Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bonjour!

Yeah, so I've been in London.  Doing Londony things.  Mostly going to the theatre and buying stuff; also visiting restaurants I like.  Really only had two actual full days here, as there was a road trip to Sheffield yesterday (what? doesn't everyone go to Sheffield for theatre?) and a road trip to Paris today.

Yep -- Eurostar out at 7:30 this morning; Eurostar back at 9:15 tonight.

This was my firstest time in Paris, so here are a few impressions:

1.  The whole Eurostar thing?  Totally unimpressive.  For an overpriced high speed train, the fabric on the seats was shredding, the carpet was stained, the tray tables hadn't been cleaned, the cafe car was out of half the stuff on the menu, and the ladies' room in the Paris Eurostar waiting area was out of toilet paper.  Also -- I did mention it was overpriced.  One day, the price was $100 for a round trip ticket.  The next morning, when I sat down to book it, the price had gone up to $188.  I was really annoyed by this, but figured I'd missed some advance booking cut-off, so I booked it at $188 -- on the non-refundable, non-exchangeable, cheap-ass fare.  The next morning, the exact same trains were back to $100.  I wrote Eurostar about this and never received a reply.

2.  Some French people?  Actually as rude as advertised.  We (that would be me and my travelling companion, Kathy, and my friend Peggy and her family - who were conveniently in Paris at the time) went to a somewhat snooty restaurant for a snack.  The host who seated us -- and who was very kind and helpful with respect to Peggy's kid's stroller -- stepped backwards and stepped on my foot.  His comment to me was not an apology, but, "You have big feet."  Yeah, fuck you too.

3.  The chocolate was all kinds of good.  For our aforementioned snack, we went to Angelina's, a place recommended by various sources as the purveyors of the best hot chocolate in Paris.  Well sign me the hell up.  Very thick, rich, and yummy.  Sorta like drinking melted chocolate, although they give you a big ol' pile of whipped cream you can throw in to taste.  I devoured it.  Am extremely glad we went (jerky host aside) because it was definitely something that I couldn't have done any place else, and since I was in Paris so briefly, I'd really wanted to do something uniquely Parisian.  (Besides, y'know, taking pictures of myself in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Which I did, of course, but still.)

4.  You have to pay to pee.  I did not know this -- but the bathrooms in Gare du Nord (not the Eurostar ones with no supplies) and in a local restaurant (not Angelina's) charged for the privilege of urination.  So, y'know, bring small change.

5.  Gare du Nord, by the way, is a total zoo.  People everywhere, insufficient facilities (long bathroom lines, even longer ticket machine lines), and people (most probably) attempting to scam tourists (a woman asked if I spoke English, then put a sign in front of my face saying she was from Eastern Europe and needed money to send back home -- a quick google search says there are scammers like this at other tourist spots).  Peggy had the good sense to suggest we meet at Notre Dame instead, which was actually much more civilized.  We navigated the metro without too much difficulty (to their credit, it is well-marked), and when we arrived at the station for Notre Dame, I commented to Kathy that I had absolutely no idea what to do if there wasn't a big-ass Gothic Cathedral standing in front of us when we got to the top of the stairs.  Conveniently, there was.  (It was beautiful, too.  And free.  Although I feel really weird walking around a church and taking pictures while the faithful are in there saying Mass.  I mean, the steady stream of tourists has got to be a distraction, no?)

There will be a reasonable amount of photos.  Right now, though, I've got to finish up my packing and be ready to leave early tomorrow morning.  (I emailed a taxi company to arrange a pick up tomorrow, but since they haven't written back yet, there's a reasonable chance we'll have to haul our luggage out to the nearest taxi stand.  Which is do-able, but potentially ugly.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Last Set of Ireland Pics

(Come on, little router, keep holding that connection.)

So, the day after that was when I went to the Aran Islands and saw the big stone fort at the edge of the really cool cliffs.





That's my shoe there -- wanted to show you just how close we're allowed to get to the cliffs.

Also took a snap of a thatched roof house...

And a pic of the land in general - the bits that are all stone and not at all arable.


The next day was when we went to the other 15th Century Tower -- this one had been restored.


After we all exchanged pictures, I got hold of the kayaking pics from a few days back.  Here's me:



And here's all of our kayakers (except Nancy, the photographer) neatly lined up in flotilla form:

 
And I leave you with the "party bus," celebrating Arthur's Day

More Ireland Pics

There followed, the next day, horseback riding





And then we drove someplace and got out of the car and had this pretty view




Actually, I think that view was on the way to the horseback riding.  The view we stopped at was the one with the polite bird which posed for everyone's picture.

THEN, we went over to the Westernmost point in Ireland.


Here's Kathy going down among the rocks at the tip...


Another picture -- looking back:


Then we walked back -- you can see the Vagabond Tours van parked way off at the start of the path -- looks perfectly off-road-y, doesn't it?

The Missing Ireland Pics

FINALLY!  I have working internet in the London flat.  (Was getting awfully tired of hauling butt down to the local internet cafe -- even though said location was only a block and a half away.)  So, without further ado...

Day Four, if you recall (I barely do) was when we didn't go to the Skellig Islands, so Sam took us to a cashel...


That's your 1000 year old stone home thing.  The view is of the central circle and the outer wall.  The view is also from above, because we were able to climb up steps inside the wall and walk along the top.  See?

.
And this is how smooth the outer wall is, and how it leans in.  That's Carmel, from the tour, standing next to it to show you what vertical looks like.




And then, we were off to the 15th Century tower.  And, yes, here's us sneaking in under the barbed wire...
The tower itself, in quite a state of disrepair.

The, er, ones responsible for the "fresh land mines" around the castle:
Setting that aside, though, the folks with the castle certainly built it to give themselves a terrific view:

And, lastly, I give you the perfect little rainbow

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ireland Day Seven: So. About Those Photos...

