Thursday, July 26, 2012

Touristy Tourist Tours

We woke up Friday to the most gorgeous blue skies; it seemed crazy that it had been rainy for so long.  I can see how one sunny day makes up for the rainy grey ones. We had a fantastic breakfast that Karen cooked. All week we have been skipping breakfast or just having a quick piece of toast so it was luxurious to sit down to a fully cooked, delicious, made to order meal.  We then headed out to check out the area tourist attractions. 
Dunlace Castle
First stop was Dunlace Castle. We had to pay 8 pounds to get in which just seemed wrong after the first few days of traipsing through castles for free.  But once I saw the grounds, I was impressed.  Dunlace Castle is a huge compound since it also served as a village for most of the people that worked in the castle.  Only 17 miles from Scotland, the castle traded ownership from Irish to Scottish several times until it was eventually destroyed and abandoned. It was a pretty impressive ruin, and the views over the water aer fantastic.  There were more people than I would like, though I am a bit spoiled after the private castle tour!  But it was neat to see and I am glad I paid the money to see it. 

Next up was the Giant's Causeway, the reason we were staying in the Portrush area in the first place.  The Giant's Causeway is an impressive geological formation of almost identical rock hexagons.  There are estimated to be 40,000 of them and most geologists believe they were formed 65 million years ago.  The coolest part is the pattern which is most likely formed as a result of  rock crystallization under conditions of accelerated cooling, occurring when molten lava comes into immediate contact with water.  I had heard about these and seen some pictures online but I was unprepared for how amazing a sight it is when you are there in person. It really is quite amazing the power of Mother Nature. And really, the entire country kinda makes me want to go back to school to become a geology student so I could do an entire thesis on the geological wonders of Ireland. We climbed around the stones, making a wish at the wishing chair stone and taking a ton of pictures.  One of my favorite things was a wall on the back side where people have placed coins into cracks in the rocks.  The wind and the rain have caused the coins to bend. It is said that it is good luck to place a coin in the wall, and for some reason, this felt like something I had to do.  So I did.  Hopefully my wish comes true!

After a failed attempt to see Bushmills Distillery, the oldest whiskey producer in the world, we ate dinner and headed out to see a row of trees that forms a beautifully creepy hedge leading up to an estate. It has been featured in The Game Of Thrones, which a lot of people I know watch, so I figured it would be worth seeing.  We found it, but honestly were unimpressed.  Sure it was neat, but not what I thought it was going to be.  I was able to get some pretty great pictures out there and it actually was the site of one of the funniest moments of the trip.

Most cars in Ireland are stick shift so that meant that Dearsley and I did all the driving since Beth didn't know how to drive. We were on this quiet back road taking pictures and Beth asked to try her hand at manual transmission. Now the shifter is on the left, you have to drive on the left, so not only did she have to learn how to use the clutch, she had to shift with her left and remember to stay left.  She actually did really well, so well that I was a tad disappointed.  We got to the intersection where the other 3 girls were standing and Beth freaked out.  She was laughing, crying and screaming "GET OUT OF THE WAY."  We told her she was clear to go but she waited.  She finally started, drifted back and squealed the tires as she peeled through the stop sign.  It was funny for all of us, but became truly hilarious when we saw the video.  There is a long pause as Beth waits, she drifts back out of frame then peels out.  We watched the video over and over again, laughing until we were all crying.  Anyone who has ever learned how to drive stick will understand how hysterical it was, since every single one of us has done exactly that.  It was such an unexpected moment, but such a highlight of the trip for sure.

