May 24, 2012

Northern Ireland

Did you realize that Northern Ireland is its own country? We didn’t. Even though there’s no distinguishable border, it’s a completely separate country from the Republic of Ireland and is a part of the United Kingdom. One moment we were paying in Euros and the next we were paying in Pounds. Honestly, all of this UK/Great Britain/Ireland/Scotland land grab sort of stuff is really confusing, so we just ignore it and enjoy the sites.

From Ashford Castle we drove north, crossing into Northern Ireland where the landscape started to change. Ireland’s endless stone walls disappeared and the green farmlands got bigger.

Our first stop was the Belleek factory, where Ireland’s famous pottery is made. Every piece is perfectly crafted by hand, and the porcelain is so thin that you can shine a light through it.

From there it was onto a famous Irish golf course on the Antrum Coast called Royal Portrush. We played a fun evening round on their par-3 course along the sea.

Collectively, one of our very favorite stops in Ireland was the Causeway Coast where there’s an incredible natural formation called Giant’s Causeway. This area is made up of the most unbelievable collection of hexagonal shaped stones.

Mythology attributes the creation of Giant’s Causeway to an Irish giant named Finn McCool. To prove his superior strength and status, Finn decided to fight against a rival Scottish giant named Bernandonner. Since there was no boat large enough to carry huge Finn across the sea to confront Bernandonner, he built his own pathway of stepping stones from Ireland to Scotland. He then was able to walk across the sea without getting his feet wet.

When he crossed the sea, however, Finn saw just how large Bernandonner was. He ran back to Ireland before Bernandonner saw him, but the causeway was already built and Bernandonner came to fight. Finn crawled into a crib and when Bernandonner came to the door to fight him, his wife told Bernandonner not wake the baby. Seeing just how large Finn’s “baby” was, Bernandonner grew afraid and ran back to Scotland, tearing up the causeway as he went to prevent Finn following him.

Once again on this trip, we felt like Super Mario hopping along from one stone to the next. 

It may not be as vast as something like the Grand Canyon, but I think that Giant’s Causeway should be named a natural wonder of the world. It truly leaves you feeling wonderstruck.

Not too far from Giant’s Causeway was the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, which seriously tested my fear of heights.

Also along the Causeway Coast was beautiful Dunlace Castle, set on a cliff teetering over the sea. 

It’s believed that during one night in this castle’s history, a terrible storm caused the cliff under the kitchen to collapse into the ocean. Only one of the kitchen staff survived.

The most unbelievable thing about Dunlace Castle, is the family who built it used actual stones from Giant’s Causeway! That’s like having granite countertops made out of Half Dome or hardwood floors made out of Giant Sequoias! It was very easy to spot the precious hexagonal stones throughout the castle walls.

Our final stop in Northern Ireland was Belfast – a city known for its deadly violence between Catholics and Protestants up until the late 1990s, but whose revival really surprised us. It’s a lively city with a good mix of old and new.

Belfast is also where the Titanic was designed and built. A month ago was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, so we had a nice visit to the new Titanic Belfast museum right along the old shipyard.

In all we logged about 1,050 miles through Ireland. Our weather the last few days was sunny and spectacular…very unusual. Here’s hoping it holds out for our next stop...Scotland!

May 22, 2012

Ashford Castle

Of all the cool things we saw in Ireland, there was one experience that stood above the rest: Ashford Castle.

Built in 1228 and set deep in the heart of County Mayo, Ashford Castle at one time was owned by the Guinness family. It would have been memorable enough just to visit, but what made our time there so special is that we stayed there. A wee bit of a step up from the hostels!

Situated in an idealic spot along Lough Corrib, everything about the castle – the food, service, grounds, and parlors – were top notch. I was so embarrassed when the bellman carried our backpacks to our room.

We spent the early evening walking the extensive gardens, wooded paths and golf course with shamrock sand traps.

Since we’re spending a year away from our families, my parents had a great idea to celebrate all of the birthdays, anniversaries and holidays that we're going to miss. A few days ago we drew dates and Steve's birthday drew Ashford. We celebrated his (December) birthday over a 5-course dinner. Note the arms on his borrowed coat...he's bringing the capri-length dinner jacket into style.