Yeah, see, it takes about an hour to download my photos, edit them slightly, and post the damn things.  I might just put them all on picasa and let you all click thru at your leisure.  That is, once I get my hands on a reliable internet connection.  (Right now, we're back in Dublin, and my signal just dropped from "Good" all the way to "Poor" for no reason at all.)

We spent most of today in the Land Rover, coming back to Dublin.  Other than a "toilet break" (Sam said there'd be ice cream, but there was no ice cream. :::pout::: ) and a lunch break, we only made two stops:  a castle and a bog.

(No, the bog was not the toilet stop.)

The bog was an actual bog.  A great big squishy bog.  Most of the group was fairly skeptical about the bog's appeal as a tourist attraction, but Sam was (by now) on quite the roll, and he gave us a very cool lecture (complete with visual and olfactory aids) on the history of the bog and its relevance to the people of Ireland.  (Particularly the impoverished ones.  The ones who had no wood to burn, so had to roast up some peat from the bog for warmth.)  Also talked about how the bog worked particularly well as a preservative, which makes it quite cool from an archeological perspective.  But probably the neatest thing was when he bounced up and down on it, and what looked like solid land revealed itself to actually be springy.

The castle was ... wait, wait, I saved the admission ticket so I could tell you the name of it ... here we go, Aughnanure Castle.  It's another one of those 15th Century Tower jobs, but this one has been fully reconstructed so we could walk through it.  They charged admission, for which we actually got a guide who told us about the history of the place as well as all of the cool defensive bits built into the architecture (e.g., the "murder hole" through which they could shoot someone who happened to make it in the door; or the "trip stairs" created purposely unevenly so an attacker can't run right on up) ... the admission price also meant that this castle was in a nice clean park -- not a pasture -- so there was no danger of further "fresh land mine" incidents.  I mean, you step in cow poop once, that's the Ireland experience -- you step in it again, and they laugh at you all the way back to Dublin.

Speaking of "all the way back to Dublin," the 12 of us had a plan (eventually) to rotate seating every day in the morning and after lunch, so that each of us would get a chance to sit up front with the driver.  I was the only one who hadn't had a turn, so I got the front seat for the duration of the motorway back from Galway.  Actually had a very interesting talk with Sam -- I was a little concerned that I wouldn't have any ready conversation topics (one of the women on the bus managed to have a question for pretty much any circumstance, but I tend to be a lot more choosy in picking my questions) ... but I had one topic in reserve:  Irish Theatre.  I asked Sam if he got to the theatre much (no) and if the Irish theatre scene was largely concentrated in Dublin (also no), but raising the issue bought me an interesting 40 minutes or so on the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and the importance of theatre (and literature) to the Irish revolution.  On the whole, Sam was one of those guys who is Irish with a capital "I."  (By contrast, Rob -- he of the understating the difficulty of hikes -- is actually a Scot by way of England, so while he's made this place his home, he isn't quite so tied in to the culture.)  Sam takes personally the English occupation of Ireland and any attempts throughout the years to suppress Irish culture (including the language, the music, and the legends), so, actually, the theatre topic was something he knew quite a bit about, even though he doesn't get out to the theatre much.

ANYWAY, we said our goodbyes to the rest of the group (many hugs and exchanged email addresses) and Kathy and I are now ensconced back in the same hotel where we spent the first night.  Our room rate has now doubled, thanks to the (unfortunate) appearance of Michael Buble at the nearby arena.  The arena is within walking distance, so everyone going to the concert has parked him- or her- (probably, mostly her-) self in our hotel.  We're planning to wait till 8:00 to go down for dinner -- hopefully the restaurant/pub will be deserted by then.


Tomorrow:  to England!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ireland Day Six: Inishmore

("Happy cats or an Ireland free?"  No, no, not that Inishmore.  First thing I learned today:  Inishmore means "big island."  There are multiple Inishmores around Ireland.)

We had a choice today -- the choice was the Aran Islands or ... some stuff on land.  We weren't entirely clear on the pros and cons of each option, but one fact sorta stood out at me on this one:  If I go to the Aran Islands, I won't spend hours in the Land Rover.  

Not that I'm not enjoying the Land Rover, but the idea of a day seeing an island at my own damn pace and not being piled into a tour bus (even one as cool as ours) was pretty much irresistable.

Turns out that only 3 of us actually took this option.  So, we took a ferry over to the Aran Islands -- well, the big one, Inishmore -- and left the other 9 to take an overland route to our destination for the evening (we'd take another ferry and meet them there).

Upon arrival at Inishmore, we learned that there were basically 3 ways of getting around the island:  a tour bus, a pony & trap, or a bicycle.  The other two chose to rent bikes and cycle around the place freely.  I suck at bicycling, which left me with the other two.  And I absolutely refused to cram myself into another tour bus -- especially not with 30 total strangers.  Result:  hired a pony & trap.

Now, it was a bit expensive (compared to the other two alternatives) but the result was that for about $65, I got a private tour of Inishmore.  Learned all about the place from Steve, my driver, who is a 4th generation resident of the place.  And if you want to see a place that time forgot, Inishmore is the place.  They didn't get electricity until 1975.  (Although satellite TV and wireless internet soon followed.)  

This next bit would probably be easier with pictures (you may get a giant photodump tomorrow -- no promises, but we all talked about doing a bunch of photo editing on the Land Rover tomorrow), but, anyway... remember how I talked about the stone cashel ... just stones piled on each other (sans concrete) to make the structure?  Well, this means of construction was used to create low walls pretty much covering the entirety of Inishmore, about a thousand years ago.  Said walls divide the grazeable land into little patches for the animals.  And they're still in use today.  So picture me in the horse trap clippity-clopping down the road, with these stoned-off sections of land on either side as far as they eye can see, and the occasional group of horses or cows doing their thing in their own little areas.  Overlook the fact that the road down which we are clippity-clopping is actually paved, and I can be looking at a sight from pretty much any time in the last millenium.

