belfast, Dublin to Cork, and Dublin to nowhere. It's the last one we're on while trying to get to Galway. Unfortunately, it's partially closed and we get lost in Athelone. To make matters worse, we're hungry. Thanks to the fine folks at Leahy's Grocery in Navan we find our way around the construction. Truly lovely people, who invited us into their office to print and draw out better maps for us. Damn GPS! We are on the highlighted route! We come to find later, that Athelone is the apparent joke of the country- all those who live in the interior are "un-sound". this becomes a theme for the trip.

Finally get to Galway. We're staying in Salthill just outside the city center and near the water. The Ard Mhuire B&B is to be our home base for two days and the room and proprietor are both lovely. Had it been warmer, we could have walked to the Bay. We head into "downtown" Salthill for dinner at The Oslo, a nice micro-brewery and restaurant along the Bay. I had the lentil burger with fries and their house ale- yummy! Afterward, we head into Galway to the bar district and stop at The Quays which I found out later is a bit famous and in all the guidebooks. You wouldn't know it going in though which was nice. What I mean to say is, it was busy but proportionately more local than tourist. We met some nice gentlemen from Sligo who told us all about the "un-sound" people of the interior and to avoid Limerick, aka Stab City. Coming from Murderville myself, I wasn't worried; but better safe than sorry. Once the live music started (7 nights a week), the place got really packed and we left to crash back at the B&B.

Tomorrow: Princess Bride and St. Pat's

Viva Dublin

Day Two- Dublin

Always take a Xanax on the plane if one is offered to you. Even if you think to yourself, "I'm really tired. Sleeping will be no problem!" You are wrong. So, we arrive in Dublin tired and hungry. The customs line moves quickly and I refrain from writing my nationality as "white" like a friend of mine did on about as little sleep. Instead, just thinking about it sends me into giggles.

When buying a package vacation deal, it's important to read the fine print and ask questions. Picking up our rental car was an experience. I expected to pay a bit more- I knew there was a local tax that was not included in the deal- but I had no idea how much more. As foreign drivers we had to buy supplemental insurance, of which there are two choices: You can purchase the accident insurance which is 1600 euro UP FRONT, refundable to you later; or you can pay 15 euro a day for full coverage against pretty much anything. I almost started crying. She gives us the daily rate at 12 euro and we have to take it. Grrr... We also decide to get the GPS since our maps are crap (more on that later as well) and the rental agent takes pity on us again and gives it to me for 4 euro instead of 10 a day. Double Grrr. Even better, it won't stay on it's mount so my sister has to hold it the whole time. Not helpful.

Driving on the left isn't so bad except it ended up taking me two days to get comfortable with my mirrors. I keep turning on the windshield whippers instead of my turn signal. Dublin roads weren't the worst we drove but they were far from the best. Street signs, if you're lucky enough to even have them, are located on the sides of buildings. Problem is, they were probably put up in the 20s and haven't been changed since. Most are impossible to read and the English names seem much smaller than the Irish. How do you find anything when the houses don't list numbers? Thank god for GPS and our B&B booklet giving us coordinates for each!
We are WAY too early to check into our B&B so we head into the city. My sister wants to visit a couple museums and I'm all about the Guinness. More complications- parking. There are a bunch of car parks, but the prices vary so significantly its hard to know when you're getting a good deal or when you're being gouged. Frustrated and about to stab the GPS, I just pull into the next car park we find. I've already backed out of two of them and one was on a "street" so narrow, the guy loading beer into his bar started laughing at us. When we leave, the 6-hour fare was about 22 euro- GASP!

Dublin is a maze unto itself. There doesn't appear to be any logical grid system or any system in place. Streets change name while still posting the original name. You can't do that! We get lost, a lot. Finally make it to Trinity College. Other than Guinness, all I wanted to do in Dublin was see the Book of Kells. The college is gorgeous and the book very interesting. It's amazing how detailed and old it is. Such beautiful artwork. Afterward, we head by Dublin Castle to the Chester Beatty Library. It houses some of the oldest books and art, and has been named one of Europe's Best Museums. Even better, it's free! The main exhibit was of the Shahnama, a 60,000 verse epic poem over 1000 years old! The art work is amazing and many of the stories can be traced forward to our own mythology and fairy tales. One in particular is just like Rapunzel. The Library also houses ancient religious works from around the world. Very interesting.

Checking our map (thanks Tourism Centre!), we decide to walk to the Guinness Storehouse. In true Dublin fashion, most of the signs have been blown or knocked off course so you're never quite sure you're going the right direction. We finally find it and have an amazing time. It is evident why it is the #1 tourist destination in Dublin. The Storehouse takes you on a 7 floor journey through the making and history of Guinness, ending in a free pint in the Gravity Bar with 360 degree views of Dublin. Amazing. The pint leaves me energized and ready to head for lunch!

Our must stop lunch location is Cornucopia, a vegetarian restaurant in the heart of the city. The prices freaked me out a bit (everything looks normal until you factor in the exchange rate), but there was enough food for two meals- score! I had the grilled leek and polenta cake with garlic new potato salad (with hazelnuts! Genius!) and coleslaw. Of the many coleslaws I ate, I think this was my favorite. It might also be that it was my first and they are heavy on the mayo in Ireland. After a few days, all you want to see is some dry cabbage.

Finally, it's time to check into our B&B.  Muckross House in Drumcondra is convenient to the city center and the airport. Our host was lovely and suggested some pubs around the corner for later. We passed out for a few hours, ate left overs, then headed in the direction of beer. Travel Tip #2: Do not tip waitstaff. They make a decent wage and it confuses them. Plus, then you're out of a few euro you could have used to buy another half pint. It's super cold at night here too. About 30 F in the day but the wind picks up at night. I'm thankful I packed both a long and short winter coat. We head back to the B&B and pass out again. Tomorrow is a long day of driving.

Next: Newgrange and Galway

Ireland or Bust!

Day One- Travel

I don't understand some peoples aversion to Delta. The two times I've bee forced to fly them, either due to price or mechanical problems with my original airline, I've found it to be a rather pleasant experience. Sure, they moved my sister and I apart on the longest leg of our journey, but they also moved us back together. [side note: sitting by the emergency exit is the only way to travel internationally. Screw paying hundreds more for business or 1st class. If you're lucky, it's a free upgrade. Gotta love the leg room.]

The stewards on our first flight were clearly loving life. The humor displayed was much how I imagine Southwest believes theirs to be- delicate and funny but un-obtrusive. I wish I was thinking more clearly and wrote some of it down.

The Atlanta airport is a nice one with lots of options for eating. Our Dublin bound flight went smoothly. In fact, we arrived early before the runway was even open! I really appreciate the care given to us with special diets, i.e. vegetarian, vegan, kosher, gluten-free. But, I have to wonder at the logic of it sometimes. There is no distinction between vegetarian and vegan when ordering; which results in extra meals being packed when what was being served would have sufficed. The cheese tortellini option would have satisfied us just as well and we would have gotten a chocolate blondie. This is not to say our steamed veggies, orzo, and curry (??) sauce wasn't good, just that we could have shared. Truth be told, they probably did us a favor. Perhaps they could tell I was about to eat my weight in cole slaw soon. More on that later.

We did make out like gang busters on our breakfast though. No condiment free egg sandwich for us! I'll take the toasted bagel with butter and jam, banana, OJ, and granola any day!

Next: Dublin