The castle also provided excellent aristocrat people-watching. Halfway through dinner, a woman came to our table and asked us to join her while she entertained in the Drawing Room. She was employed by the hotel and was fairly good, but somehow the after-dinner entertainment turned into a karaoke show with guests who think they rule the world coming up to sing their favorite ballad. There was also a drunk girl who kept asking my dad if he was going to sing…we saw her later that night stomping around the castle with a candlestick in her hand.

I felt like I was living in a funny combination of the Titanic and the Game of Clue. It was such a fun night celebrating Steve’s birthday and living the high life in a castle. Most surreal moment? I believe it was Mrs. Peacock…with the Microphone…in the Drawing Room.

May 21, 2012

The Emerald Isle

We decided a long time ago with my parents that we wanted to see as much of Ireland as possible, so we rented a car in Dublin and hit the road.

This was our first time driving in nearly 4 months and we didn’t ease into it lightly. The roads in Ireland are windy and narrow and we’re driving on the wrong side…from the passenger seat…with a stick shift. There were only a few close calls with some parked cars and a biker. You can see here how Steve mastered all of this while balancing an ice cream cone.

For being such a small country (the size of Indiana), Ireland is blessed with countless treasures. Having a car allowed us do a clockwise tour of the entire island in just 9 days...which is nowhere near enough time, by the way. We drove through so many towns that they are honestly a blur, but we hit some incredible sites and here are our favorites.

After a wonderful reunion with my parents, one of our first stops was to the Guinness Storehouse. I’ve always heard that since Guinness doesn’t travel well, it tastes better at the Storehouse than anywhere else in the world. I really think that’s true. It was so creamy and delicious that we weren’t even bothered by a bogus fire evacuation.

We had a student tour us through Trinity College and their spectacular library, which houses the ancient and meticulous Book of Kells. The Trinity College Library houses over 5 million books, and in the main chamber, 200,000 of the library’s oldest books are all arranged from smallest to largest. Apparently the Dewey Decimal System has not made it here yet.

We also visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral and were lucky to get a tour from the former deacon. This 10th century church was where St. Patrick is said to have baptized converts. It wasn’t until several days after our visit that I made the connection between this cathedral and 
St. Patrick’s Day…I guess I always thought that St. Patrick was a leprechaun who served beer in March. Regardless, the church had a book that I could have benefited from about 30 years ago...

Blarney Castle
This well-preserved castle is set on beautiful grounds and is famous for the Blarney Stone. 

According to legend, kissing the stone bestows you with the gift of eloquence. Getting to the stone requires a deep back-bend. Surviving the stone requires a healthy immune system.

Head of Brae
On the outer tip of the Ring of Kerry we did a short hike up to the Head of Brae. Along the way we got up close and person with a pack of pregnant cows, and at the top, we were rewarded with gorgeous cliffs.


Dingle Peninsula
This coastal area is lesser known than the nearby Ring of Kerry, but we liked it much better.
I never knew that Ireland had water like the Caribbean.

Famine Cottages
Along our way to the Dingle Peninsula we passed some of the old thatched cottages which were abandoned during the 1845-1850 potato famine.

We always knew about the blight that affected the potato crops, but we were shocked to learn that the famine could have easily been avoided altogether. Ireland was actually producing enough non-potato crops to feed their people, but England mandated that the good crops be exported. The Irish were reduced to boiling and eating dandelions, and many people did not survive. Now we know why all of the locals were cheering for Germany over England in the soccer finals.

Cliffs of Moher
I was pretty excited when I read that these were the “Cliffs of Despair” from The Princess Bride. Getting the best views required some minor trespassing on private property, but nobody seemed to care.

The Burren
This is a region in Western Ireland that is made up of a huge limestone sheet. There's a famous quote that goes something like this: "The Burren is a country where there's not enough water to drown a man, not enough wood to hang him, and not enough earth to bury him". All throughout the rocky landscape there guessed it...rock walls. These were completely pointless and just built to give the Irish jobs during the potato famine.

Aran Islands
These are a set of three islands that lie off the western coast of Ireland. It’s one of the last Gaelic-speaking areas of the country and is famous for its cable-knit sweaters and stone walls that crisscross every last bit of land, thereby creating a ridiculous amount of tiny farms for the island's 850 inhabitants.