We also passed houses that were a hundred (or, in the case of the little thatched-roof cottages, several hundred) years old, which also added to the whole can't-quite-place-it-in-time feel of the place.

The highlight of Inishmore is an old stone fort (built right up against a cliff edge) that dates back to ... shit, I really tried to remember this ... Iron Age, I think.  There was a bit of a climb up to it (after which, I am happy to report, my shoes are now again cow poop-free) but the view was spectacular.  Not just the fort and (certainly) the cliffs ... but the walk itself.  I mean, despite the fact that this is the second most popular tourist attraction in Ireland, it wasn't all that crowded today (the tail end of the tourist season).  At one point, walking back down the path, I could see no other living person in any direction -- stone fort behind me, view of a bunch of low stone walls dividing the countryside in front of me, and I'm on a path that is nothing more than grass and some stones.  If I'd been hoping for a bit of solitude, I hadn't expected to find it on the path to a popular tourist attraction, but here it was.

Back to the trap and finished out my journey.  (My driver seemed genuinely surprised when I gave him a tip -- I told him to buy an apple for the horse or something.  He said he'd pick up some carrots for him and I believed him.)  Napped a bit on the ferry back to civilization, and met up with my two biking companions when we disembarked, and met up with the Land Rover shortly therafter.

Made our way to Clifden, Connemara (in County Galway), our stop for the last night of the tour.  We're in a much nicer B&B than the Activity Lodge of last night (did I mention there was a hair dryer in my room -- but one which had a plug for a different kind of outlet than provided?) -- this place is charming, and our host couldn't be sweeter.  Four or five us arranged to have a massive photo sharing session, so we went into the lounge, plugged in four computers, and started exchanging memory cards from our cameras, snagging whatever pix we wanted from each other.  We didn't get it all done before dinner, but it's a good start.

Nearly all of us went into town for dinner (one couple doesn't eat much) and ended up smushing three tables together in a pub so we could all eat together -- we exchanged email addys and took more group photos (this time with Sam).  The pub even had internet access (score!) so we started researching tomorrow's destinations.  We stuck around a bit for the music -- it was our last dinner together in Ireland, and we didn't really want it to end.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ireland Day Five: Another Day Without Photos

Yeah, it's 11:10, I'm standing in the kitchen of what I've dubbed "the women's dormitory" (more, as per usual, on that latter) chasing a "poor" to "very poor" wireless signal, I'm quite exhausted, and I have to be awake early tomorrow.  If I wasn't afraid that I'd forget what happened today if I didn't immediately journal it, you wouldn't be getting any entry at all.  I will, at some point in the future, go through all the photos of pretty green vistas, and try to use the datestamps to figure out which ones happened where.

To begin, then -- this morning's optional activity was horseback riding on the beach.  Originally, four of us expressed interest, but two dropped out when they learned it was English saddle rather than Western.  I figured, hey, they're trail horses, we're just going to walk in a line, who needs a saddle horn anyway?  So two of us were driven out to the riding place (with, of course, a scenic photo stop I have no hope of ever placing along the way).

We were given cute little English riding helmets (with their sueded texture, they seem so much nicer than American brain buckets) and mounted up.  Nancy's horse was named Bob.  Mine was Pie.  Seriously.  I guess that makes me Elizabeth Taylor.

We went on a nice trail ride -- mostly along the beach.  There were about a half dozen riders and two guides, one at each end.  Pie liked to walk in the back, so I pretty much had a guide to myself.  (I know damn well why Pie liked to walk in the back -- clearly, I've been on enough trail rides to actually recognize this behavior -- he liked to walk slowly so he'd fall behind the group, and then trot to catch up.  I was good with the trotting but suffered a solid moment of panic when he shifted into a higher gear.  Pie stopped to attend to a call of nature -- this let the rest of the group get much further ahead.  The guide who was behind behind me immediately shifted his horse to block Pie -- he knew Pie was going to make a run for it and I did too.  As soon as Pie finishes with nature's call, he sets off at a fast clip -- I'm bouncing like crazy and when one of my feet falls out of its stirrup I realize the only thing that's actually keeping me on this horse are the reins (which really aren't), I now come to the conclusion that a pommel is a really handy thing.  Pie ultimately slows ("whoa!" is apparently acceptable in Irish) without me taking a roll on the beach, but it's the closest I've ever come to doing so.  The scenery was gorgeous, though -- I commented to the guide that he's got some beautiful country here, to which he affirmatively replied, "Thanks be to God," which was just so adorably Irish I had to try not to smile.


The rest of the group picked us up as we finished the ride.  Actually, they were all standing there taking pictures when we returned to the stables, which felt almost like crossing a finish line and was more fun that it should have been.


Back into the van, driving along the Dingle peninsula (yes!  I remembered a location!) and heading out toward the Westernmost Point in Ireland, there was a stop for photos and a short stroll (Sam drove the Land Rover a bit ahead and we walked the intervening distance stopping for photos.)  One seagull posed quite nicely for all of us.


I remember this little stroll in particular because of the bird.  Also because it started raining (it had rained a touch at the beginning and end of our horse ride, but most of it was sunny).  It was a sideways rain, so by the time we got back in the van, we were all soaked from the knees (or wherever our rain jackets stopped) downward.


