Monday, December 31, 2007

Adventure #9: Canary Islands

The Medtronic plant closes here the week of Christmas, and employees are required to take vacation - which was fine by us. We decided it was time for some sun, and booked a trip to Gran Canaria, one of the Canary Islands.

Gran Canaria is the third largest island of the Canary Islands, an archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean 210 km from the northwest coast of Africa and belonging to Spain. The island is volcanic in origin and much closer to the equator; it was around 70 degrees each day the entire time we were there (lovely).

We stayed in Playa del Ingles ("Englishmen's beach"), located on the southern tip of the island (the Costa Canaria), where all the other Northern European tourists stay to escape the winter cold. Christmas is the island's busiest week of the year, we were told. Lots of Germans, English, Irish and Scots there. Playa del Ingles was very touristy: lots of tacky souvenir shops, malls, arcades and restaurants that all served the exact same food and drink menus - only the restaurant logo in the corner was changed. But an open-air restaurant on a cliff with unobstructed views can serve whatever it wants, and people will come just for the scenery. We did, and the pizzas and banana splits were great. Playa del Ingles has a beautiful promenade that runs along the ocean called Paseo Costa Canaria. One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip was just walking along the paseo, looking out at the ocean, catching some rays and people watching. The beaches were very pretty - lots of beach umbrellas, windsurfers, kite surfers and parasailors, as well as people walking along the beach down to the sand dunes of Masopalomas.

Masopalomas, just west of PdI, has these amazing sand dunes - the only similarity to Africa we found on the island. It is truly a Spanish island - language, food, people, architecture, etc. After spending Sunday afternoon walking through the dunes, where we found it gets really windy around lunchtime (tradewinds), Damon decided it would be cool to walk the paseo down here on Christmas Eve morning and watched the sunrise. Spectacular!

We lounged by the pool some our first few days too, but it was usually partly cloudy and a little chilly for sunbathing without full sun. We also watched the sunset at Faro de Maspalomas, the site of the island's notable landmark lighthouse, built in 1886, long before the tourism boom. Another boardwalk starts here and runs up the west coast of the island - not sure how far it goes, possibly only to the next town. The camel rides were nearby, where we sadly learned that they simply put you in a double-metal chair (with another person) that hangs over the camel's hump and a guide leads a line of camels on a rope around in a contained pin - so we didn't opt for the 28 euro per person ride! There was also a cool statue here of a person riding a huge moray eel. And lots of nice shops and restaurants too.

A favorite memory of mine - not Damon's - would be the mercados, or street markets. The San Fernando mercado was held on Wednesday. There are great markets somewhere on the island almost every day of the week, but this was the closest one to PdI, located about 3-4 km northwest of our hotel. We walked there, and I bought a couple purses and some bling-bling jeans for Norah from the vendors in colorful tents pitched in a parking lot. We also found a cool gift for Ian.

The highlights of the trip were Thursday and Friday. We realized on Wednesday we needed a car to get out and explore the rest of the island. It took a half a day to find one (almost all were rented), and we finally coughed up 60 euros for a Leon Seat (whatever that is). It was a nice car, and we set out around 9 a.m. on our day-long road trip. Highlights included:

- Los Azulejos - a very cool rock formation in the southwest interior of the island where minerals and oxidization have left these beautiful shades of green and peach on the mountainsides.

- Anden Verde - the coastal area on the west coast; beautiful drives along cliffs, the coastline, vegetable and fruit plantations, and tiny, charming towns. There were several vista points along the road where we stopped and took pictures; we could even see Tenerife, the next Canary Island west of Gran Canaria, which had a snowpeaked mountain called Teide, which is the highest point of Spain.

- Agaete - a little town on the west coast with beautiful whitewashed buildings and a botanical garden; we walked from here down to the boardwalk of Puerto de las Nieves.

Puerto de las Nieves - a sleepy little fishing village with a small port for ferries to Tenerife. Very quiet, charming - colorful buildings, small beach, surfers catching waves near the rocks. The manmade wall they've created to protect the city from surge during hurricanes was also impressive.

- Roque Nublo - means the "Rock Clouded" in Spanish; a monolith vertical rock that is 80 m tall. It is one of the most famous landmarks in the island of Gran Canaria. The elevation is 1,813 m ranking it second on the island and one of the tallest in the archipelago. It's located in the mountainous interior of the island, called the Cumbre. We arrived here after circling the entire island by car, then driving straight north of Playa del Ingles about one hour into the mountains. Stunning views, and lots of curvy, windy roads, which Damon enjoyed driving along. We hiked into Roque Nublo and watched the sunset. Maspalomas and the ocean were visible through the fog. It was about 40 degrees at Roque Nublo and still 70 degrees at the beach!

Our last day on the island, Friday, was fantastic. We took the city bus to Puerto de Mogan, a fishing village known as "Little Venice" due to its network of tiny bridges in town. Brightly colored Bouganveilla - oranges, pinks, purples - covered overhead arches and doorways on whitewashed Spanish-style buildings with tile roofs. Fisherman brought in the daily catches, local boys challenged tourists to "throw money in the water" so they could dive in and catch the coins before they hit bottom. The largely popular mercado is held here every Friday, which I visited while Damon snapped lots of great photographs. We walked along the town lagoon - a beach we wish we had discovered earlier in the week, as it was peaceful with very little wind - then had lunch on the boardwalk before catching a ferry boat that took us on a leisurely tour along the southwest coast before ending in Arguineguin, a working port town where we took the bus back to Playa del Ingles.

We enjoyed a few authentic Spanish tapas meals, one on Sunday and another on Christmas evening. Tapas Tango and Capaco are run by the same family and were lots of fun - great atmosphere, live music, food, wine. We also had an amusing Christmas Eve dinner at a place called ROMA, that alleged it was Italian, but was really a mix of international dishes - and everyone there was eating steak and potatoes! How sad; we had pizza and pasta while listening to some guy named Lorenzo who was up on a stage in front of the dining room with an electric keyboard and microphone. He looked like a bus driver and sang a song called, "The Pizza Song," which was sadly in our heads all week! It was a really funny night. We found an amazing Italian restaurant later in the week called Il Duomo di Milano farther inland from the beach. Many of the guests were Italian, so we were in the right place. :) Our last meal was at sunset on the Paseo Costa Canaria, savoring pizzas, Spanish wine, great views and fun memories from the week.

We went out to a few clubs on Friday night, but couldn't find a place where anyone was dancing, so we vowed to go dancing in Galway some night soon when we returned home.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's Christmas without a tree?

Because we are spending Christmas in the Canary Islands, we have no plans to decorate for Christmas whatsoever. I was a little bummed about not having a Christmas tree for the first time since living in Miami, but low and behold, our building maintenance workers decorated the entry way and stairway landings with some decorations. The tree, although a little scrawny, is located just outside our door - almost as good as having a tree of our own!

The Irish Patience

Lately, the old saying "patience is a virtue" is on my mind. Mostly because I've realized that many of us Americans have little patience. We want it all, and we want it right away, conveniently as possible. Why are we such an impatient society? The secret lies in Ireland: all the patience in the world lives in the hearts of the Irish. How can those of us Americans have any patience when the Irish are born with enough of the virtue to last the world twice over?

Here's just a few recent examples to prove my theory:

Yesterday, I was standing in the airport queue (line) waiting to check in. Like a typical American, I was on my cell phone, talking to someone about work, distracted and shuffling my bags as I moved closer to the front of the line. When it was my turn to check in, I had no idea: head turned, still talking. No one tapped me on the shoulder. The airline agent did not yell, "Next!" The people behind me did not say a word. They all just waited. Patiently.

That night, our door buzzer rang around 10:15 p.m. (Guests have to ring us from a locked door downstairs and then be buzzed in.) Damon said it was probably a wrong number and don't answer it. A few minutes later, it rang again. We didn't answer it. Then it rang again a few minutes later. This time, I answered it. It was, of all things, the UPS driver. He rang us 3-4 times over a 10-minute period, and never left. Just waited until we finally answered. He apologized for making deliveries so late but said it's really the only time people are home to accept packages.

