In which we see the world and all the wondrous creatures therein. And probably get lost a lot.

Watch this space for pictures, video, and updates!

The album was getting too big, so additional albums are posted at the bottom of the blog - hopefully I'll have everything labeled within a couple of months.

Click on the slideshow pictures to reach the album links for larger views.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Day 9 - Kilkenny -> Dublin

One last day in Ireland!

I wanted to make sure we got to see Kilkenny, which is a beautiful little town, so we walked around for an hour before breakfast. The cathedral is especially lovely, and we were lucky that they were just setting up for the day and the doors were open - some great pictures.

With one day to go and most of my plausible list accomplished, we thought we should meander through the Wicklow Mountains back toward Dublin. It's a great drive, and we stopped in the Wicklow Gap for some pictures. The only planned event were the grounds at Powerscourt, a huge estate outside of Dublin. It invokes Versailles and lots of comments about the idle rich, but the grounds are very impressive - fountains and topiaries and amazing flowerbeds. I can imagine what it looks like in the summer. So we walked around for awhile, and I drooled over all the handmade things in the gift shops - sigh, no souvenirs other than pictures this trip!

On to Dublin, where Jim had kindly booked us into the airport Hilton for our last night.

Overall, a wonderful trip - Ireland is beautiful, everyone we encountered was friendly and helpful, and I learned more about Irish history in a week than I did in my entire school life.

The guys are heading home tomorrow, and I continue on to Vienna.

Day 8 - Cork -> Kilkenny

I'm falling behind on my blog! And as usually happens, dates and places are running together in my head. I'll do my best here:

The B&B we stayed at in Cork was my only really uncomfortable night - although apparently the second room was great. The first room was a mix-up, and missing a bed, so I wound up on a very hard fold-out cot shoved right up against the heater - not fun. Then we discovered that the shower had boiling hot water...but no cold. Oh well - the food was good, the owners were very nice about the whole thing and gave us a break on the rate.

From Cork, we headed east to the little town of Cobh, which has the distinction of a large cathedral on a hill and also of being the last place the Titanic stopped before it sank. It's a lovely little seaside town, but we were there too early to really do much - just a few photo ops and we were done.

Onward to Waterford! The city of Waterford was not terribly exciting, but it seems that EVERYONE worked for the crystal factory at one point or another before it closed. We talked to a friendly shop owner, who pointed us toward the Waterford Crystal shop and gallery, which was well worth the visit - lots of shiny breakable things. Nearby, a group of local artists have set up shop, and one of the glass blowers was the last apprentice that the crystal factory ever took on. He let me take some pictures as he fashioned a crystal penguin at 2000 degrees - pretty impressive.

From there, we headed back up into the Midlands of Ireland, into Tipperary, and found the Rock of Cashel. The Rock is just what it sounds like, a giant limestone rock, but on top is a collection of castle-esque ruins. Essentially it was a castle until the 1100s, when the owner turned the whole thing over to the church, and it's been a religious site ever since. Still, despite being decimated by Cromwell, the major buildings survived - a beautiful round tower, the main framework of the cathedral, some of the early castle quarters, and a gorgeous sandstone chapel. Note, you would-be castle builders out there. Don't build things out of sandstone in a wet climate - it's prone to getting eaten away, mold, and crumbling. And the frescoes you put up won't survive. But what was there was lovely, and they're putting a lot of effort into the restoration of the place. What remains of the cathedral is very impressive - the "bones" of the place are enormous, and some of the arches are stunning. It's amazing to think that these places were put up by hand, one stone at a time.

After we were castled out, we headed to Kilkenny. It was Good Friday, so we opted for a real hotel with a restaurant attached, since all the pubs would be closed. Everything did look pretty closed as we drove around. The hotel itself was lovely - the kind of place you take your mom on Mother's Day, and a great place for a wedding, just across the river from the castle, which they light up at night. We had a great dinner in the hotel restaurant, then off to bed - one more day in Ireland!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Day 7 - Killarney -> Cork

This was the morning to drive the Ring of Kerry, but we stopped at Ardfert Cathedral first - completely in ruins, but the structure is still there - it must have been very impressive back in the day. Then on to the Ring of Kerry, which is as beautiful a drive as everyone says. Poor Greg was on the wrong side of the car - I kept handing him my camera to get shots out the window, although we did stop, mostly when we were near the water. It's interesting how many tiny little towns there are out on that peninsula, and they're all B&B oriented and crowded. We saw a few bikers and a few people walking - I'll bet there are t-shirts in some of those shops labeled "I walked the Ring of Kerry."