Continued on until we parked the van for a "wee walk" up the hill that makes up the aforementioned Westernmost point in Ireland.  The last two major walks had sorta done me in -- I woke up this morning still pretty stiff and sore -- but, to my great surprise, I was actually feeling pretty good by this point.  I think walking might actually be the cure for too much walking.  Hair of the Dog and all that.  Besides, the sun had come out again, so taking this walk seemed the best way to dry out my jeans.  Out of the van, then, and up the hill out to the westernmost point of Ireland.  Sam stopped near the top and gathered us around for story time -- told us a legend about the place (he's a very good storyteller -- although the irony here is that the one member of the group who had asked to hear about these legends sat out the walk).  Many more photos -- I think I may actually remember these, as the geography was pretty unique.


(Still with me?  Good.)


Quick stop at a pottery shop.  We didn't buy any pottery, but they had bathrooms, so we were all directed to at least pretend we were interested in the pottery as we surreptitiously made our way to the toilets.  And it was pretty pottery, although a bit pricey.  (It was pottery that was more "art" than "pots.")


Then, back to Dingle for lunch ... at a spot right next to our hotel from last night.  


On the road again ... and (insert yawn here) here's where it starts to get a bit hazy.  The day's main activities were the horseback ride and the hike out to the Westernmost point -- the rest was driving to our next destination, which involved taking a ferry (the aptly named Shannon Breeze) across the River Shannon.


Also... it's Arthur's Day.  (Who?)  Arthur Guinness, of course.  Arthur Guinness founded Guinness on September 23, 1759.  So the Guinness Marketing Folks decided that at 17:59 on September 23, everyone should raise a glass of Guinness to Arthur.  This caught on.  And we decided to take part.  When in Rome and all that.


So, while racing to catch the 5:30 ferry, we stop in a small town to pick up enough Guinness for us all to toast Arthur at 5:59.  (Sam sends us down a hill to a "Swanky Pub."  We look down the hill and see no swanky pub.  It's actually a bit of a dive, named "Swanky Pub.")  Twelve cans of Guinness are purchased.  They're room temperature, but the Swanky Pub Folk give us a plastic bag full of ice, which would ultimately serve to melt all over the floor of our vehicle, and maybe raise the temperature of the Guinness a whole degree.


The Shannon Breeze breezes us on across the Shannon -- we stand on the upper deck and get a good face full of wind -- and when we're on the other side, we get back in the van and it's just about time to toast Arthur.  Guinnesses are passed out, flip tabs are flipped, foam spills out the top of my can all down my arm (and Brian's backpack, and the floor of the Land Rover...), we all yell out, "To Arthur!" and I take my very first swig of Guinness ever.


It is also my very last swig of Guinness ever.


(Later that night, I will overhear a stranger say, "The only thing more vile than Guinness is warm Guinness."  I heartily agree.)


Having duly participated in the Irish Guinness Marketing Tradition, we continued down the road -- passing half- (and mostly-) filled cans to those who wanted to drink them, and also sharing whatever snacks we happened to have on hand.  Sam put some festive drinking tunes on the speakers, and the Party Bus continued its way to...


.... the Cliffs of Moher.  (Sam says they were the "Cliffs of Insanity" from "The Princess Bride."  Amazingly, some folks in our group have never seen "The Princess Bride."  Sam starts quoting lines.)  Problem is -- we don't actually get to the cliffs until just after 7:00.  And it has started raining again.


Look, I'll be honest with you -- I didn't take any pictures of the Cliffs of Moher.  They were beautiful.  And as the setting sun reflected off of them, they were all kinds of majestic.  But I was so wet, I could barely keep my glasses dry enough to get a good look at them myself -- getting my camera out of its nice dry little camera cover was just not going to happen.  I guess that for some things, you just had to be there.  I was.  :)


And then, I had a thought.  And that thought was:  "I'm cold and wet and the van is way over there and the sun is going down.  And I'm going to be much colder and wetter once that happens."  So I stopped admiring the cliffs and raced the sun back to the van.  (I was treated to a very pretty low hanging full moon for my trouble.)


On again ... now just after 8:00 ... to our lodging for the night, the Doolin Activity Lodge.  It has several buildings -- Lord knows what they used to be.  But when the guy was handing out keys for the single rooms, he made a point of putting three women together in three consecutive rooms.  When we got up to the rooms, we found out why.  There's a common kitchen, living room, and bathtub -- we each have a small bedroom and a teensy bathroom with a shower, but the bathtub is communal.  There's wireless internet, but the really good signal is in the lobby, and that's closed -- the best signal I can get is standing in the kitchen.  And we've got issues with the heat.  (To wit:  there isn't any.  There are radiators in our rooms, but no way to turn them on.  There's a thermostat in the hallway -- we cranked it up to maximum, but it hasn't made the individual radiators go on, or otherwise warmed the rooms.  And, as previously mentioned, the lobby is closed, so we can't get anyone out here to explain the heating system to us.)


(So, um, if the name-dropping thing still works, hey VAGABOND TOURS, the Doolin Activity Lodge is not up to your usual standards.)


They also didn't have a restaurant on the premises -- well they did, but it doesn't have dinner.  Sam directed us to a pub a 5 minute walk down the road.  Good pub.  Busy.  (Still having "Arthur's Day Specials" -- more Guinness was consumed, none of it by me.)  Real live Irish music and everything.  We ate, we drank, we listened, we walked back ... I'm wiped out.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ireland Day Four: If you don’t come home with cow poop on your shoe, you haven’t been to Ireland.

Yeah, I bet that one would go over well with the Irish Tourism Board.

Started off the morning at Portmagee and, as previously mentioned, discovered there was wireless internet in the lobby of the hotel. Coincidentally, something very similar is going on right now – there’s no wireless internet in my room, but there is a “fair” to “poor” signal in the lobby. So what’s going to happen here is I’m gonna write this post, run downstairs and actually post it … and the photos will get done later. (Too bad, really. They’re probably pretty nice. I just haven’t the time to do all the downloading, editing, and uploading.)