Last week, Damon and I went to the Salthill Post to ship some Christmas goodies back to the States. We arrived about 5 minutes before closing, and there were five customers inside the Post office at closing time. A postal worker turned off the lights immediately and locked the door, so no additional customers could walk in. The three other customers were finished mailing their items before we were and walked to the door. Though I wasn't paying attention at the time, I realized when we were ready to leave and the worker came out from behind the till (cash register) to unlock the door for us, all the other customers had been standing in the dark at the door, quiet as church mice, locked inside a closed business. Not a peep. The level of patience in Irish society then became fascinating to us.

Damon also comments regularly about funny situations with Irish drivers on his daily commute: how he's yet to see an aggressive driver, and the Irish seem to yield to everyone and everything. He's always the first to make a move at the roundabouts. He just heard someone honk their horn in traffic for the first time this week. We've been here more than 3 months. There's a lot of traffic here in this congested town of 70,000 with lots of commuter communities on top of that population number. Can you imagine a city road or crowded parking lot anywhere in America without car horns blaring?

Maybe they have so much patience because the author of the famous proverb about this valuable character trait has been traced back to the 'Piers Plowman' (1377) by William Langland, an Englishman. When the book was published, many parts of Ireland were again controlled by the English, or at least in the midst of the Irish lords submitting to the English, after Richard II became King in 1377. "Patience is a virtue" has its roots not far from here, and it surprisingly hasn't been a lost after more than 600 years.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Damon's Paris

Here's a slide show of the pictures that Damon took and has had time to format since our trip to Paris. His photos are much prettier than the ones I posted in "Adventure #8: Paris."

Goodies from America arrive

I was giddy when I received two packages of goodies this week from friends back home. Ann Marie, Paula and Anju all sent us items we'd been missing from back home. Some of the highlights:

- Kosher salt
- Emerald Nuts (Pecan Pie)
- Pria bars (Chocolate Mint)
- Zone bars (Chocolate Peanut Butter)
- Kansas City barbecue sauce
- Made in Napa Valley rubs

I also received several issues of my favorite wine magazines from Julianna at the office.

Thanks, Ladies!

What's up with the weather?

We've had surprisingly great weather in Galway since arriving in early September. I couldn't believe how nice it was the first two weeks of November. Here are some pictures from November 7 (pictured top), when it looked like summer outside. But the rains and winds arrived at the end of the month, and I've also included a few pictures from December 1 (pictured bottom), so you can see how dark and dreary it gets. If you look closely at the bottom-left picture, you'll notice a die-hard swimmer in the lower right-hand corner, getting ready to walk out onto the yellow pier. These people are crazy! There was even a swimmer out this morning.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Irish Radio: Back to the Future?

Irish radio is where all bad (and once popular) American music comes to die. It's fascinating to us that DJs on the Top 40 radio stations will play Rihanna, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake or Beyonce, mixed in with some of our country's hits and misses from the 80s. It's an unexpected time warp that's not necessarily welcomed on the commute home from work, at least for Americans.

What we've heard on Irish radio recently:

- "Living on a Prayer" - Bon Jovi
- "I'm Bad" - Michael Jackson
- "Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go" - Wham
- "Gonna Make You Sweat" - C+C Music Factory
- "You Can't Hurry Love" - Phil Collins
- "Land of Confusion" - Phil Collins
- "Don't Stop Believin'" - Journey
- "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" - Journey

Sadly, it seems the Irish love two of my most hated singers of all time: Phil Collins and Steve Perry. Thank God I haven't heard any songs from Live yet on the radio, although that's a band with a few hits in the 1990s. My least favorite band of that decade and surprisingly, one of Damon's all-time favorites. One of the few things in life we disagree about is Live. "Lightning Crashes" ruined it for me. Those lyrics suck. Damon: I love you, but you are smokin' crack if you think this band is worth a hoot. I digress.

Also, I know a few of these artists are not Americas, per se, but I went ahead and included them under the umbrella of "American music." Sorry to all you die hard music history buffs out there. :)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A stroll through the neighborhood

Damon's been working a lot, and we've both been sick. Needless to say, I've been a little bored, so I thought it would be cool to take out the camera and show you some snapshots of daily life here in Galway.

From this slide show, you'll see:

- Our main street in Salthill and some of our favorite spots
- Our gym and its San Francisco-style side street
- Funny things in the grocery store
- City centre main street during holidays

Hope you find some of these as amusing as I did at first.

Irish Christmas Traditions #3: Mince Pies

When I first started shopping at the Dunnes grocery store here, I stumbled across a jar of "mincemeat" in the baking aisle while looking for ingredients to bake Damon's birthday cake. I was puzzled, wondering why a meat product would be found alongside flour, nuts and cake mixes. This is also where they display all their raisins, whereas our stores usually put the raisins in the snack aisle with granola bars and crackers. Raisins are a major ingredient in baking here, as I've found with the Christmas Pudding (or plum pudding) recipes (see "Irish Christmas Traditions #2..." post).

Mince pies are a British tradition, festive little pies consumed during Christmas and New Year's. Historically, they did contain meat, but nowadays, the only remnant of the original meat is the inclusion of suet (raw beef or mutton fat). Typically, the filling is now made entirely from fruit-based mincemeat containing dried fruit such as raisins, currants, glace cherries, apricot, candied peel; spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg; nuts such as walnuts or chopped almonds; suet; and some kind of alcohol, usually either brandy or rum.

Here's some great history on the Mince Pie:

This weekend, we heated some in the oven and topped them with ice cream. They were quite tasty.

Irish Christmas Traditions #2: Christmas Pudding

The aisles at the Galway grocery stores are packed with holiday goodies, many of which I've never seen or heard of until moving here. Sure, you'll find the usual endless boxes of chocolates and candy canes, but there's a ubiquitous treat called Irish Christmas Pudding, which I'm quite intrigued to try.

I've been researching it and learned that it's also called plum pudding, but doesn't contain any plums. Interesting. I guess plums are an essential part of any Irish Christmas feast. Christmas Pudding has its roots in England:

Here's a Christmas Pudding recipe:

Happy Holidays!

Irish Christmas Traditions #1: Hot Wine

I guess I'm not as worldly as I thought. Never had I considered -- or even heard of -- drinking wine hot before I moved to Ireland.

When we arrived at the Radisson Galway on Saturday night for Medtronic's Christmas party, in which 1,800 turned out (yikes), we were greeted in the lobby by Santa Claus and servers with trays of glasses filled with red wine. I noticed steam rising from the glasses and asked the girl, "Is this hot?" She replied, "Yes." I grimaced, and pointed to the next tray in the other server's arms. "That one too?" Sadly, she nodded. What the hey - why not try something new? I grabbed a glass and "gave it a go," as they say in Ireland. After the first sip, I was ready to give the glass back. It tasted like cheap red wine with lots of cloves. But coffee hot. The alcohol was through the roof, due to the heating, I bet. Ugh. Not my cup of tea.

Maybe the experience is so bizarre to me because I would never dream of drinking a wine hot. Some sort of Northern European tradition we won't be bringing back to the States!

The nasty concoction we tasted is probably a local recipe for the original hot wine, Hypocras, which is said to have been invented by Greek physician Hippocrates (5th century BCE). Hot wine is also big in Germany, England, even Austria, I believe.

But since there are lots of Polish immigrants here, it may have been a Polish recipe, such as this one:

You are more than welcome to try this one at home! Merry Christmas.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Adventure #8: Paris

It's easy to lose yourself in Paris: gazing at the works of Monet and Van Gogh at one of the city's stunning museums, strolling the Grands Boulevards, or just sitting at a sidewalk cafe, sipping a glass of red wine, people watching and contemplating life. We only had three days to explore this amazing city, so there wasn't much time to truly immerse ourselves in the often relaxing Parisian way of life. But we did spend some time admiring the works of the world's greatest Impressionist painters.