Afterwards, we decided to skip lunch and head straight to Blarney Castle I have an impression in my head of what castles should look like, and Blarney fit right in - tall and imposing, full of winding staircases, alcoves, and a murder hole over the entrance from which to drop boiling oil on unwelcome guests. This castle even had an oubliette, where you drop people when you want to forget about them. We explored the grounds - the poison garden, the battlements, then the interior, making our way up to the top, where the Blarney Stone rests. Jim and Greg decided to kiss the stone. I talk far too much, so I declined - besides, you have to basically hang upside down to reach it - not my thing a hundred feet up, even if there are iron bars between you and the vast nothingness below. Back on the ground, we took a quick tour of the rock close - the extended grounds, and Jason walked the wishing steps with his eyes closed. The legend goes that the witch who takes the Blarney wood for her fire has to grant wishes to those who go up and down the steps without looking.

Once we were Blarneyed out, we headed to Cork, which is only five miles or so down the road. Our B&B was a good fifteen minute walk from the city center, so we got to see a bit of everything. Cork is a bigger, busy place - a university, tons of hostels and hotels, but industry and traffic, too. We trekked over to St. Finbar's, but the cathedral was closed - got some great shots of the outside, though. Then we decided to go take a quick picture of one of the only synagogues in Ireland, just a few blocks away - there are six total. Finally, dinner at a nearby restaurant and back for some well-deserved rest.

Tomorrow is our last truly planned out day in Ireland - Saturday will be a bit of a hodgepodge, but I'm sure we'll come up with something fun to do on our way back to Dublin.

Day 6 - Galway -> Killarney

So, we stayed at Flannery's Hotel, which I was very disappointed to find was actually a Best Western in disguise. Still, the place was clean and the people friendly, even if the shower pressure kept going all flooey. We headed out early, as per usual. When I started researching this area, I kept stumbling across The Burren Perfumery as a must-visit location, though out of the way. Since the Burren was on my list anyway, I figured why not? We headed out on the tiniest roads you've ever seen - too narrow for one car, much less two - and into the weird and flat rocky landscape just south of Galway. It's desolate out there, almost desert in places, and my first thought was that I wouldn't want to get a flat. However, the perfumery, once we found it, was charming - an herb garden in the back and a still room. They make all of their soaps and creams and perfumes from the plants they find on the Burren, which is what makes it unique - and now they have a website, which is great. There was a ten-minute film presentation on the plants of the region, and then we browsed around. I walked out with some soaps, a handful of samples, and some Burren beeswax lip balm that is quite awesome.

Next on the list was the Cliffs, but since we had to meander off the Burren anyway, we figured we'd stop and see a few more things. First, a stop at Poulnabrone Dolmen, an ancient portal tomb made from large slabs of rock, out in the middle of the Burren plain - huge and impressive. Next, I wanted to track down the cemetery with the ancient high crosses in Kilfenora. However, there we were thwarted - as we're discovering while we wander around, all of the old graveyards have ancient grave, but the newer members of the family as well. Almost everything in Kilfenora was closed because of a funeral, and we arrived in the graveyard just as the procession was starting. It didn't seem respectful to stay and take pictures, so we headed out - I have a picture of the information sign!!! Maybe next time.

Next up were the Cliffs of Moher. There really are no words. Find a picture, blow it up as big as you can make it, and hold your nose up to the screen. It's just ridiculous - there's the ocean, the sky, and six-hundred fifty feet worth of rock and sea birds.

After we'd had our fill of cliff pictures, we started the drive south toward Killarney, stopping at Bunratty Castle along the way. Bunratty is billed as one of Ireland's main tourist attractions, partially because of the medieval folk park attached to the grounds - it's a little like a Renn faire and a little like Disneyland. However, the castle is impressive. Apparently it was in ruins for quite some time, and then the new owners bought it a few decades back and refurbished it. As a result, there's a mixture of new and old. The four turrets are TINY and winding and scary, but I bravely climbed to the top. The south solar is worth the climb - gorgeous ceiling.

Exhausted from tons of driving and death-defying stair climbing and such, we headed to Killarney, which is a charming little town - very touristy, but they take very good care of it. Dinner at a crowded, no-frills restaurant, and then everyone was too tired to stop to listen to music, although I did hear a fiddler in a hotel bar as we passed.

Tomorrow, on to Blarney!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Day 5 - Addendum: Velcro Sheep!

Quick note - the "car path blocked by wild farm animals" incident tally is up to two. First, cows on the path back from Newgrange, and second, sheep on the road to Galway from Louisburgh. These sheep were spray painted cotton candy colors to mark them, making them look like they'd just gotten back from some serious sheep partying.

They are probably kin to the velcro sheep that stick to the sides of the hills as we pass. How do they get up there? Why don't they fall? It's insane to look up a hundred feet or two and see sheep happily chewing cud and peering down at the valley, sometimes literally standing sideways, sometimes nestled against the wall, by some sort of sheep velcro, I'm sure. Completely insane.