It is crazy that the trip is nearing it's end.  Only one more day in Ireland and then it is all basically travel back home. I usually don't like being a typical tourist and prefer off the beaten path scenery, but today was worth putting up with the crowds. It gave me a renewed sense of awe for the planet, for geology and a love of laughing until you cry, cough and double over from joy.  Five months ago I hardly knew these women I was with and yet I have such a feeling of love for them and that makes me happy in a way I really needed.  Maybe it is the luck of the Irish, all the green or the stories of magic and fairies, but this trip is truly magical for me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Changes in Lattitudes

Thursday morning we woke up to "warm" temperatures and more blue sky.  We were amazed at how far we could see from our house when it cleared....absolutely gorgeous.  We said goodbye to Ann and headed out to our next destination - Portrush, Northern Ireland. We were due to meet the other 2 travelers, Candace and Carol, whose work obligations prevented them from joining us earlier.  Most people said it would take us 5 hours to make the drive, but knowing how much Beth and I loved taking pictures, we were sure it would take longer.
We weren't on the road more than 15 minutes when we made our first picture stop at an old graveyard at the side of the road.  I don't know why I love old cemeteries and churches, but I do.  I think it is a sense of history, of love, of faith and devotion which are ideals that captivate me. This  one happened to over look the ocean with fields int he background and was stunning.  There were more than a few Celtic crosses, actually the entire trip was filled with Celtic crosses, claddagh rings and other famed Celtic symbols. It got to be a bit repetitive actually, but in the cemetery the cross took on new meaning.  They were gorgeous, with such intricate details.  I honestly could have sat there all day, reading the graves and being at peace in such a gorgeous resting place.
But we had miles to go, so we jumped in our car and made it north of Sligo before we stopped again.  We were driving down the road when Beth saw a castle in the distance. We decided to take a side road and see how close we could get to it.  We winded down quite a bit and never got very close to the castle.  BUT we stumbled upon one of the most naturally beautiful places I have ever seen.  It helped that it was sunny finally, but the deep blue water against the stone rocks next to the vibrant green grass with an actual castle in the background was just breathtaking. Pictures don't do it justice at all. We stayed there for almost an hour taking pictures of the land, the water, the nearby cows and of course each other. I think this is going to be one of my favorite memories of the entire trip. Obviously because it was so picturesque, but mostly because it was completely unplanned.  I am SUCH a planner, with my day, week, month, life in general, but have recently been reminded that plans don't always work out the way you intended. I have seen that as a negative lately, thinking "why didn't it go the way I had planned?" and this little spot, and pictures from it, will always be there for me to know that the most beautiful things can be spontaneous.   I'm not going to stop being a planner, but this does give me hope.

One of the most unexpected things about Ireland is the amount of daylight.  During the summer there can be 18 hours of sun, meaning the sun comes up at 5am and doesn't set until 11:00pm!  So while there was still plenty of sunlight, it was already almost 9pm so we jumped in the car and headed north.  We had all wondered what crossing into Northern Ireland would be like.  I didn't know a lot about the specifics of the Troubles, I had just heard of them and knew that Northern Ireland was not exactly the nicest place to be a few years ago.  In fact when I told people i was traveling to "Norn Iron", most asked if I was scared.  (I wasn't).  We wondered if we would get an extra stamp on our passport since we would be crossing into a different country.  Turns out there is absolutely NOTHING, not even a "Welcome to Northern Ireland" sign.  The only indication we had crossed the border came from gas station signs advertising prices in pounds, instead of the Euro from the Republic of Ireland.  I was disappointed for sure. 

We arrived at MaddyBenny Bed and Breakfast after dark and were greeted by owner Karen White, who immediately told us she could put her "mother worrying cap away" since we had arrived.   Booking online hotels is always a crapshoot, so I was pleased when I saw the place was exactly what I wanted.  I had booked a self catering cottage for Doolin, but I really wanted the bed and breakfast type atmosphere for NI.  The beds were comfortable, there was history, horses, peacocks and chickens everywhere and free wireless!  After catching up with Carol and Candace we went to bed, far later than we should have, but much happier and excited to be in a new part, with new friends. 

OK - I am that is all for this blog. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Excuse me while I kiss the sky.