We arrived late on Thanksgiving evening and checked into our tiny hotel in the 9th Arrondissement called Pavillon Opera Lafayette on Rue de la Tour d'Auvergne. Small and simple, clean and cheap. Then we popped into a little Italian restaurant around the corner from our hotel called Pizzetta on Avenue Trudaine. It was recommended by a writer for Gourmet magazine who has an apartment nearby. (He also lives in San Francisco.) It was a little strange having pizza for our first meal in Paris, or for Thanksgiving dinner for that matter. But it was a casual place, unlike most restaurants in Paris, and that worked well for us. The pizza and ravoli were fabulous. We then walked down to the Louvre museum and took pictures of all the building lit at night, and sadly, the lights went out at midnight, so we returned back to the hotel.

Our first day, your Black Friday back home, got off to a slow start, getting our bearings, finding the nearest Hop On/Hop Off Bus Stop (where we purchased 2-day tickets), dodging a little rain. (And Damon needed to sleep in, of course. ;p) After a ride around on the bus tour past the L'Opera Garnier, Trinite Church, Pigalle and Montmartre, we had a long, exceptional luncheon at Casa Olympe on 48 rue St-Georges (9er), a restaurant owned by Dominique Versini (aka Olympe), one of the few female chefs in Paris to achieve celebrity status. It was highly recommended by our friend at Gourmet and not too far from our hotel. Most restaurants in Paris serve prix fixe menus, 3-course luncheons and 4-course dinners with a set price. I had a pumpkin soup, lamb chop and cheese plate; Damon had some amazing appetizer with a poached egg on it, then sea scallops and a chocolate cake oozing with chocolate. All dishes were delicious. I adopted this as our Thanksgiving meal. By the time we finished with lunch in the afternoon, we decided it was best to hop on the Hop On/Hop Off Bus again and try to squeeze in as many sights as possible. When it got dark outside and even colder outside, we went to the Champs-Élysées, looking in the windows of all the shops on this main street and grabbed a hot chocolate at McDonald's, of all places, but they have a cafe inside - it's so different from the U.S. They even serve beer in mugs and coffee drinks in ceramic cups. We walked to the end of the Champs-Élysées to Place Charles de Galle to see the Arc de Triomphe. A daily military service under the Unknown Soldier's tomb was taking place, so we couldn't get under the arc, but we did go to the top and take some great photos of the city streets that fan out from the roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe. By then, we'd frozen enough for the day, and Damon didn't have gloves or a beany, so we took the Metro, Paris' excellent underground train network, back to the 9er to Cadet, the Metro station about 5 minutes from our hotel. We also found gloves for Damon at a shop in the Metro. We freshened up before meeting Erwan Faiveley, the director of Domaine Faiveley, one of Wilson Daniels' clients, for dinner. We had a fabulous, ritzy Parisien dinner with Erwan and his girlfriend Charlotte - wonderful wines, seared scallop amuse buse, a killer chestnut soup and delicious entrees, but I can't remember what they were.

We headed to the Louvre early on Saturday, hoping to beat the crowds. After buzzing through the top sights in the museum - Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, The Raft of Medusa and the Napolean III Apartments - we walked over to the Ile de la Cite, the stunning little island in the middle of the River Seine, to see Notre Dame. We stopped for crepes along the way, then photographed Notre Dame and workers trimming a Christmas tree in front of the church. I showed Damon the art sellers' booths along the River Seine by Place St. Michel and Notre Dame where I purchased art last year, then we hopped back on the bus and took a long tour of past all the top destinations - Assemblée Nationale, Musée d'Orsay, Place de la Concorde, Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Dome des Invalides and Hotel des Invalides, Grand Palais and Petit Palais, La Tour Eiffel, Parc du Champ de Mars, Palais Chaillot and Trocadero, etc. We considered going up the Eiffel Tower today, as it was quite sunny out, but the lines were terribly long, so we walked through the Parc du Champ de Mars, the park where the Eiffel Tower is located, and took lots of great photos of the tower with blue skies and puffy white clouds. Then we walked about 10 minutes east to find Rue Cler, a street I'd read had a wonderful market on Saturdays. We strolled down Rue Cler and looked at all the produce and food, then grabbed a Croque-Monsieur and Chevre Quiche, two delicious snacks to try in Paris. (Croque-Monsieur is a French hot ham and cheese sandwich, typically made with gruyère and sometimes tomatoes.) We took the tour bus over to a stop near the Pantheon, so we could photograph its impressive facade, and then we walked down to Jardin du Luxembourg, one of my favorite places to visit in Paris. Every time I've been to Paris, I've strolled through this park and had my picture taken in front of the pool outside Palais du Luxembourg. We grabbed a few chairs in the park and relaxed for a few minutes, then walked through the gardens on the southside of the park, Jardin R. Cavelier-de-la-Salle, Jardin Marco Polo and Place E. Denis, where we photographed a beautiful fountain, Fontaine de l'Observatoire. I did some research, which indicated this fountain was designed by Davioud, Carpaux and Frémiet in 1873. The fountain includes a statue of a globe supported by four women, each representing a continent.

Late that afternoon, we took the Metro to Pigalle and Montmartre to see the Sacre Coeur church, overlooking Paris from the north - the highest point in the city. We walked through a busy street filled with fabric stores and discount clothing shops up the hill to the church. We had no idea this was the place to be on a Saturday night. Hundreds were gathered on the terraced steps leading up the hill to Sacre Coeur, including a group of 50 or so with a guitarist singing American hits like "Brown Eyed Girl." Girls were dancing on the lawn and drinking wine from the bottle wrapped in brown paper bags. Crazy scene. We watched a lame puppet show, took beautiful pictures of the sun setting and then walked through the red-light district of Pigalle (didn't feel scared or get accosted), before heading back to our hotel for a nap before dinner.

After resting in the room, we walked about 20 minutes south to find Chez Georges, an institution known for its traditional French bistro fare that transports diners back in time. It had been recommended by two friends. Sadly, it's closed on weekends. So we went to Juveniles, a wine bar I'd read good things about online from San Francisco blogger Chez Pim . The English server would not let me speak French - every time I tried he would answer in English - but he was really friendly and the food was great - tapas style. We had an excellent goat cheese crostini salad and prosciutto crostini with tomato and pesto, which I have replicated twice for Damon since we got home. (I always find simple French appetizers like these to be so inspiring that I try to recreate them for weeks after the trip.) We finished the day by taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower at night from the two bridges closest to the tower, Pont d'Iena and Pont de Bir Hakeim. The Pont de Bir Hakeim bridge has two levels: one for motor vehicles and pedestrians, and a viaduct above, through which passes Line 6 of the Paris Métro. We used Line 6 twice to visit the Eiffel Tower.

Damon needed some sleep on Sunday, so I walked down Rue des Martyrs to find some pastries for breakfast. I absolutely love this neighborhood and would live here in a heartbeat. The road is lined with chocolate shops, patisseries (French bakeries), wine shops, cheese shops, markets, hair salons and clothing stores. Why go anywhere else? I stopped into the local Nicolas wine shop and purchased two bottles of Champagne (way cheaper than in Ireland), and I even found a studio apartment we could purchase outside in this area, if only we could sell our house. There I go, dreaming again. I digress. Sunday was originally going to be our day to travel out to Versailles, but we realized on Saturday we still hadn't seen several important tourist destinations in the city, so we vowed to return in the spring to see Versailles, as well as Les Halles, Bois de Boulogne, Palais Royale and many other sights we either didn't get to, or could not go inside to see. We started our day at the Eiffel Tower, hoping we could avoid the crowds. Lines had already formed by 10 a.m. at the elevator entrances, but the escalier entrance (stairs) had no line, so we decided to walk up two levels of the tower - nearly 700 steps! - to reach the next set of elevators. Good exercise, and it beat standing in line for an hour, plus there are historical factoids posted in the stairwells for climbers to stop and read. The first level of the Eiffel Tower has pictures and story boards along the railing, so tourists can learn about the buildings they are seeing. Although it was very cold, it was a beautiful day in Paris, and we got some great pictures of the city from the Eiffel Tower to show for it.

