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 http://www.citylink.ie/ 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 http://www.dublincastle.ie/ 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 http://www.stpatrickscathedral.ie/, founded in 1191, is the larger of Dublin's two Church of Ireland cathedrals, and the largest church in Ireland. Church Christ Cathedral is http://www.cccdub.ie/ 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 http://www.dublinbus.ie/sightseeing/citytour.aspx - 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.
http://www.jamesonwhiskey.com/usa/text/visitus.php. 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. http://www.ireland-guide.com/establishment/enoteca_delle_langhe.4276.html. 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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Courts. 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. http://www.guinness-storehouse.com/

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. http://www.museum.ie/

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. http://www.winding-stair.com/. 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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Stephen'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. http://www.inis.gov.ie/en/INIS/Pages/WP07000031

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. http://www.stcolman.com/life_monastery.html
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. http://www.burrenforts.ie/

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.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Adventure #2: Cliffs of Moher and The Burren

To celebrate our second wedding anniversary yesterday, we took a leisurely road trip to see the Cliffs of Moher, one of Ireland's top tourist attractions located about one hour south-southwest of our apartment. http://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/TheCliffs.aspx

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

We were fortunate that it was not a windy day, so we could walk past the "point of no return" to get the best pictures. In February 2007, they opened a new hillside visitors center and shops at the Cliffs as part of an European Union-funded National Development Plan. http://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/Facilities.aspx

We drove through The Burren on the way to and from the Cliffs of Moher, stopping to take some photographs along the way. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Burren

The rocky topography of karst limestone was so fascinating.

The two castles we visited along the way were the Dunguaire and Newtown. Dunguaire Castle in County Galway, a 16th-century castle in Kinvarra, overlooking an inlet that opens to Galway Bay. During the summer, the castle hosts medieval banquets twice a night. http://www.castlesireland.com/dunguaire-castle.html

Newtown Castle, located just south of Ballyvaughan in County Clare, is an unusual 16th-century tower house that looks like a rocket on its launch pad. The castle was originally built by a sept of the O'Briens and later passed into the hands of the O'Loughlins (O'Lochlainns) - self-styled "Princes of the Burren." It was still inhabited by the family at the end of the 19th century, but later fell into ruin. In the 1990s the castle was restored as an exhibition centre for the adjacent Burren Art College.

After our adventure, we walked down the Prom and had dinner in Salthill at Osteria Da Roberta, a great Italian restaurant not too far from our home.