Day 5 - Londonderry -> Galway

Phew! The last of the insanely long driving stretches, and the midpoint of the Ireland part of the journey. The weather was nuts today - rain, sun, wind, hail, flying sheep, possibly some sleet. We left our cozy B&B in Derry this morning, took a quick drive around town so that I could get a good look at the walls - I didn't get to walk the Peace Bridge, but there's only so much time in a trip. Next stop was Enniskillen, which has a fairly intact castle that has been turned into a military museum, possibly due to the fact that it was under attack by one person or another for the last few centuries. It's been destroyed and repaired seven times or thereabouts. The city of Kells further south was burned to the ground nine times over the course of a few hundred years and still managed to turn out a written masterpiece, so maybe all that destruction just builds resilience. Enniskillen was interesting - the oldest part is the central keep and the front turrets. Inside the keep was a pretty extensive military history museum, focusing on the area, but getting into some of the Irish participation in larger conflicts over the last couple of centuries. Very interesting exhibit, although I was only allowed to take pictures of the entrance exhibits and the exterior courtyard. Got a few shots of the church on the way out, which had some pretty impressive height.

Next we headed for Sligo, and the weather took a turn for the ridiculous. Sligo is the second largest city in Northern Ireland, and apparently the cultural center as well. We noticed a bunch of artsy shops and galleries, and stopped in a nice little pub for lunch. Poor Jason is doing all the driving, and I think we're wearing him out, so we have to make sure to stop at regular intervals to refuel. Had a great seafood chowder - note that the West of Ireland is known for its seafood - and some Bulmers, which I'm going to miss enormously and will have to dig up at home.

The hail was coming down in golf balls by the time we left, so the guys took cover in a doorway while I wrapped my camera in the detached hood from my jacket and hopped across the street to get some shots of Sligo Abbey, which is in ruins, but beautiful. Unfortunately, the visitor's center was closed, so I couldn't go in, but with the weather, I'm not sure it would have made a difference. I think a few decent photos - we'll see when I clean them up. Back in the car, we headed west.

Part of my plan for this trip was to get some script research in, and while Dublin and Kilmainham Jail gave me some good ideas, I had always planned to head out to the Connemara region and see the lands of the pirate queen Granuaille - nothing like some hands on experience to get the sense of the era and the landscape. So we drove and drove and drove - millions of sheep, back into the Republic, through Yeats' lake country, past Ben Bulben Mountain down to Westport. We stopped for a short break at the base of Croagh Patrick, the triangle-shaped mountain with a three-hour hiking trail to the summit (which we skipped). There's a white stone statue of St. Patrick holding a crook and a shamrock, and even if the statue looking down from the mountain doesn't impress you, his view should - Clew Bay, which feeds into the Atlantic and is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Once I'd taken fifty pictures or so, I dragged the guys out even further, to the coast. Granuaille lived mainly on Clare Island, but the ferry doesn't run terribly often, and the visitor's center in nearby Louisburgh is only open from May to September. I had to content myself with pictures of the island and shots from the coast and the rocks where she probably pillaged and plundered her way through the 16th century. Astounding. Winds strong enough to push you back, water whipping around, and the clouds moving at huge speeds - just madness. Very easy to picture the pirate queen merrily making her way from the island to the shore.

Once we were all windswept and windburned, we hopped back in the car and headed down to Galway. The port city feels like the college town that it is - Eyre Square is awash in townies, students, and tourists, and there's a long pedestrians-only street that splits into two sections of pubs. We went for some dinner at a seafood place, where I had a few famous oysters from Galway Bay - on my foodie bucket list - which were fantastic. I haven't had a bad meal on this trip, which is a wonderful surprise. Then a few more pictures - of the Spanish Arch, the docks, the fish market at night, and the fast moving water, and back to our hotel. It's COLD, and I don't blame the guys for not wanting to stick it out too long in the freezing night air so I can take pictures.

Tomorrow, Cliffs and Castles!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Day 4 - Dublin -> Londonderry

The first of the epic travel days! Ambitious, but SO worth it! First, up early to check out, have some breakfast, and head back to the airport to get our car. We had a great cab driver coming in, so we asked him to come back and pick us up this morning, which worked out great. Unfortunately, at the airport, we discovered that we had to pay a ludicrous amount in insurance - tip for future travelers, if you book through Expedia, make sure the country in question actually takes that insurance and doesn't require their own. Anyway, by the time we sorted all that out, we were a little behind and I had to make some quick adjustments to the list.