A fireplace in the castle
We stayed in the Gentian (pronounced Gen-shun) cottage in Doolin.  It is a lovely 3 bedroom 3 bathroom house with an amazing view of the water.  On Wednesday the mist had lifted so we met the owner of the house, Ann O' Callahan, to get a private tour of the Ballinalacken Castle.  They are not sure exactly when the castle was built, but they suspect in the 15th century as a home to the O'Brien's who were one of the richest and most powerful families in County Clare.  Ann led us through a private, locked gate and then let us climb in the castle.  The stairway was still in really great shape, even though most of the roof was gone, and parts of the walls had holes in them.  It is astonishing to think of someone in the 1400s making a castle like this, that is still so sturdy today.  I only made it to the third story, my fear of heights preventing me from making it to the partial 4th floor.  But that was enough for me for sure! 

Then Ann took us to her farm and let us feed a week old baby cow named Jake.  Momma cow had triplets, a very rare thing, and Ann was worried about the amount of milk produced for the babies so is supplementing Jake with milk, served in a wine bottle! She let us take a turn feeding him which was a fun, simple thing.  Cows are awesome. I cannot say enough nice things about Ann and her home.  If you should ever find yourself needing a place to stay in Doolin, Ireland, please look her up
The Cliffs of Moher
Since it was still cloudy, but not foggy, we decided to try the cliffs again.  Turns out that the visitor center that we paid to go into is a recently new development and the local townspeople are a wee bit upset that people feel like they need to pay to see the cliffs.  In fact, you don't have to pay to see them, the money you pay is to park at the visitor's center.  So on Ann's advice, we parked on the side of the road and walked up to the cliffs and wow am I glad I did.  When you can see them, they are amazing.  Pictures do not do justice to the size and scope of the landscape.   There are barriers everywhere, along with posters urging people to call the Samaritans if they are thinking about suicide (there are 3 suicides a day in Ireland, more than car fatalities.  The Cliffs are the top "black spot").   We walked to the end of the barriers, climbed past the private property signs and were treated to some spectacular views as we walked down a narrow pathway nearly 3 miles along the top of the cliffs.  I got pretty close to the edge, close for me, and was very happy that neither Beth nor Dearsley fell off the side!  This may be a super touristy location, but if you are in that area, check it out.  It is worth seeing for sure and if can take the heights, walk past the barrier.  There are some crazy areas where the wind tops 80mph, but other than that the walk is pretty easy and you will be glad to see this natural wonder from a different angle.
Blue Skies over the Cliffs of Moher
On our way back we were surprised and delighted to see actual blue sky peeking through the clouds.  You would have thought we won a million dollars based on our reactions, but after so many days of rain and grey, the blue sky was gorgeous.  It was the first of many utterly happy moments for me on the trip.  Here I was standing on a cliff that is over 720 feet tall, with some great new friends, looking at something that is not only old, but a testament to the power and wonder of the earth and it was amazingly serene, peaceful and made my heart happy.  Five months ago I never would have imagined myself here, but I am so glad it happened.

After the cliffs, we headed back to the house to shower and get ready for our last night in Doolin.  Tony the cabbie picked us back up and we headed to McDermott's for dinner.  This is a truly local place, where families gather for good pub grub and good music.  The night was pretty low key, so we ate and headed over to McGann's to see what was happening there.  I am not sure if it was a collective hangover from the night before or just a regular low key night, but the crowd was smaller, the music more intimate and as a result we found ourselves in a deep political conversation with some Irishmen.

The more I travel, the more I become aware of how ignorant and arrogant Americans are.  Here I was in a small town in Ireland and people knew not only the major political leaders, but also details on our system and major laws and issues as well as our history including presidents.  I was shocked but mostly embarrassed by my lack of the same information about a country I was visiting for a week.  I love traveling because it teaches me in the best way I know to learn, but it also keeps me grounded in all that I don't know, and what knowledge I need to seek out.  Traveling also reminds me of how similar humans are; wanting to be loved and needed and respected.  Meeting strangers, discussing common bonds and learning so much is the essence of why I love to travel and why it will remain a priority in my life.  It makes me appreciate what I have and the opportunities that I take so for granted as well.