OK, here’s what happened. The weather actually was good enough for most of the group to go off to the Skellig Islands. Five of us remained back – not being all that excited about an island with something like 600 stairs going upward, with no handrail, and several deaths to their credit. Not that it isn’t beautiful – I’m sure it is. We just decided to pass on it. So, the gang is off on the boat to the Skellig Islands and the rest of us will go to the chocolate factory.

The other four strolled off to a local museum – I actually stayed in the hotel lobby taking care of business. Updated the journal, got caught up on email, and (score!) walked my laundry down to the local “community center,” where a very nice lady with three washers and dryers was happy to do a load of laundry for me for 8 Euros. (Which sounds like a lot for a load of laundry – but compared to hotels which would charge more than that for just a shirt, it was a steal.) I met up with the gang for lunch at a cute little bakery/cafe, and then Sam picked us up for our afternoon tour.

The chocolate factory was little more than a chocolate shop which happened to make its chocolates right in front of you. And yes, there were free samples! (And yes, I bought some.) Yummy.

Sam then took us off on a drive that ended up at, well, someone’s farm. We went through a gate one at a time – the gate sort of ended in a round bit, and you had to slide the gate in one direction to get in, and then the other way to get out on the other side. I remarked to Kathy that it reminded me of a subway turnstile – then took a good hard look at that word and decided that this was, very likely, exactly where “turnstile” came from.

Once in, we walked down a path (snagging a few fresh blackberries on the way), turned a bit, went up a hill, and ended up face to stone with a “cashel.” (Imagine an illustrative photograph here.) Picture a stone wall, a coupla stories high, in the shape of a circle. (Vaguely leaning inward – the damn thing would’ve been a dome if the stones went all the way up.) The rather cool thing about the construction here is that no cement was used – the stones stay in place just by the weight of the stones above. We’re talking strictly gravity, here. According to the nearby sign, these jobs could be as old as Iron Age, although this one (partially reconstructed) probably dates back 1000 years ago. Inside, there was a smaller stone circle in the center. (I was immediately reminded of the garden I’d wandered around yesterday. There was an open grassy field, with a little circle in the center with some benches in it.) Here, the central circle would’ve been roofed back in the day – it would have been the living area, with the animals kept in the outer circle. Very, very cool. Also: the inside walls of the outer circle are not completely smooth – there are steps (also made of stacked stones) working their way up. We actually climbed to the top of the wall and walked along the rim. (When I say “rim,” realize that the walls here were several feet thick.) It was a grassy path up there, with a great view. Sam was pretty good about giving us the history of these things (and Ireland in general) – he seemed a lot more open with just the five of us.

Our next stop was a castle … sorry that’s “15th century tower.” Much stronger and taller – they’d had cement by this time. Hard to tell exactly if we were supposed to just admire this from a distance – but Sam ducked under some barbed wire (which someone had clearly bent upward to make entrance easier) and we all followed. Approaching the tower, Sam told us to look out for the “fresh land mines” – the occasional massive pile of cow poop. (I think he may have stepped in one himself, moments before the warning.) Sam then took us closer to the tower (this time, stepping over an electrified cord) and around the back – where we spotted the herd of cows who clearly, at some point in the recent past, had found their own way into the area (not deterred by barbed wire or electrified cord). It was around this time when I took a step and realized, to my great dismay, that the ground underfoot was squishy. (Sam and I both spent the rest of the afternoon brushing one shoe against the grass, in a useless attempt to clean it.)

Sam actually found a way up into the castle itself – several stone steps in a rather steep and uneven pattern. I took a pass on this with one other woman, and we sat there looking at the incredible view which the castle-owner had given himself – right out over the water, absolutely beautiful. As the others gingerly made their way up the stairs, I said, “Have fun...” and quickly added, “... storming the castle,” realizing that I’ve never before had such a perfect opportunity for that movie reference.

On the way back, we stopped for a beverage near Portmagee and ended up spotting a pretty awesome rainbow – we could actually see both ends of it, and it centered rather nicely over a cute little building. (Again, the photo will follow.) We picked up the gang who’d gone to the Skellig Islands (and my laundry – I got everything back clean and folded, and a bonus pair of grey socks with little pink bows on them) and got on the road to Dingle. (On the way, we compared our stone cashel pics to their 600 stone-steps pics.)

Having settled in the Dingle Bay Hotel, I went up to my room and immediately discovered it was a Smoking room. I asked the nice lady at the desk, but she didn’t have a non-smoking room I could switch to. Not a problem, really, the smell of the cow shit on my shoe is actually cancelling out the smoke smell.

I’ve probably put in nearly an hour in the attempt to clean my hiking boot. Four trash bags, half a roll of toilet paper, and a Virgin Atlantic ballpoint pen have all given their lives for the cause. It still isn’t clean, but since I’ve signed up for horseback riding tomorrow, I’m thinking that there’s a reasonable chance that I could step in horse poop and have to start all over again. (What I really need here is a hose, with one of those power sprayers on the end. Or a shoe shine guy who wants a huge tip.)

Ireland Day Three: WherethehellamI?

Yeah, the updates for Days Two and Three may be posted somewhere around Day Four. Right now, I’m in Portmagee. The little information booklet in my room informs me that the nearest internet access is in the next town. Our guide told us we had “a couple” of choices for dinner – by which he meant two. What I’m saying here is: Portmagee = not very big.