We left the Eiffel Tower and walked along the River Seine, past river boat docks and stumbled upon a photography exhibition outside. (I'd read November was a big month for photography exhibits in Paris.) Lots of interesting photographs of people from all over the world hung on white temporary walls in the middle of the walkway by the river - a nice diversion during our walk down to Pont Alexandre III, the gilded bridge considered the most extravagant in Paris. It connects Grand Palais with Les Invalides. Musee d'Orsay was our next stop, a nearby museum known for its exceptional Impressionist exhibition. Along the way, we grabbed some traditional grilled sandwiches on banguettes and ate them on the steps of Musée d'Orsay. I could have spent another hour at Musée d'Orsay, gazing at the works of the great Impressionists - Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas. Definitely a highlight of the trip for me.

After a ride on the tour bus again, we hopped off and walked through the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris's most central garden. It connects the Louvre with the Place de la Concorde and forms a part of the large central axis between the Louvre and La Défense. The sun was about to set, and a column statue near the garden's north exit caught our eye - it was Place Vendome - another place I'd wanted to visit. It's now a swanky mecca for jewellery and shopping with amazing stores set around the large granite slabs of the square. Damon could hear the Ferrari engines revving up a mile way. We snapped a few pictures of the Place Vendome column (amazing colors in the sky), and continued walking toward the Opera and its shopping district, hoping to find some shops to buy gifts, but forgot that almost everything in Paris, except some museums, is closed on Sundays. Tourists should always plan their Paris trips around what is open on Sunday, and then fill in the other days. Lesson learned. We were hoping to squeeze in a nightime boat ride on the Seine during this trip too, but decided to save it for the next visit.

We had dinner at that at Astier in the Oberkampf area (44, rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud), mainly because it was open on a Sunday. The place is known for its cheese plate, which did not disappoint. There were probably 12 different French cheeses on the wheel, and you can sample them all. I did, of course. The rest of the meal was so-so. Not a highlight of the trip, but I was proud we navigated the Metro and then found the restaurant in an area we'd never visited before.

The next day was packing, buying pasteries for the trip home, getting around on the Metro with our luggage, then taking the bus back to Beauvais airport to catch our flight. I spoke as much French as I could and realized I have a lot of work to do before my French classes start in January.

A few interesting factoids that complement our pictures:

Arrondissement - If you haven't visited Paris before, the city is divided into 20 arrondissements municipaux (roughly put, "municipal boroughs"). 1er (the shorthand way to refer to them) is in the center of the city, and then the arrondissements fan out from there. We stayed in the 9er, which we liked very much.

Conciergerie - Built in the early 14th century, this palace was part of the residence of the kings before the Louvre. In 1391, the Conciergerie became the first prison of Paris when this residence accommodated the seat of the Parliament and the judicial power. During the French Revolution, nearly 3,000 condemned spent their last days here. They were then transported to Concorde Square to be guillotined. Amongst them were Marie-Antoinette, the Austrian and wife of Louis XVI and Charlotte Corday, arrested to have stabbed Marat in his bath.

Pont du Carrousel ("pont" means "bridge" in French) - In the "Da Vinci Code" a truck on the Pont du Carrousel offers Robert Langdon an ‘escape’ from the police. In real life the Pont du Carrousel, built in 1833 then demolished and rebuilt in 1936 because it was to low for boats to pass, offers the visitor a view of both the Seine River and the Louvre Museum.

Assembleé Nationale Palais-Bourbon - Built in 1722 for the Duchesee de Bourbon, daughter of Louis XIV, the Palais-Bourbon was confiscated during the Revolution. Since 1830, the official seat of the National Assembly (French Parliament) is the Palais Bourbon on the banks of the river Seine.

Place de la Concorde - During the French Revolution (1789–1799), the square was renamed again (previously Place Louis XV) and became "Place de la Révolution" -- the square were many famous people, such as King Louis XVI and Marie-Antionette, were beheaded. The guillotine here was most active during the "Reign of Terror," in the summer of 1794, when in a single month more than 1,300 people were executed. After the revolution the square was renamed several times and in 1830 it finally got its current name "Place de la Concorde."

Grand Palais - The Grand Palais ("Grand Palace"), like the Tour Eiffel, was built for the world fair of 1900, which was held in Paris (Exposition Universelle, also called Paris Exhibition of 1900); neither were intended to remain as permanent additions to the city. Today is houses museum exhibits (Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais), a planetarium, the Palais de la Decouverte and other tourist attractions.

Pantheon - The Pantheon in Paris was modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. When it was completed at the start of the French Revolution, the new Revolutionary government ordered it to be changed from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen. Twice since then it has reverted to being a church, only to become again a temple to the great intellectuals of France.

Eiffel Tower - The Eiffel Tower sparkles at night until midnight. We couldn't figure out exactly at what hour it starts sparkling, but it's lit earlier in the evening without the sparkles. This might be a Christmas thing. Not sure. When the tower was completed in 1889 it replaced the Washington Monument as the world's tallest structure — a title it retained until 1930 when New York City's Chrysler Building (319 m — 1,047 ft tall) was completed. The Eiffel Tower celebrated its 100th birthday in 1989. The tower is the most visited paid monument in the world per year.

Les Invalides - This is a complex of buildings in the 7th arrondissement containing museums and monuments, all relating to the military history of France, as well as a hospital and a retirement home for war veterans, the building's original purpose. It is also the burial site for some of France's war heroes.

Pont Alexandre III - this bridge was also designed for the world fair of 1900. It's from the era of the elaborate Louis XIV. It's a magnificent example of art nouveau style decorated with nymphs, cherubs and other sea monsters. The four golden statues depict Art, Commerce, Industry and the Sciences.

Jardin du Luxembourg - It's the largest garden/park in the city. Luxembourg is the garden of the French Senate, which is itself housed in the Luxembourg Palace (Palais Luxembourg).

Sacre Coeur - It's a Roman Catholic basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The design has a heavy Romano-Byzantine influence. The church is built of travertine stone, which constantly exudes calcite, which ensures that the basilica remains white even with weathering and pollution.

Place Vendome - It was designed by Denon, Gondouin, and Lepère and modeled in the style of Trajan's Column in Rome. Originally there was a statue of Napoleon on top, which was removed and then replaced over time.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Adventure #7: Rally Ireland, Northern Ireland

This weekend, we took a day trip up to Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, to see the World Rally Championship's first race in Ireland. Ireland anticipated around 150,000 spectators from around the world would be on hand to watch the three-day race through the backroads of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Rally racing is a sport Damon has been fond of for my years; I didn't know much about it before we met, but I would describe it as Nascar meets the Amazing Race. Rally drivers in turbo-charged, hatch-back cars compete against the clock on courses in several countries, primarily in Europe,,,10111,00.html which are usually dirt roads. Some times they drive on pavement too, and races even occur when there's ice and snow on the course. They compete only against the clock and drive like banshees. There are two members per team in the car - driver and co-driver. The co-driver has the map of the course and coaches the driver as to how he should drive fast and not crash.

Here's some information from the WRC web site about the relationship between the driver and the co-drive in rally racing:,,10111,00.html

I'm not really explaining WRC like I should, so you can also read the background on it at

We watched the Saturday leg of the rally in Northern Ireland, near a town called Enniskillen.