To get to the largest island, Inis Mor, we boarded a 12-seater airplane and took the shortest flight ever….6 minutes.

This picture perfectly captures the mood in the plane…Dad is excited for the adventure and Mom is terrified.

Our guide on the island, Tony, was an ex-fisherman who drank away all of his money and is now giving tours with his trusty horse Jimmy. My guess is that Tony has kissed the Blarney Stone at some point in his life because he certainly had the gift of gab. He was our favorite Irishman of the trip.

The people of Ireland have the most charming self-deprecating humor. There’s also a sense that they’ve been through a lot and that they persevere. In about a week from now, the Irish people will be voting on how to handle their debt crisis. It’s impossible to miss the austerity signs on every lamppost.

Whenever we ask people how they think the vote is going to go, they let out a big sigh followed by a long silence before they answer, “I don’t know”. It’s obvious that the importance of the decision is weighing on them, but as one newscaster put it, they are a people that overcome.

Music is embedded in life here. Ireland is the only country that uses a musical instrument (the harp) as its national symbol. In fact, we rarely saw the shamrock used on signs or in architecture. The harp rules in Ireland.

We’ve tried some traditional Irish dishes like Bangers & Mash and Black Pudding, but we’ve also eaten a lot of familiar foods like Clam Chowder and Salmon. Restaurants love using their liquid national icons in sweet and savory dishes like Beef & Guinness Stew and Baileys Cheesecake. Not complaining! We may have sampled a few of those national icons along the way...

But easily our most lasting impression of Ireland will be the endless green pastures with sheep and rock walls. They cover every square inch of the country and make it feel like every day is a quintessential day on The Emerald Isle.

May 16, 2012

Happiness Is…

Happiness is seeing these two familiar faces...

After 34 years of veterinary work, my dad deservedly retired 7 days ago. To celebrate, we met up with my parents in Dublin and will be spending the next 5 weeks traveling around Ireland, Scotland and Spain together.

If you don’t hear from us for awhile, it just means we’re too busy having fun!

May 15, 2012

The Queen’s England

From Belgium we caught a train just across the French border to a town called Calais.

To be honest, we are frightened of France...mostly because we can’t speak the language at all. So imagine our delight as we were walking from the train station and stumbled upon a military ceremony playing – no joke – The Star Spangled Banner. Why thank you, France, for that warm welcome!

Besides their beautiful town hall and a WWII bunker smack in the middle of their park, Calais’ biggest claim to fame is their entry point to the English Channel. We boarded the Spirit of France and motored our way over to England. We officially stepped foot in 3 different countries in a matter of 6 hours.

Taking the ferry allowed us to get the best views of something I’ve always wanted to see: the White Cliffs of Dover.

The cliffs are mostly composed of soft white chalk. I found a piece on the ground (which I may or may not have kept), and I can confirm that it feels and works exactly like school chalk. Fun!

 The cliffs are weathering every year, and less than 2 months ago, a huge section collapsed into the channel.

We got really lucky with the weather…if we had come one day later we wouldn’t have been able to see them at all. We had hoped to spend the next morning playing around on top of the cliffs, but we woke up to a completely socked-in coastline. We counted our blessings, packed up, and moved on. The Cliffs of Dover were a highlight to our time in England.

From Dover we took (no kidding) bus number 007 to London. This was my 4th trip to London in the past 2 years, but it was Steve’s first visit, so we took in all of the classics – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Knotting Hill, The Thames, Tower Bridge, and the London Eye.

Steve got an absolute kick out of the Beefeaters’ constant ceremonial stomping about.

We also visited a lot of places that I had never seen before like Covent Gardens, Piccadilly Circus, Horse Guards Parade, St. James Park, The National Gallery, London Bridge, and 
The Tube. 

We spent a lot of time at The Tower of London enjoying the crown jewels, coronation regalia, royal armor, torture devices and ravens.

We also went inside Westminster Abbey. Normally it costs 16 pounds to tour the Abbey, but every night around 5:00 there is an Evensong service where the Westminster Choir sings. I highly recommend Evensong to anyone visiting London. The choir sounded like angels singing in the vaulted Abbey, and we got to walk in the front door – which we heard one Londoner refer to as the “Kate Door”.