Our guide, by the way, is no longer ROB RANKIN of VAGABOND TOURS (he who regularly googles himself). Some rather annoying rules in Ireland restrict drivers to no more than five days in a row – since we’re on a 7-day tour, we have to swap out guides partway through. Rob concluded that it’s better to swap out guides near the start of the tour rather than near the end – you know, because you don’t want to mess with a five-day-long Guide/Tour Group bonding experience. As it is, we’d grown surprisingly attached to Rob. I reckon we’ll work out a different but equally good dynamic with Sam, but it is weird how Sam now seems like the Odd Man Out in our group of 13. (And that’s counting the guy who doesn’t speak much English.) I was actually hoping to catch Sam tonight in the pub (one of our two dinner choices) – I owe him a pint (more on that later) and was looking forward to buying it, even if just to loosen his tongue a bit so we can get a better read on him. So far, it seems like he’s got a ton of information at his fingertips, but we sort of have to ask for it. He doesn’t give you an “on your left is...” sort of narration when driving along (as Rob did) – but if we ask, “Hey, what’s that thing on our left?” he has quite a bit of info to share.

I’m getting ahead of myself again. (And I’m a bit drunk. More on that later, too.)

Morning started a bit late today, so Kathy and I grabbed a late breakfast and hit the shops in Kenmare – where Kathy managed to spot an item on my shopping list. One gift down, about six to go.

There was really only one event on schedule for today – another “walk over a hill.” We greeted this announcement with the proper level of cynicism it deserved, but Rob assured us that it wasn’t nearly as taxing as yesterday’s hike. (Yesterday’s walk was, in fact, upgraded to “hike” status. Then again, he first called today’s walk a “stroll.” Rob has different definitions of these things than most people. I think I heard someone say Rob was a triathlete. This would explain a lot.)

I hadn’t really wanted another walk so soon after the last one, but it was the only real thing we were doing today, and – quite contrary to how I am when I’m not on vacation – I sorta craved some level of activity.

The long and short of this walk: Not as taxing as yesterday’s? Yes. Not as long as yesterday’s? No. It wasn’t nearly as steep, but once we got over the hill, the valley on the other side seemed to go on forever until we got to the pick-up point. Truth be told, we actually took longer on this one than we did on the last one. Then again, we stopped for more photos (rather than to just catch our breath), and there was a place where a few of us needed a hand in climbing across some rocks across a stream, so it was a bit more of a team effort. (Again, more of that group bonding business.) We said our goodbyes to Rob in front of the hill, and it was Sam who picked us up on the other side.





From there, we picked up the non-walker, took a few scenic photos, 



stopped for lunch, and started the drive down around the Ring of Kerry. (We passed many tourist busses and felt quite superior to them in our little Land Rover. This feeling continued as we turned off the road and went down into a valley where big coaches fear to tread.)

Much more driving, and it now started to rain. Sam was tearing down the road at a fast clip – we had the windows open, and, at one point, the windows shaved the nearby bushes a bit. All of a sudden, little bits of greenery came flying into our laps – much amusement. We eventually stopped at – fuck it, I’ve no idea where we stopped. It was some house of historical significance. You could choose to walk down to the beach (in the wind and rain – pass) or to the house and gardens. The house actually charged an admission fee, but the grounds were free – as were (as I discovered, in order) the toilets, the attached chapel, and the cute little (heated) tea room. I did a little private stroll of the gardens, then ran into Kathy, and spent twenty minutes in the warm tea room, tossing back tea until we had to go back to the vehicle. No photos of the gardens. (1. They weren’t all that impressive; and 2. Sometimes you just need to crank up your mp3 player, walk around someplace alone, and get a bit more centered. Well, at least I do.)

We then completed the drive over to Portmagee. Now, I believe I mentioned the Lack of Bigness to Portmagee – this includes the B&B in which we are staying. When Kathy and I had originally booked this tour, we booked to share a room – I only decided to switch to two singles on the first day of the tour. Well, this B&B was fully booked tonight – I could either stay here and share the room with Kathy or stay in a B&B in another town. (Admittedly, I idly wondered if the B&B in the other town had internet access. But still, everyone else was staying here, and Rob had billed this as one the best B&B’s in Ireland, so I wasn’t looking forward to skipping it.)

So, Sam is talking about all of us staying here, and I ask Sam if there’s room here for me too, or if I’ve gotta be at the place in the next town. Sam says there’s room for all of us, and he’ll “take one for the team” and try out the other B&B. I am grateful for this. (Hence: owe Sam a drink.) It actually got much more complicated – the hotel initially did not have room for me after all (Sam thought I was still sharing with Kathy) but it turned out that a room magically appeared – a last-minute cancellation, I guess. So one couple got upgraded to a really sweet room (with jacuzzi!) and I ended up in their (now vacated) double. Poor Sam was all alone in the B&B in the next town. He said he’d come back to Portmagee for dinner, but we didn’t see him. :(

Kathy and I met for dinner in the pub. (The choice being “pub grub” or a more gourmet “but more expensive” restaurant.) I order a glass of cider. (Cider = the one alcoholic drink I affirmatively like the taste of. I recognize that this fact may get me in trouble. Yet, I also recognize that I’m not driving.) Our food comes, but our drinks don’t. We eventually remind the waitress and she comes back with a pint of cider (for the “glass” price) with apologies.

That’s … a lot of cider.

We linger over dinner, and dessert (and the trivia question which had stumped me in the Land Rover earlier – we were trying to come up with a song title for each day of the week, but couldn’t think of any song with “Thursday” in the title – damn you, lack of internet access!) – I kept hoping Sam would show up to collect on his Guinness – but he never did. (Perhaps the B&B in the other town is so nice, he decided to stay. Somehow I doubt this.)

In any event, the time was spent attempting to consume enough of the cider so I wouldn’t seem ungrateful for my free upgrade. (Kathy deemed me “more drunk than she’d ever seen me,” although that isn’t necessarily saying much. Then again, it just took me three tries to type “necessarily.”)