We headed to Newgrange, which is a 5000-year-old passage tomb about forty minutes north of Dublin. Beautiful little countryside with sheep and cows and green all over the place, and then this huge, ancient thing in the middle of it. The tour was fun - it's apparently very popular for field trips, as we were behind a group of kids. I'm a tad claustrophobic, and the entrance to the tomb was VERY narrow, which was a little scary, so I had to breathe slowly and remind myself that I've been up pyramids and into Niagara Falls and snorkeled with sea beasts and such - this was nothing. Inside is really fascinating - a round burial chamber that the sun hits every winter solstice for five days. Sadly, they wouldn't let me take pictures, but I'm sure there are shots of the carvings and such online somewhere.

After Newgrange, I had to nix the plan of stopping in Belfast and we just headed North. Jason was a trooper, managing the wrong side of the road without a hitch. We ended up having lunch across from the Norman fort of Carrickfergus, which was on my list, but we didn't have a chance to go in. I have a few million photos with telephone poles or errant bushes blocking key cool things all over the place - unfortunately, there's only so much time, and I wanted to make sure we saw the big things.

We paused at Carrick-A-Rede, where the rope bridge is, to take a few pictures, high on the Northern Coast, but we were losing light, and I wanted to make sure we had time for the real prize - Giant's Causeway. We got there just as the last bus was headed down, so we had to trek back, but oh, what a sight! Thousands upon thousands of basalt column formations that look like steps stretching out along the coastline - it's bizarre and unearthly, and you can totally see why the early people decided it was the remnants of a Giant's bridge to Scotland. Truly one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen. I took eight thousand pictures. Enjoy.

After saying goodbye to the Causeway, we finished our trek up the Causway Coastal Route with a stop a Dunluce Castle, which was the inspiration for C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. At the moment, its other claim to fame is that it's falling into the sea. It's a pretty impressive collection of ruins perched on a green hill over the North Sea. At least, I was impressed. The nearby sheep didn't seem to care, but then again, they're locals. The castle was closed for the night, but the exteriors were what I really wanted, so it worked out perfectly.

Another forty minutes took us to Londonderry, the famed Walled City where Bloody Sunday took place. It's beautiful at night, and we had a chance to walk along part of the old walls after dinner. I don't know how much we're going to see of it tomorrow - there's a lot to see in the south, but I think we'll take a quick drive and get more of an overall impression - the Peace Bridge, St. Columba's, and Ulster University, which has some nice medieval buildings. On that note, nice B&B. Off to do some work and head off to bed.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dublin - Day 2 1/2-3

There's music everywhere here, and it ranges from the violinist standing outside a touristy breakfast place playing Oh Danny Boy for a few Euros to an endless stream of guys with guitars in the back of crowded pubs, sometimes playing original music, but you're just as likely to get Bob Marley covers or Dylan. Last night, we headed out for a night in Temple Bar, which is something like Vegas and something like Bourbon Street. We were warned that getting to actually hear music in the crowded pubs would be challenging.

After a so-so dinner at an Italian place, we headed down to the bridge so I could take some pictures of the Liffey at night. The famous Ha'Penny bridge is covered in padlocks - the latest fad for couples to show their devotion. Apparently the authorities keep cutting them off, but they reappear.

Jim headed back to the hotel, but Jason, Greg, and I decided to try and find some music. I nixed the first place, where the guy was, indeed, butchering a Marley classic, but we were ushered into the upstairs bar at The Quay, where a guitar and accordion duo were playing. It was definitely designed for tourist appeal, but that doesn't mean they weren't great. Check out the video! Very impressive - a lot of talent. A pint of cider and back to the hotel.

This morning, we met up for breakfast at the hotel restaurant, then started the trek out to the Guinness brewery. The tour was self-guided, and since I'm not a beer drinker, I sampled to be polite,, but ignored the free pint that came with the ticket. The top floor of the glass and metal museum/factory is the Gravity Bar, with a 360 view of the city, which was great. Afterwards, we accepted the offer of a ride from a horse and buggy outside and returned to the center of town - my foot is still killing me, but onward.

Greg was given a recommendation for Leo Burdocks' fish and chips place near Christchurch, so we stopped there for lunch - yum - but too much fish for one human to consume. The plan was to head up to the Dublin Writers' Museum, but the trek proved to be really rough on my poor feet - I may have overdone it yesterday. The museum itself is interesting, housed in the old Jameson family home. Afterwards, we were going to take the DART down to the end of the line and see the coast, but I was feeling totally exhausted, so I took a cab back to the hotel and the guys went on without me. It's just as well - the expedition was a failure between schedules and tickets and such, so we all met up at the hotel about an hour later and decided to just take it easy for the rest of the day - a long journey ahead! Our last night in Dublin was marked by an excellent meal at The Exchequer, finished off with Irish coffee. And now I'm sleepy - must pack up and finish uploading the day's pictures before heading off to bed.