While we were in London, we hit our 100th day of traveling.

To celebrate, we decided to take in a show on the West End. So we put on the best outfits we could pull out of our backpacks and headed to the theater! I don’t even think they noticed that I was wearing flip flops and Steve was wearing his trail running shoes. We saw a good show called Jersey Boys, a story about the rise and fall of The Four Seasons.

The thing I love about London is that you don’t have to go hunting to feel like you’re in London…the city is alive all around you in the form of double-decker buses, black cabs, delightful accents, and red telephone booths. 

Everything is also so centrally located. Just on the walk from the bus station to our hostel, we crossed 4 sites off our list.

More than I’ve ever seen before, London is Queen crazy! This summer will be Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne. Every time we saw anything unusual around town, our favorite joke would be, “It’s probably for the Jubilee”. There is surprisingly little up around town about the Olympics…Olympics are on hold until the Jubilee is over.

From London we took a bus across the English countryside to Bath. The countryside is always beautiful, but at this time of year, there are fields after fields blanketed in bright yellow flowers. The flowers are a byproduct of what the English call rapeseed, but we would know it as canola for making canola oil.

Bath is a charming town that was originally founded by the Romans in 43 AD as a spa resort. The Romans believed that water from the hot springs in this area had healing powers, so they erected baths around the water sources.

The Roman Baths are actually an impressive underground complex of baths, sauna rooms, treatment rooms, drainage infrastructure, and a temple for the goddess Minerva.

In the adjoining Pump Room, we tasted the famous Bath water – believed to have fallen as rain 6,000-10,000 years ago. We both agreed that the water tasted like a penny smells.

We found the Inca ruins in South America impressive, but it’s almost unbelievable to think that the Romans were building their empire 1,400 years before the Incas! Our visit to the baths got us really excited to go to Italy.

Bath is full of tidy and symmetrical Georgian architecture. It’s probably the prettiest cookie-cutter town out there! There is fun shopping, beautiful parks, and a clean and happy atmosphere.

One morning we took a tour to another classic that we’ve been looking forward to: Stonehenge.

Stonehenge is a lot smaller than you would imagine, but it surpassed our expectations. It’s believed that Stonehenge was originally comprised of 171 stones and took 1,500 years to build. Some of the rocks weigh more than 7 elephants and were carried up to 240 miles in 3,000 BC. Imagine that!

Stonehenge is aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, but its exact purpose still remains a mystery.

We rounded out our English tour in Bristol, where there was a cool suspension bridge and directions to our next stop. 

While we were in England we tried many classic dishes…

Full English Breakfast – this alone could easily hold you over until dinner.

Fish & Chips – this was served with mushy peas, which under normal circumstances we wouldn’t go near. But…we are still excited about anything served on a plate that is green, so we surprised even ourselves when we gobbled up the mushy peas.

Pies – we had some tasty pies at The Raven in Bath. Our favorite was the Jubilee Pie made with sweet corn, coconut mango chutney, and free-range Coronation chicken. Coronation chicken? They really are milking this Diamond Jubilee.

Pasties – this sounds dirty, but these are actually just empanadas. We thought we left these behind in South America!?!

Indian Food – no visit to England would be complete without it.

Sally Lunn Buns – these famous buns have been made in the same historic house in Bath since 1680. How famous? The recipe passes along with the deed to the house. 

Bath Bun – Sally Lunn’s big competition. These buns are topped with sugar crystals and raisins. The winner? Sally Lunn.

Tea & Crumpets – we enjoyed our first ever High Tea at The Pump Room in Bath. We sipped Earl Gray with our pinkies out while munching on hot, buttered crumpets. How proper of us.

Sticky Toffee Pudding – not a pudding…more like a sponge cake soaked in toffee sauce and served with ice cream. We had this at a fantastic little underground restaurant in London from the 1600s called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

We wish we could have spent more time in England…it is just so delightful. How could you not love a country with towns like Sandwich and Badminton? And why is it that sayings like “Too-Da-Loo”, “Hunky-Dory”, “Oki-Doki” and “Super Duper” sound cheesy in America, but here they sound so charming? It’s probably because of the Jubilee.