We’re not exactly sure what’s on tap for tomorrow. The bulk of the group signed up for a ferry over to the Skellig Islands. Neither me nor Kathy was up for this. Ironically, the ocean might not be either – it is anticipated that the swells will be too high to go (leftovers from Atlantic storm systems), in which case the entire group will be doing whatever Kathy and I will be doing. (Unfortunately, not one person in our group remembers what Rob said the alternative was, when he told us about it on the first day, and we somehow neglected to ask Sam before we sent him off to the lousy B&B up the road.) Personally, I’m hoping for a day at leisure in a town with free wi-fi; shops selling exactly the gifts I need to buy; and a masseuse.

Ireland Day Two: The Irish are Feckin’ Insane

When other people … sane people … suggest walking up a hill and down the other side, what they mean is: there’s a hill, you’ll follow along about a couple dozen switchbacks as you make your way up the hill, then you’ll walk down switchbacks on the other side. Here’s what the Irish mean by walking up a hill: One hour, directly up the side of the hill. Seriously, the path (such as it was) went straight up, until it disappeared in the mist. (Then about a half hour, directly down the other side.)

(You’re not getting pictures. Well, you’re not getting pictures now because I’m writing in a hotel without internet access and will have to post later. You’re not getting pictures later because I didn’t take any pictures at the bottom of the hill (for roughly the same reason that I never took any pictures of my cat when I first got her – was unsure I’d be there for the “after” to go with the “before”) and, by the time I got to the top of the hill, the mist blocked the view of the way back down).

I’m getting ahead of myself. We woke, had breakfast – eggs with smoked salmon and many carbs on the side. (By the way, I haven’t actually been keeping score, but I’m pretty sure this is the third of at least five meals in a row where salmon was an option.) Then, piled into the vehicle – a modified Land Rover capable of holding 13 passengers and a driver – no, no, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Before we piled in said vehicle, we posed for a group photo – the nice people at the B&B must have snapped it with 8 different cameras before we were all satisfied.



It was … and still considers to be … interesting to me (from a sort of sociological point of view) how the 12 of us (we have one empty seat on this trip) have sort of become a cohesive group after about a day and a half of bouncing along in the aforementioned Land Rover together. (And I’m not just saying that because ROB RANKIN of VAGABOND TOURS apparently has his company name on Google Alerts, and therefore discovered that I’m blogging the trip.) It took a bit of effort to get everyone’s name and country of origin down (4 Aussies, 7 Americans, and one German guy who apparently thought he was signing up for a German-language tour, but understands enough English and has a good enough spirit to give it a go anyway). But we’ve now shared a few meals, Rob’s off-color (but good) jokes, a drink or two, some changing-room nudity, and a reasonable amount of Irish scenery, so we’re getting on pretty well.

So, to review: Eggs and salmon; group photo; pile in Land Rover; quick stop for a short walk (to a nice photo-spot) 


and a lousy cup of coffee and/or tea (the fact that I spilled some of mine on my shirt didn’t entirely matter, as my shirt was tea-colored and my tea was tasteless) and then …

Kayaking!

(Hence the changing-room nudity.)
Am still not sure why I find kayaking to be a relaxing vacation activity, but I really do. And this time: seals! (Not sure if we’ve got photos of seals. There are definitely photographs of me kayaking, which I'll get later from the woman with the waterproof camera.) But it was awfully fun paddling out – and the weather really cooperated for this one, as sitting in a wetsuit on a sit-on-top kayak can be quite unpleasant if it doesn’t – and pointing out the cute widdle seals to each other.

Stopped for lunch and then off to the aforementioned hike up and over a mountain. Sorry, according to Rob, it was a “walk up and over a hill.” He left us with a map, first-aid kit, and his cell-phone number, and set off (drove the vehicle around the other side, and took the non-hikers to a Buddhist Temple – I’m told they prayed for us.)

During our hike upward, I reconsidered the title to that movie, “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain.” Because, here’s the thing, nobody goes up a hill and comes down a mountain. You go up a mountain and down a hill. Trust me on this. Along with this epiphany, I did many other things while attempting to focus my attention on more exciting things than how much further we had to go, and looking down to avoid stepping in all the sheep poop. 



We further bonded with each other along the way. (A voice behind me: “Just remember; as long as you can still talk, you’re okay.” Me: :::grunt::: ) We also considered what I’d blog tonight, seeing as Rob had commented that he’d read my journal, and joked that I’d said something about his ass. (Alternate title for today’s post: “Rob Rankin is a big, fat liar, but he does have a nice ass.”)

Things got much better once we reached the flat at the top of the hill and my heart rate returned to normal. (There will be photos of sheep.) 



And the view as we first saw the other side really was quite impressive. (More photos.) 




Besides, certain promises had been made about ice cream on the way to our next stop.

And that’s largely it. A bit more scenic driving; the occasional photo-stop 


(everyone admired it)

 
(one including “a five-minute walk over the top of the next hill” – none of us were ready to believe Rob on that one, but he spoke the truth);




ice cream promises fulfilled; and arrival in our next overnight city: Kenmare. Dinner was on our own, but Rob reserved us a coupla tables in the pub in/under the hotel where we’re staying, as the “live Irish music” tonight was played by one Michael O’Brien who, according to Rob, “is the only man in the world who makes the accordian sexy.”

(And wouldn’t it be delightful if Mr. O’Brien has himself on Google Alerts? That’s Rob Rankin of Vagabond Tours.)

But, 9 of the 12 of us decided that, on this recommendation, this was something to see. (And at least 3 agreed with the assessment, and at least 2 others bought his CD.) The key here is that it didn’t sound like an accordian – imagine a traditional Irish reel played by a violin and guitar, only the violin happens to have buttons and a squeeze box instead of, y’know, strings. Dude is actually playing the fiddle part on an accordian. Crazy strange? You bet. Crazy good? Actually, yes.