It's pretty amazing that part of this island nation is owned by another country, and you can drive from the Republic of Ireland right into Northern Ireland without really knowing it. I thought there might be a check-point or at least signs, but Damon said the only thing he noticed was that the speed limit signs changed when we crossed into Northern Ireland.

Up before the crack of dawn, we drove about 3.5 hours to Enniskillen and didn't hit much traffic until we got into town. Then we followed the herd of cars back to a main road where everyone parked and then walked about two miles into the country to the rally course. The cold, rainy, dreary weather didn't hamper everyone's fun. We bundled up as best we could and trekked back to the course. People dressed in safety jackets, rain coats and rubber mudd boots were everywhere, hanging out on the hills of cow pastures surrounding the road where the cars would buzz through in an hour or so. Okay, so maybe we weren't probably dressed in our jeans, coats and hiking shoes. We also didn't know we were supposed to bring lawn chairs, which we don't have. Most people just stood around the course road, while others opted to bring out bulldozers and sit inside their fork lifts.

The crowds started hooting and hollering when a fog horn sounded, as we first heard the hum of a rally car engine in the distance. It was pretty cool to watch the compact, brightly painted cars fly down the hill on the wet country road and take the hair-pin turn at the corner. We walked along the course, taking pictures from various vantage points. But after about two hours in the rain with no chairs or mudd boots, we decided our World Rally experience was fulfilled, and headed back to the car for the drive home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

When Swans Attack

Ever since we arrived in Galway, I find myself wanting to walk down the Prom to the Claddaugh on the weekends to feed the swans. It makes me feel like a kid again, beckoning childhood memories of feeding the ducks at the park back home with my family.

Then I learned how aggressive these Galway swans can be.

Damon took me down to the Claddaugh on a beautiful Saturday in November to feed the swans. Here's some pictures of the swans getting up close and personal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Adventure #6: Dublin

We made our first voyage to Dublin last Saturday morning for a three-day weekend. Dublin is the largest city in Ireland, the capital of the Republic of Ireland and was founded by the Vikings in the ninth century.

Taking the CityLink bus from Galway to Dublin city centre was very relaxing, comfortable and easy and only 18 euro per person round trip. We stayed at a very modest one-star hotel right off O'Connell Street, centrally located. Here are highlights from our trip:

We started our day with a trip down O'Connell Street to Temple Bar to find Meeting House Square and its famous Saturday farmers' market. We slurped Irish oysters and Sauvignon Blanc before grabbing a traditional Irish lunch at The Shack, recommended by my colleague Charles Neave, a writer in Napa.

We walked to Dublin Castle, and St. Patrick's and Church Christ Cathedrals. Dublin Castle was first founded as a major defensive complex by King John in 1204, shortly after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169. St. Patrick's Cathedral, founded in 1191, is the larger of Dublin's two Church of Ireland cathedrals, and the largest church in Ireland. Church Christ Cathedral is the elder of the city's two medieval cathedrals, the other being St. Patrick's. It has been the seat of the archbishop of Dublin (initially solely Roman Catholic, then Church of Ireland) since medieval times, though for many centuries, it shared this status with St. Patrick's.

We took a ride on the Dublin City Hop-on/Hop-off Bus Tour - there are lots of tourist bus operators, but this one has Irish drivers that tell stories (sprinkled with humor) about all of the historic stops. The Bus Tour took us past all the top tourist stops, so we could decide when we wanted to hop off or which ones we wanted to visit the next day.

We hopped off the bus tour at Jameson's Distillery for a guided tour and tasting and learned how traditional Irish whiskey is made and compares to American and Scottish whiskeys. We had an excellent drink called a Jameson Macree, which we vowed to make at home:
Jameson Macree
50cc Jameson
15cc Chambord
25cc Cranberry Juice
12.5 cc Fresh Lemon Juice
12.5cc Sugar Syrup
6 Raspberries
Shake all ingredients with ice & strain. Into an ice-filled long glass. Top up with crushed ice.

We had dinner at a little place by Millennium Bridge called Enoteca delle Langhe, inspired by the Piedmont region in Italy. Great antipasti and buffala mozzarella salad. After dinner, we walked along the River Liffey and took some beautiful pictures of the Four Courts, Republic of Ireland's main courts building. It was built between 1796 and 1802 by renowned architect James Gandon We stopped back at Temple Bar for a few Jameson's cocktails - since we now know all about Irish whiskey - and watched drunk people make fools of themselves in the street.

We had a big Irish breakfast the hotel (ham, eggs, sausage, baked beans and toast) and went for a brisk walk along the River Liffey. It was a beautiful morning, and we took lots of pictures of Dublin's famous bridges along the river, including the Ha'Penny Bridge, a pedestrian bridge built in 1816 and the first iron bridge in Ireland. It got its name from its distinct shape as well as the original toll of one half-penny, (later, one penny, two farthings). The toll was dropped in 1919.

We arrived at the Guinness Storehouse for a tour and tasting at 9:30 a.m. and were drinking a pint of Guinness by 10:15 a.m. The lines were so long on Saturday, we decided to come right when it opened. We toured the seven-story Storehouse, learned how they make Guinness and finished our tour with a pint at the famous Gravity Bar with 360-degree views of Dublin.

We hopped back on the bus and toured through Phoenix Park, the largest enclosed urban park in Europe - larger than Central Park or Hyde Park - it's 1752 acres. We then strolled down Grafton Street, the main shopping district in Dublin, and stopped off to take pictures of Ann's Church on Dawson Street, where Bram Stroker (Dracula) was married, and Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin since 1715. We had awesome pizza at Steps of Rome, a wonderful little place tucked away on Chatham near St. Stephen's Green. We got soaked walking to Collins Barracks, a former military barracks now home to the National Museum of Ireland. There was a viking ship on display and a huge exhibition about all of the wars the Irish have been involved in other the centuries.

We had an incredible dinner at The Winding Stair, located above a bookshop right across from Ha'Penny Bridge. Definitely the best meal we've had in a long time. Damon started with an amazing parsnip soup and I had baked mushroom with Cashel blue cheese and wilted spinach. Then we had the smoked haddock, poached in milk with onions and white cheddar mash and a slow-roasted pork belly. Great wine list too and wonderful service. We then strolled over to the Temple Bar area and enjoyed drinks and live music at O'Neill's 'til the wee hours of the morning, and had fun watching all of the Dubliners dressed in Halloween costumes. I had no idea that Halloween's origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), so Halloween is huge here. Fireworks and bonfires are also part of the festivities.

We started our morning with a walk to points of interest around Grafton Street. We stopped first at Trinity College, which was founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I. Trinity College Library is home to The Book of Kells, a manuscript that has survived from the Middle Ages and has been described as the zenith of Western calligraphy and illumination. It contains the four gospels of the Bible in Latin.
At the mouth of Grafton Street is the statue of Molly Malone. "Molly Malone" is a popular Irish song and has become the unofficial anthem of Dublin City in Ireland. The song tells the tale of a beautiful fishmonger who plied her trade on the streets of Dublin, but died young, of a fever. We also passed a replica of the Steyne Stone, a 15-foot-high standing stone that apparently stood on this spot during the era when Dublin was a Viking territory.

We walked through St. Stephen's Green, an enclosed park that dates back to the 1600s. At one point in history, access to the park was restricted to only the weathly homeowners who lived in Georgian-style houses surrounding the park.'s_Green. We then stumbled upon the Dublin Marathon, which finished at Merrion Square, a park we wanted to visit. Access was closed due to the marathon, but it was fun to watch the leaders cross the finish line.

We took a stroll down Custom Quay on the east side of Dublin to see all the new construction going on the banks of the River Liffey.

