Sunday, January 27, 2008

Adventure #12: Westport Area

This Sunday, the weather was quite nice (around 50 degrees with little rain), so we decided to take a road trip to Westport, which we missed on our Sligo trip (post: Adventure #10). We took the scenic route along N59, heading about 1.5 hours north and slightly west of Galway into County Mayo to reach the Westport area on the coast.

We stopped first at the Aasleagh Waterfall on the Erriff River. The waterfall wasn't huge, but still pretty, and there were a couple of rams roaming along the river banks. We drove through the Erriff Valley, known for its Maumtrasna and Partry Mountains and the Sheefry Hills flanking the road. The town of Westport is quite charming, with lots of shops and a small town square, but we opted to continue driving to find more inspiring landscapes for photos. We stumbled upon Achill Island, Ireland's largest island, located about 30 minutes north of Westport. The typography reminded us a little bit of the Aran Islands, though the Minaun Cliffs and Cathedral Rocks here were much smaller than the cliffs along Inishmore. The Atlantic Coast Drive along the southern tip of the island was very pretty. The island is 87% peat bog, and there is also an abandoned village here called Slievemore, which has been vacant since the Great Irish Potato Famine. We hope to return and see the north part of the island another weekend.

We then drove back to Westport to see Clew Bay. There is a famous mountain here called Croagh Patrick, Ireland's holy mountain. We did not make the two-hour climb up, but we did take some pictures of the famous statue of St. Patrick overlooking Clew Bay near the base of the mountain. On "Reek Sunday", the last Sunday in July every year, more than 25,000 pilgrims climb the mountain, many of whom climb barefoot. Mass is celebrated on Reek Sunday on the peak in a modern chapel. There is also a visitor center at the top. Perhaps we will make the climb this summer, but not on a holy day! I would have to teach Damon the "Our Father" or maybe have him baptized. Not sure if he's ready for that! :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Adventure #11: Foppolo, Italian Alps

We knew we wanted to go skiing once in the Alps while living in Ireland, just so we could say we'd done it. I spent two full days researching resorts in Switzerland, France, Austria, Germany and Italy before we decided to book a ski weekend in the Italian Alps at a tiny village we'd never heard of called Foppolo. Foppolo is a mountain village about 1600 meters (5250 feet) above sea level and only 80km northeast of Milan. It's located in the Brembana Valley in the Lombardy region (marked in red on the map below).

Hotel Cristallo, a 2-star hotel right next to the main ski lift, offered the best price for a ski package - 3 nights hotel, 2 days of lift tickets, 2 meals a day and transportation to and from the airport - so we took a gamble. And we got roundtrip airfare to and from Bergamo (a city near Milan) for just 30 euros per person, all taxes included. I was a little worried when I asked a colleague from Milan if he'd ever been there, and he said, "no." We were also nervous that there might not be good snow at a lower-elevation resort only 1.5 hours from Bergamo, but our gamble paid off. Foppolo had a few good days of snow just before we arrived, and beautiful blue skies and sunshine both days we hit the slopes.

Hotel Cristallo's bar is right at the end of the run, so you can ski right up to the terrace, take off your skis, sit down and order Prosecco, beer - whatever you fancy -and watch the skiers barrel down the run. The owners of Cristallo even put out traditional antipasti on the bar every afternoon - heavenly! We had the place practically to ourselves on Friday; only a ski school group of kids and a couple families from England were there. Then the crowds drove up from Milan on Saturday and Sunday, but the lines were still shorter than most we've seen in Lake Tahoe.

Foppolo is considered a good resort for beginner skiers. The main lift next to Hotel Cristallo is considered a green in America (Blue/facile/easy here). It was a little hard for me. Damon has only been skiing three times, and he beat me down the hill by probably 5 minutes every time. That's why there are so many pictures of me skiing and none of Damon. Only one time was I at the bottom of the run waiting for him to snap a photo - just because I rested while he went for another run. Sadly, I wasn't able to get a good shot right until he finished his run. He was so mad when he saw that the only picture of him skiing showing him doing the pizza!

The mountain tops were breathtaking and Foppolo chalets charming. This was an unforgettable weekend getaway.

Here is the ski map of Foppolo:

Appliances in Ireland

One of the most amusing things about living in another country is learning how to use everyday items that are designed differently in other countries. About the only appliance that was easy to figure out was the microwave, which seems to have universal functionality. Here, the vacuum's electricity cord retracts into the bottom corner, which took me about 30 minutes to find. The oven has six different settings, depending on what you are baking, and the other dial is in Celsius, so we have to use our cell phone to convert the degrees every time we cook. Pizza does not cook properly unless you use the bread/pizzas setting. I learned this the hard way after two failed attempts at homemade pizza. The showers are electric, and you have to have a switch turned on outside the bathroom door in order for your shower powered box to dispense any water. But the funniest of them all is the clothes dryer. There are no ventilation tubes to expel the moisture and heat out of the laundry room here, so there is a plastic bladder (looks like a ice pack found in an Igloo cooler) at the bottom of the dryer. This has to be emptied about once a week when it fills up with water. The heat shuts off as soon as it's full, so you know it's time to change it when your clothes are still wet after 90 minutes. (There is also a little orange button that lights up, but I didn't figure out what that meant for a month.) There are also two lent catchers that have to be cleaned - the typical lent catcher that should be emptied after every wash and a condenser unit that needs to be rinsed of lent every so often. Talk about high maintenance! I had to take a couple pictures to share.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Adventure #10: Sligo, Yeats Country

Clear skies and temperatures in the low 50s over the weekend beckoned us to take another day trip before the winter rains and lower temperatures returned. We drove to County Sligo, home of the legendary poet WB Yeats, about two hours north of Galway. Sligo and Leitrim are the northernmost counties in Western Ireland, and we visited some of "Yeats Country's" top sites, which took us into both counties.

We drove through the city of Sligo, then stopped first at Glencar Lough's waterfall, which was very nice but not photo-friendly, which bummed out Damon. The views of Glencar Lough across the road with sheep grazing were quiet serene though. We then drove along the N16 to see the picturesque Benbulbin Mountain.
We stopped near Drumcliff Bay at the Drumcliff church and cemetery to see WB Yeats's grave, where there are also ruins of an old monastic site including a beautiful High Cross.

The R291 highway runs along Sligo Harbour out to Rosses Point, the entrance to Sligo Bay, with a small lighthouse and many walking trails. It reminded us a lot of Salthill. I tried to get artsy with my little camera, snapping shots of dry-docked old boats, while Damon was photographing the lighthouse.

Inland from Sligo Harbour lies Lough Gill, another beautiful lake with Parke's Castle on its north shore. The 17th-century fortified manor house is a starting point for boat trips around the lough; it was closed, but we walked around and took some nice photos - more artsy stuff from me here, sorry!

Dooney Rock, a small mountain (or large hill, I guess) on the south side of Lough Gill with walking trails and beautiful views of Benbulbin was out last stop of the day. The lake waters were so peaceful the surface mirrored the puffy white clouds in the sky. We hiked up to the top before heading back home. We'd hoped to have time to visit Westport, a village on the west coast, but we'll have to save that trip for another day.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Snow in Galway

Supposedly it rarely, if ever, snows in Galway. But we got to see a little white blanket on the ground before sunrise on January 4. I called Damon at work and said, "Why didn't you call me and tell me about the snow?" He replied, "What snow?" It wasn't snowing an hour before when he left for work. The snow was gone by sunrise when the temperature reached above freezing, and the rain continued throughout the day. I took pictures for Damon, so he could see the snow.