So after 4 days in Doolin, we are packing up and heading up north to Portrush in Northern Ireland to meet up with Candace and Carol. I am excited to see another part of this gorgeous country, but sad to say goodbye to this wonderful town and its lovely people who have been so gracious to us while we have stayed.  Now that I see what a blue sky looks like, this is a truly gorgeous place that is worth seeing sometime in your life.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

50 mph winds to 3 sheets in the wind...

You don't come to Ireland for the weather that is for sure. We started Tuesday later than normal and that was perfectly fine with me.  There is such a rush to do and see and not miss a thing that it is easy to ignore the fact that you are just plain tired.  It isn't jet lag, just exhaustion.  The weather was horrible anyway, with a thick fog settling over the entire area.  We literally could not see 25 feet in front of us.  Figuring it wasn't ever going to be any better, we set off for the Cliffs of Moher. 

When I first starting researching Ireland, I was drawn to the cliffs and knew that I wanted to see them.  In fact the cliffs are why we are staying in Doolin,  5 miles away.  So we drove up, paid roughly $10 a person to park and walked into the visitor's center.  It was cold, rainy, windy and we could hardly see a thing.  We did spend some time in the gift shop and I was glad to see an ATM, e only one around for 25 miles.  After watching the documentary films, shopping and warming up a bit, we ventured out onto the cliffs.  Wondering what they looked like?  Take a white sheet of paper.  Hold it up to your face.  That is what it looked like.  We literally could not see a thing.  We knew they were there since the mist would randomly clear for 5 seconds, long enough to see that the cliffs were real, but not long enough to get the lens cap off the camera.  We stayed for a bit, then left pretty disappointed.  

You can't plan for the weather and the best bet is to make the best of it, no matter what.  Luckily we did just that.  We drove around, then went home, took a nap to rally for a pub night.  Since driving on the left takes full concentration, neither me nor Dearsley felt comfortable driving having anything to drink.  So we decided for Tuesday to get a cab so we could both drink.   Tony the cabbie picked us up and recommended we go to Doolin instead of Lisdornvarna since it was a bit more exciting.  He dropped us off at McGann's pub since a "fantastic piper was there".  We walked in and the place was packed.  I was disappointed to find that most of them were tourists, but I couldn't deny the atmosphere was electric.  When the famed piper came in (Michael from Foolin in Doolin, he plays the uilleann pipes) the crowd reacted like he was a rock star.  It was amazing! We drank, flirted with bartenders, talked to Americans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Malaysians and of course Irish.  It was fun. One thing that is different in the pubs here is that they do not waste space.  If two people are sitting at a table for 4, they might have another couple seated with them that they do not know.  Not only does this utilize the very tiny space, it is a great way to get to know each other.  We came home, Dearsley made Irish soda bread with honey, we drunk skyped people (drunk dialing is one area that really did not need technological advances) and had a great night. I am pretty in love with this little town of ours.  Not only is it gorgeous, but the people are fantastic.  I feel like I have stumbled upon a fairy tale and now I am not sure I ever want to leave!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