We really enjoyed the trip and thought two full days in a good amount of time to spend in the city. The city has a great vibe, we loved all the bridges and river running through it - and it was easy to walk around and navigate. We'll definitely go back and spend more time in the museums: any building with "national" in the name is free to the public, we were told, so there is so much to see inside - and this trip was all about being outdoors. We might go back in the winter for a museum-focused trip.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Television in Ireland

A few interesting observations about what's on the telly:

- NEWS PROGRAMS - We often see the news broadcasters reading the newspapers to the viewers as part of their TV news coverage. How do you think that would go over in the U.S.? No wonder they have to charge a license fee on the TV to make money. I can't believe there isn't that big competition between print and TV media here. The TV broadcasters bring the newspapers right into the studio and read through the headlines on air. Too funny.

- COMEDY - They have their own comedy channel, which airs lots of U.S. shows. Southpark is on regularly.

- AMERICAN SHOWS - You can watch all your favorites here - Law & Order, CSI and CSI Miami, Without a Trace, Friends. They do show a lot of X-Factor instead of American Idol, which is expected. It looks like The Sarah Silverman Show is on MTV versus comedy - interesting. King of the Hill was even on the other night. MTV is big here, which is sad. The Irish probably think Laguna Beach is really the best TV drama we can offer.

- RTE versus BBC - RTE is the network of Ireland and BBC of England. What's amazing - but expected - is that the BBC weather forecasts will tell the weather in England and Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and then totally ignore the Republic of Ireland. But it is considered another country, so I guess that's why. But BBC is still a major network aired on Irish TV. We haven't see any BBC shows we fancy expect Top Gear, a racing/talk show. Damon loves it. RTE has a very good morning show called the Afternoon Show (haven't figured that one out yet).

Tips for Americans moving to Ireland

Although we've only been here six weeks, we've learned so many things about moving to Ireland (which no one told us about before we left the States), so I thought I would share some of our tips to make the transition easier for fellow Americans moving to Ireland:

I'm not sure if this exact process applies to everyone, as we are only here for one year and my husband has a work VISA. But you will most likely have to visit both of these offices and should learn from our mistakes.

Immigration Office:
The GNIB (GARDA NATIONAL IMMIGRATION BUREAU) office in Galway opens at 7:30 a.m. We talked to other Americans there who had been to the office three times before trying to figure out when they could come and not wait four hours. We arrived at 7:25 a.m., and there were already 20 people in line. We left with our registration cards at 11 a.m. There is usually only one person working, and he/she goes on break a few times, so everyone just waits. The lines might be shorter in the middle of a semester in Galway, as this is a college town. (We went in mid-September.) There are a list of important documents you must bring, including a local utility bill in your name, so you cannot go to immigration until you have that. You can pay the 100 euro fee per person with cash or credit card.

Social Welfare Branch Office:
Once you have a GNIB number and card, then you need to get your PPS number at the local welfare office. The Personal Public Service number (PPS) is the new name for the RSI number. It's a ID number that helps you access benefits and information from public service agencies more quickly and more easily. This includes services such as Social Welfare, Revenue, Public Healthcare and Education.
Here's the trick at the SWBO in Galway: you will arrive and see a sign that says, "DO NOT pull a number if you are coming to get your PPS number. Proceed straight ahead" - or something like that. This is total bull. The line moves very fast; we maybe waited 25 minutes one afternoon, but once you get to the front of the line, tell them you are here for your PPS number and they check all your documents to make sure you have followed the rules, they send you over to get a number and wait. Then we waited for about an hour. If we would have known this, we would have pulled a number when we walked in, just to save ourselves that 30 minutes. Items you need to bring (don't forget the local utility bill):

PPS number offices by region:

UTILITIES - overall
If moving into an apartment, the electricity and heat will most likely already be on, and you just have to have them moved over into your name. (Not sure about houses.) This is our experience in Galway city. The utility bill is used for proof of residence for EVERYTHING here - don't throw your first one away and always keep a recent one! You'll need it at the immigration office, PPS number office, to sign up for a membership at a DVD rental place, etc.

UTILITIES - best services
There is a new bundled phone-wireless internet-TV package with NTL that everyone is moving toward. You can't just get the phone and internet like we wanted - it's all or nothing. We opted for NTL package over eircom phone and wireless and are very happy. NTL's top internet service is as fast as U.S. service, and twice as fast at eircom's best wireless service. Locals in bars were suggesting it to me - not just our relocation agent.

UTILITIES - installing/timing
It takes 10 business days AT LEAST to get your phone, TV, internet once you contact NTL (or eircom - same timeframes). This timing cannot be moved up. It's probably one of the most frustrating things when you first move here and feel totally isolated from everyone back home. Here's a tip: If there is an old phone on your wall in your apartment when you arrive, pick it up and dial 1901. (No one told us about this until it was too late). These old phones are typically eircom phones. You can dial 1901 and get to an operator straight-away. She/he can tell you if the phone line is active, and if it is, it can be turned on within 24 hours WITHOUT having a technician visit you. Then you can turn off the eircom phone service in two weeks once you get your NTL installation completed. This will at least give you a "life line" to get you by until you get your TV service and internet. This would have saved us so much time, money and headaches when we were using a U.S. cell phone to deal with all the typical moving-in calls and questions with the landlord - and most people are hesitant to call back a U.S. phone number because it costs them more money. NOTE: if you do this, you MUST ask eircom for your customer ID/account number during your installation call to them. You will need this as proof of who you are in order to turn off the phone in two weeks. (No one told me this either.) ANOTHER VERY IMPORTANT THING ABOUT INTERNET: check the apartment/house you are moving into right when you confirm your lease to see IF it ALREADY is broadbrand wired. There are lots of old buildings, and apartment units are not wired for internet until a tenant comes along and asks for it. IF YOUR APARTMENT IS NOT wired, YOU MUST HAVE WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM THE LANDLORD to drill into the walls and run wires outside (whatever it takes) to complete the installation. We didn't know this. The technician could not do the installation after two weeks of us waiting, and then we had to get the permission letter, and call NTL for another appointment - TWO WEEKS LATER!!!!!!! No exceptions. Luckily, we used our relocation agent's relationships to get the technician back out two days after the original appointment, but what a headache!

UTILITIES - licensing
A VERY IMPORTANT THING ABOUT TELEVISIONS: If you are going to have a television, television licenses are required here - about 130 euros, I think. I guess that's how the television industry stays afloat since advertising revenues aren't as big here? If you wish to have a TV, you need a license. Some locals told my husband that the license is a joke and it's not enforced, but if you are here on work assignment, make sure your company knows they need to pay for your TV license fees.

Most apartments have radiators on the walls for heating. It's not as warm as you might be used to in the U.S., so definitely bring a couple blankets with you.

It's important that Americans understand what "furnished" means over here - and that some staple items in apartments or houses here are different than back hom. If you're on work assignment, your company may say that EVERYTHING you need will be in the apartment, so you don't need to bring much with you except for clothes and other personal items. This isn't necessarily true. Every apartment we looked at was different - Some had a full living room set, others didn't; some had a TV, others didn't. Same with dishwashers - not always included. Most of the kitchen utensils you will need are here, but if you like to cook, bring your own knives. The knives in furnished apartments are worthless. But one thing we wish someone would have reminded us in advance: YOU WILL NEED TO BRING OR BUY ALL BEDDING AND ALL KITCHEN AND BATH TOWELS. We did not do this and were really bummed. Bedding and towels are really expensive here. Also, the mop is usually the old-fashioned kind that you have to ring out by hand. And vacuums are not stand-up. There are only two stand-up vacuums available in town here, I'm told, and they cost 399 and 500 euros. They are Dyson, and only the 500 euro one works on both hardwood and carpet. A friend of mine I just met from Minnesota had to shell out the cash for the 500 euro vacuum since she is 6 months pregnant and doesn't want to deal with the tiny floor vacuum.