And now: to bed. We have a late start tomorrow, to allow us to either: (a) take an early walk around Kenmare; or (b) sleep in. Any guesses on which one I’ll take?

NOTE...

The next two posts were a bit delayed by lack of internet access.  Turns out that the Day Three hotel had access ... but not in my room.  Found it in the lobby the next morning.  And since I've got about two hours to kill (everyone else is taking the boat to the Skellig Islands ... a few of us are staying back and we'll be going to a chocolate factory this afternoon -- at which point, my inner Elementary School student thought, "Free samples??!!")  ANYWAY, had a few hours to kill in a town with one shop, a pub, and internet access.  Wonder what I'll be doing.  I'll actually try to get the photos in as well -- even though the posts were orginally written photo-less.  Make sense?  Good.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ireland--Day One: A Coupla Castles ... and a Rock

Kathy, my good friend and travelling companion, snores.

My mother, who is reading this, at this very moment is remembering that time when she woke up in a hotel room we were sharing, only to find me sleeping in the closet in order to get away from her snoring.

What I'm saying here is:  I'm a hell of a light sleeper, and I find it damn near impossible to go to sleep when there's noise in the room.

Kathy and I turned in somewhere in the 10:00 hour, and by about 1:15, I still hadn't fallen asleep.  I even had earplugs (which I'd brought for the flight over), and I still couldn't fall asleep -- because when I jammed them in well enough to block out Kathy, I was distracted by the sound of my own breathing.

I must have eventually fallen asleep, because Kathy woke me at 7:00 -- after, thanks to the earplugs, I'd slept through two alarms and Kathy's shower.

There was an insanely easy solution to this problem, however.  When attempting to escape my mother's snoring on that trip, I'd ended up having to move to a different hotel.  Here, there was a single supplement of about $170 for the whole week.  (I even offered to pay this for both me and Kathy.)  As soon as we got picked up by the tour company, I asked to switch us to separate rooms, and it was a done deal.  :)

Accommodations thus settled, we joined our tour group:  12 of us and a tour guide.  (As it turned out -- 3 married couples and 6 people (now including me and Kathy) travelling alone.)  We all picked this company (Vagabond Tours) because we like tours that are a bit adventurey, a bit off the beaten path, and NOT at all 60 people on a tour bus stopping every couple hours for a photo stop.

The first day, however, was the most driving AND the most touristy.  But our guide (Rob) was right -- by dinnertime, this morning at Dublin seemed like two days ago.

(And, since there's internet access at tonight's hotel, I can journal with the photos RIGHT NOW.  'Course, I still can't remember all of it.)

First stop:  Dunamase Castle.  Looks like this:

Noteable because the noble running this location was responsible for bringing the English into Ireland.  (Story was that he asked England to help him fight a local battle.  And, of course, the English were more than willing to oblige.  And stay for a bit.)


Next stop was the Rock of Cashel.  Involved a cathedral.  Looked like this:
It was at the Rock of Cashel that I really started noticing just how green the country is.  I mean, it's so darned wet around here, even the insides of the walls are green.
From here, we piled back in the vehicle... (I think there may have been lunch in there, at a pub, where some nice folks explained the basics of the Gaelic Football match that was on TV) ...and drove on to Tourist Central ... aka Blarney Castle.  It looks like this:
Did I kiss the Blarney Stone?  No.  (What?  You want me to be more wordy?)  Truth is, I didn't even look at it.  You can't tell from this picture, but by the time we got to Blarney Castle, the sky was actually blue, with little white puffy clouds.  I weighed my options of climbing the steep and awkward stairs (after my ankle was already complaining, and I wasn't wearing an elastic brace) to look at a stone (whose only significance was in legend) against sitting outside in the pretty garden in what passes for a sunny afternoon in Ireland.  I went with the latter.  Kathy went on up to check out the stone, though no lip-to-surface contact took place.  (The doctor in our tour group wouldn't kiss it on account of germs, and most of us deferred to his expertise on this count.)


Continued on to ... where the hell am I?  [Looking at room key.]  Gougane Barra; staying at the Gougane Barra hotel -- a little B&B which is ... well, I can best describe the location by showing you the view from Kathy's window:
Yes.  Those are sheep.


And now ... to lay out my clothes for tomorrow and get a good solid night's sleep.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Greetings from Dublin

Yay!  We made it!  To Dublin!  And our hotel with free wireless internet access!

(Much joy for the latter.  Actually, joy for all of it, really.)

Trip so far has been insanely uneventful.  I wasn't able to sleep much on the plane, but I wasn't awake enough to watch any of the movies either (although the in-flight entertainment had about 60 movies DVR-style, so you could watch whatever you want whenever you want) -- besides, the damn airplane headphones kept shorting out.  (Airplane headphone always short out on me.  I don't know if it's me, or if they're just crap.  Rather, I know they're just crap, but I don't know if I have something to do with it, too.)  My friend and travelling companion, Kathy, got more sleep than I did.  But I'm all excited and pumped and stuff (and gonna stay up to a reasonable hour to defeat jet lag) and she's ready for bed.

But, basically, we flew to Heathrow; picked up my second suitcase and hauled it over to left luggage (the Immigration guy asked how long we'd be in the UK; I replied, "About two hours"); checked-in for the Dublin flight; flew here; got cab; came to hotel; bought some supplies at a nearby convenience store; and got dinner at the restaurant in the hotel.  Lacks excitement, I know, but what can you do?

So far, the highlight of the trip was our cab driver, who was listening to a soccer match on the radio, and muttered expletives under his breath when the other team scored.  We over-tipped him a bit out of sympathy.