50 Shades of Grey, and I mean that literally

It was grey and rainy today and I mean ALL day. We woke up to a blustery morning but since we have limited time here, couching it was not an option so we packed up our bags and headed out. First stop was Lisdoonvarna, home of the world famous "matchmaking festival". The town is quite braggadocious about the claim that most true love matches are made here than in heaven, but in talking with a local we found that most of the village people think this is quite sad, a bunch of "older women from America" come over to meet a farmer to take care of them. The farmers think is is fun but the Americans take it too seriously. We finally asked how old and were told in the 60s. I got the feeling they are glad to have the tourism claim but that is about it. The town is quite small, so we were surprised when we came out of a store to see a traffic jam. Turns out there was a funeral and almost the entire town came out to pay their respects. At one point they were totally spilled out on the street. I knew it was rude to so didn't, but I really wanted to take picture of the event, it was so moving and so real. The rest of the day was spent driving around and stopping whenever we saw something we liked or wanted a picture. I took 217 pics and I am sure Beth took just as many. We were pretty silly, but we really made the best of the rain and horrible conditions. We tried to take a self portrait at any landmark and some were great and others not. But my favorite one, and perhaps favorite moment of the day was at the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a stone burial portal from 3,200 bc. The wind had really picked up, the rain was blowing and it was quite chilly. We were all up there with our raincoats on, hoods up. It was a great picture, but more than that, a fantastic memory. I've written before about how important good travel companions are and not knowing Dearsley that well and not ever traveling with Beth, I wasn't sure how it would go, but we all are getting along well and have very similar travel styles; no plans and make the best of it. I was so thankful that they would get out of the car in the wind and rain to see basically a big, old rock. We were all soaked afterwards but it was very fun. Ireland, even in the grey and rain, is beautiful. It changes between green farmland, sweeping hillsides and rocky barren landscapes. Stone is everywhere: houses are made from it, walls divide property and provide a barrier to the roads. The people here have a fantastic sense of color. Houses may be white but the window sills and doors are vibrant green or yellow or red. The abundance of rain is never more evident than with the flowers that are everywhere. Every store has hanging baskets of purples and reds and yellows. Most houses have window boxes making the town streets absolutely picturesque. We are staying in a small village that is not touristy at all, so I am very aware of being an American. The people have been lovely so far though, very helpful and nice. Nice breeds nice. It looks like rain and wind is the forecast for our entire trip, but if today is any indication, we will make the most of it!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Irish eyes are smilin'

I have been up and moving for 24 hours, but that is ok since I am in Ireland!  Honestly Ireland was never on my bucket list of places to go. Sure it was pretty but since I mostly stuck with tropical destinations, it was never a top 5 place to go.  But this year my friend Beth was chosen to be one of a very few people that get to film the Olympics for NBC. We talked and a European vacation was born. We chose Ireland because none of us had ever been and it was close to London where Beth would have to report to work. After deciding we really wanted to see the clifs of Moher and the giant's causeway, we set on finding a bed and breakfast or house to rent.  Then with 157 days to go, we waited. It has been so far away for so long that it is still strange that I am in Ireland.  The trip was ok.  The flight to London was in eventful and I actually slept.  Then we rushed through customs, followed the signs to departures, rushed mot the gate to be. Told we could not board the plane because we had not checked in.  After much running, sweating, and fantastic help by one particular security guard, we found out that by going through security with our boarding pass without first checking in voided our bairdin pass and we had to start all over.  So $200 later, we found ourselves waiting for the 2pm flight.  So that was not ideal, but we all managed through it, knowing that the number two rule in travel is to be flexible.  (number one is pack light).  We rented a car and commenced our cross country road trip.  To be honest, it only took us 3 hours to drive across country, but still, I have done it.  They drive on the left side of the road here and I was the first of the crew to start.  Luckily it was a straight stretch, but honestly, driving on the opposite side came back to me pretty quickly.  Some navigation is still tricky, some turns, pulling out of parking lots, take some thinking, but other than that, it is really easy now.l Our house is wonderful. The owner lives right next door and she is lovely.  She recommended a cute Irish pub for dinner so we drive the 3 miles down the road to get something to eat.  None of us have showered in 24 hours but we were hungry!  We walked in to a bar area where everyone was singing along to an Irish fellow singing an very familiar tune.  I loved it! Having never really given thought to what Ireland would be like, this pub exceeded my expectations.  I had fish and chips, a soda since I was driving and then it became very apparent that all of needed a good night sleep, So day one is done.  I am glad I am here.  The landscape is gorgeous, with more shades of green that you can imagine.  There are ruins and stonewalls everywhere.  It is pretty magical.  I get it now.    So off to bed.