Most buildings don't have ventilation ducts for the dryers, so most electric dryers here are designed so that the moisture is captured in a water pan under the dryer that you have to empty every week. You really have to keep up on your dryer maintenance here: clean the filter after EACH load, empty the water pan once a week, clean the other filter (haven't figured this one out yet) regularly. The previous tenant NEVER maintained the dryer, and it was broken when we got here, and it took two weeks to get someone to fix it. The ovens here have several settings, so it's best to read the manual BEFORE trying to cook a particular dish. I ruined a pizza by cooking it on the standard oven setting, like I would typically do back home. Also, the ovens are VERY small, and a standard baking sheet from back home does not fit. Same if you had a big iron skillet you used to put in the oven back home for pan-roasting fish - it won't fit.

There are typically NO electrical outlets in bathrooms here. They are a little too cautious. This means you cannot dry your hair in the bathroom without an extension cord. There are also red safety switches on every electrical outlet that must be flipped on before the outlet will work.

If you are only here for one year like us and getting paid in U.S. dollars, you should still consider getting an Irish bank account, so you can get a lazer card (see previous post) and will be able to pay most - if not all of your bills online. ATM fees at AIB banks and 365 ATMs are minimal, only $1.50, which is surprising to us. ATMs don't give receipts here unless you ask for them - it's that "don't be wasteful" mentality that so many Americans could learn from.

The Post Office plays a big part in lives here. It's where you pay all your bills (if you don't have a lazer card), buy your TV license, send mail, etc. The green Post buildings are everywhere. Since we don't have a lazer card, I have to walk there once a month and pay all the bills in cash. They don't take credit cards at the Post - only cash and lazer cards.

This is so confusing, and there's no information provided to new residents (at least in apartment buildings) to know what you are supposed to do. Looking back, now it seems pretty simple. At our apartment complex, we have two colors of bins - green and black. Our inside trash can is even broken into two bins to make the dividing of trash within the apartment easier, but it took us a few days to figure this out. Green is for ALL PAPER and PLASTIC - washed - NO FOOD particles. Black is for your food waste and FOOD only - scraps, etc. You must have a separate bin for glass and tin. You then have to transport your glass bin to the recycling center YOURSELF in town. These are typically located near a grocery store, so it's not that big of a deal. And there are different bins at the recycling center for different colors of glass. (This is also where you take old clothes you want to donate or throw out - there's a bin there for that too.) I'm told that in houses, there are 3-4 different colors of bins - black, brown, green, blue - something like that. That means houses may not need to go to the recycling center with glass - not sure.

Shopping carts aren't free here, and neither are bags - paper or plastic. You have to put a EURO coin into the trolley (cart), so you can remove it from the trolley bay and use it. This is basically a refundable deposit, as you have to return the trolley to the bay, and when you put the chain back into the trolley to lock it up, your EURO pops back out. I learned the hard way that plastic bags at the store ARE NOT FREE. How is that for a wake-up call, Americans? We could learn a thing or two from the Irish to reduce our wastefulness of paper and plastic. It costs 20 cents per bag on your bill if you don't bring your own. Needless to say, getting ready to go to the store is a big deal because we now know to pack up all of our cloth bags to make sure we have enough bags to carry home the groceries. The Dunnes store sells big cloth bags, which are great. With one of those and two medium-sized canvas bags I brought from the States, we can get all of our groceries home. There are a few grocery stores here: Dunnes, Tesco and Joyces are the main ones. Dunnes and Tesco are chains. We shop at Dunnes, as it's not too far from our apartment, and the prices seem to be the best. You'll need to get a club card (free) at Tesco or Dunnes once you get settled. At Dunnes, we've found that it's best to shop during the day, earlier in the week. Whenever we go on Friday nights, everything is picked over. In Galway, I've found a nice fish market down on Quay Street where the prices aren't too bad, and the fish is wonderful. I'm told the best butcher in town is in the shopping center across the hall from Tesco's. There is also a great butcher for pork next to the Ryanstore by St. Nicholas' church.

The whole driving on the right side of the car, on the left side of the road, is actually pretty easy to adjust to. Your brain is already trained to know that your body will be sitting next to the center lane of the road, so it only takes a week or so to get used to it. The big thing is to TEACH YOUR BRAIN to look right FIRST, left SECOND when crossing a two-lane road. This was hard to get used to. It's actually just easier to look twice, both ways, before crossing the road - and safer. Also, most country roads in Ireland are VERY skinny. And there are lots of tour buses on them, which hug their shoulder and still hang over into your lane. Don't take it personal. They aren't trying to run you off the road because you're an American. (This is what a couple of tourists from San Diego we met at one of the forts thought.) Drivers just yield to the tour buses here, which requires you to get over into the shoulder/grass/whatever. It's just the way it works. No biggie.

If you own a budget drycleaning business in the U.S., please come here now. There is a business opportunity for you to fill a void. Drycleaning is the biggest rip off here. I think I was quoted 5 or 6 euros for a shirt. It's better to just bring non-dryclean clothing with you, or if your company requires you to wear business attire that needs to be drycleaned, write that cost into your contract while on work assignment here. (Workplaces are much more casual here, and my husband typically wears jeans here but wore slacks and a button-up shirt back home.)

Living in another country, such as Ireland, is an incredible experience. All these little bumps in the road and differences make it all the more charming.

Vernacular Musings: Part 2

We continue to see and hear expressions in Irish English that crack us up. Some of our recent favorites:

- MAN TISSUES - these are sold next to the Kleenex/facial tissues at the grocery store. We are tempted to buy a box. Are they simply bigger squares? Heavier paper?

- DRINK DRIVING - not drunk driving.

- LAZER CARD - this is a debit card, but if you say debit, they have no idea what you mean. And U.S. debit cards only work at the ATMs here; the lazer card is tied to Irish bank accounts only.

- QUEUE - anywhere you should form a line, they'll be the "queue here" sign.

- ANTI-CLOCKWISE - you guessed it: There is no counter-clockwise here.

- LIVING SALAD - do we have these in the U.S.? A mixed salad that is growing in a pot next to the bagged salad mixes. You cut the salad yourself when you're ready to eat.

Another funny thing...people here don't just say, "Bye" or "Bye, bye." It's usually at least three "byes" and the third or fourth one is sort of trailing off in sound. We'll be hanging up the phone after we said, "Bye, bye" and you'll still be hearing the other person saying his/her multiple "byes" as you hang up. Interesting.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Adventure #5: County Clare and The Burren

As Damon's co-pilot, I did not do a good job of ensuring we visited all of the tourist spots on our first visit to The Burren last month. (I read The Burren section of our Ireland travel book AFTER our trip.) Alas, we drove over for another day trip on Saturday.

We started our day by visiting Dysert O'Dea Castle, built in 1480 at the former O'Dea clan stronghold at Dysert O'Dea in County Clare. This is actually south of The Burren, but we didn't have time to see it after we left Bunratty Castle last Saturday.

Dysert O'Dea Castle today houses a Archaeological Centre, known for its wealth of historical and archaeological remains. Within about one mile of the castle, there are more than 25 archaeological and historical sites. Unfortunately, the castle was closed for the season, but we still walked around to see some of the historic sites. We walked through a pasture of cows to find Saint Tola's High Cross, a 12th-century cross showing Christ and a bishop carved in high relief on the east side, with geometric motifs and animal ornament on the other sides. After photographing the cows, we climbed over a wall to the ruins of Dysert O'Dea Church, which stands on the site of an Early Christian monastery. The monastery was founded by St. Tola, who died about 735, although most of the present buildings are from the 12th century. The church is known for its famous Romanesque doorway.

We also read that there are two stone forts across the road from the church and castle, used during battles between local noblemen in the 16th century. We followed the archaeological trail signs, walking through mud along country paths meeting up with locals burning trash and a friendly Border Collie that jumped on us - but we could never find the forts. We only found a sign that pointed to the forts - could this actually be them? What a bummer.

On our way back to The Burren, we came across a monastic site in Gort that I had seen in pictures, but didn't know where it was. Kilmacduagh Monastery is actually located in County Galway. It was the birthplace of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh: The 7th century Saint Colman, son of Duagh, established a monastery on land given him by his cousin King Guaire.
We took pictures of the various buildings on the site: Round Tower, Cathedral, Glebe House (Abbot living quarters), Church of St. John the Baptist and O'Heynes Church. We also got to watch a local farmer move cattle from pasture to pasture. Check out his farm truck in the photo album!

When then drove north on R480 to see several sites along this road. First, we passed Leamaneh Castle, which was impressive but not a destination for stopping and touring, as it only has four walls left standing.

Then we came across the Carron Church (also have seen it spelled Carran) near the village of Carran at one of the highest points in The Burren. Carron Church is a good example of a medieval parish church. A church was built here about 1200 but most of the ruin dates from the 15th century. There were graves inside, ruins from the altar still visible, stone windows overgrown with vines and the a Holy Water font built into the doorway on the right was still in tact.

While looking for the Poulnabrone Dolmen, we came across a brown sign (these are points of interest) for Poulawack Cairn. This Cairn is one of a number of prehistoric burial mounds found in the Burren and certainly the most impressive. It dates back to between 2000 and 3000 B.C.

We still had not found the dolmen, so we stopped by the Caherconnell Stone Fort & Visitor Centre, but when we went inside and found out the price to see the tiny fort, we decided it wasn't worth it. But we did find out that the dolmen was just up the road.

There are more than 70 megalithic tombs in The Burren, and the most well known and most easily accessible is Poulnabrone. It was excavated in 1968 and found to contain the remains of "between 16 and 22 adults and 6 juveniles, including a newborn baby." Radiocarbon dating suggests that the burials took place around 2000-2500 BC.

We then tried to find the Cahermore Stone Fort just west of the Aillwee Caves, but could not. (Damon doesn't seem to have interest in visiting the caves either. I think it's a photography thing.)

We then drove back east to the village of Kinvara, which we visited a few weeks ago to see the Dunguaire Castle. Brenda and Steve bought us the BEST gift for Damon's birthday and our anniversary - a gift voucher to one of their favorite restaurants in the area, Pier's Head. We walked around town for a little bit before dinner, noticing all the purple and gold sporting flags, banners and even cars painted purple and gold. We learned that the regional Hurling championship was the next day, and Kinvara was in the final match for the cup. Hurling (in Irish, iománaíocht or iomáint) is an outdoor team sport of ancient Gaelic origin, administered by the Gaelic Athletic Association, and played with sticks and a ball. It shares a lot of rules with Gaelic football.

At Pier's Head, we had a couple of coffee drinks before dinner in the bar, then a baked goat cheese tart, filet mignon with mushroom sauce and monkfish medallions for dinner with a half-bottle of Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France - followed by a chocolate hazelnut torte and ice cream. It was fabulous. Then we went home and stayed up until 2 p.m. because we drank coffee. :)

Little did we know, the SHC final Portumna v. Kinvara was at Pearse Stadium in Salthill - maybe a half-mile from our apartment! We went to the gym on Sunday afternoon and saw all the cars with the purple and gold flags and thought that everyone just came to town to watch the game on TV - but we could have gone and watched it live. Bummer.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Adventure #4: Shannon Region

This weekend we took a day trip down through the Shannon region (primarily County Clare), about 1.5 hours south of Salthill, to visit a few of this region's top tourist destinations.

During our search for our first stop, Knappogue Castle, we passed through the quaint town of Quin and stumbled upon its amazing Quin Abbey ruins. The Abbey was built in the 15th century in the tradition of Irish Franciscan Monasteries, but it was built on the ruins of a Norman castle fortress that stood there in the late 13th century.

Knappogue Castle was built in 1467 by Sean MacNamara, and is a magnificent example of a medieval tower house and boasts a vast, walled garden. It must have been closed for the season, sadly, so we didn't get to go inside the castle or the garden.

Craggaunowen - the Living Past - is Ireland’s prehistoric park created by a famous archaeologist to mimick life in Ireland in ancient times. There were hardly any tourists there, as we went in mid-October, so we got to tour Craggaunowen Castle, the Crannog, the Ring Fort, the ‘Brendan Boat’ and other points of interest without the crowds. There are these really cool sheep, Soya sheep, that look like goats upon arrival; the breed is a pre-historic breed, and the posted sign by the pin said that ancient breeds were smaller and more similiar to goats. The medieval tower castle at Craggaunowen dates back to 1550. We got to watch a boy inside demonstrate wool cleaning and spinning it into yarn on an old spindle. The Crannog is a commune built on water; people lived in the huts. The Brendan Boat is a leather hulled boat built by Tim Severin who sailed across mid-Atlantic re-enacting the voyage of St. Brendan and the early Christian monks reputed to have discovered America centuries before Columbus. At the Ring Fort, we exited through the Soutterrain - an underground passage designed primarily as food storage areas; souterrains maintain a constant temperature of around 4 degrees no matter how hot it gets on the surface. They could also be used as places of refuge during attacks on the Ring fort.

Here's a cool video on Cragganowen:

Bunratty is considered Ireland’s premier visitor attraction - it includes the 15th century Bunratty Castle and 19th century Bunratty Folk Park. Bunratty Castle is considered the most complete and authentic medieval fortress in Ireland and is fully furnished. Built in 1425, it was restored in 1954 to its former medieval splendour and now contains mainly 15th and 16th century furnishings, tapestries, and works of art which capture the mood of those times. There are four, skinny spiral staircases, giving access to the various floors. It was a slow day from a tourism standpoint, and we were glad. It would be impossible to get up and down the spiral staircases during the high season, we think. There are medieval banquets held in the castle twice per night April-October.

Within the grounds of Bunratty Castle is Bunratty Folk Park, which recreates 19th-century life in Ireland. Set on 26 acres, the park includes 30 buildings in a "living" village and rural setting, which spread out at the foot of the castle's massive walls, much in the way that the cottages and crofts of old would have clustered around its base. The folk park was a little too touristy for us, but it was a hoot to see a pregnant donkey on the grounds and chickens running around the little cottages.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Adventure #3: Connemara

Today we made of first of what will be many trips to the Connemara region, about one hour northwest of Galway City in County Galway.

We drove the N59 highway, which runs from Galway to Clifden, the capital of Connemara on the coast. Our day-trip highlights included:

- Aughnanure Castle, located just south of the village of Oughterard, was built in the 15th century by the one time powerful ruling clan, the O'Flahertys. It lies in picturesque surroundings close to the shores of Lough Corrib. Standing on what is virtually a rocky island, the castle is a particularly well-preserved example of an Irish tower house.

- Twelve Bens, known as Na Beanna Beola in Gaelic, is a well-known mountain range in Connemara National Park. The park covers nearly 5,000 acres of countryside. Uber-dedicated athletes can hike all twelve in a single day. We just drove through the range this time.

- Kylemore Abbey, today the Monastic home of the Benedictine Order of Nuns in Ireland, was originally called Kylemore Castle. It was built between 1863 and 1868 as a private home for the family of Mitchell Henry, a wealthy politician from Manchester, England. Henry sold the property after sudden deaths of both his wife and daughter. The abbey was founded here when Benedictine Nuns fled Belgium in World War I. Today it's a girl's school, pottery, restaurant and craft shop. It's also known for its amazing glass-housed gardens.

- Town of Clifden and the John D'Arcy monument, dedicated to the village's founder. The monument overlooks the town to the west and is well worth a visit for the beautiful views of the town and its two church spires. There is a road near the monument called Sky Road, which winds up and over a hill, opening to sweeping views of the bay and ocean. We stopped here for a few pictures before stumbling across some castle ruins we had to canvas the backroads to reach.

- Clifden Castle was built by John D'Arcy (1785-1839) in a Gothic Revival style in the early 19th century. It's visible from Sky Road, but only a couple tiny country roads lead close to it; then walking through pastures past cows and horses is the only way to reach it. Very cool.