Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Adventure #15: Lisbon, Lisbon Coast and Alentejo

Portugal never broke the Top 10 when we started planning our monthly European getaways back in October. It's not that we didn't think it would be an amazing country to see, it's just that others (like Egypt, Dubai, Berlin, Budapest) ranked higher on our lists. But once we learned how expensive (and long) flying to the Middle East could be, we searched for another city with a mild climate in which to spend our February vacation - and we settled on Lisbon, mainly because we found cheap flights and a fantastic lodging deal at the VIP Eden Aparthotel on Restauradores Square in city centre for just 55 euros per night.

Lisbon is Europe's westernmost capital city and also supposedly the cheapest. The prices did not disappoint - just 39 cents for a jug of water that costs 2.50 euros back in Ireland. Everything about this city exceeded our expectations. The architecture was an ecclectic mix of Moorish (African and Middle Eastern Muslims who overtook Lisbon in the year 711), Spanish, French and Italian. This city has so much character, you have to see it to appreciate the diversity. And the weather was excellent - most days were sunny and 64-68 degrees. We had a little rain one morning, but that was about it. Another unforgettable trip with great weather.

The people were extremely friendly too. One bus driver gave us a free ride to the nearest tram station when we asked him for directions - definitely got our nod for nicest bus driver in Europe! Public transportation was convenient, cheap and safe - one-day pass good on the Metro, buses, tram and trolleys for only 3.50 euros - and you get to ride up in the famous street elevator on that ticket too.

Lisbon reminded us a lot of San Francisco, with its large bridges, trolley cars, hilly streets and beautiful river/sea views. (If you are having trouble seeing any of the slide.com pictures, just click on the X in the upper-right-hand corner of the Slide box. Their advertisements and sign-up screens are a pain in the butt. Sorry.)

Some of the sites we visited in Lisbon include:

The Rossio, one of the main squares in city centre where Damon took stunning night photos of the theatre and water fountains.

Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square), a large piazza near the water with stately canary-yellow symmetrical buildings around the parameter with a huge archway leading into the square.

We watched the Singing Chihuahua perform on Rua Augusta. Do click on this YouTube link to watch him sing. He did not disappoint.

Miradouro das Portas do Sol and Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Miradouros are several terraces and lookout points with vistas of the city.

The famous Santa Justa elevador (elevator), which we didn't wait in line to ride but walked up to the top and enjoyed sweeping views of the rooftops, castle and waterfront.

Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa (Sé de Lisboa), the cathedral of Lisbon, is the oldest church in the city. Construction of the cathedral began in 1147. The Cloisters there (2.50 euro entry) were stunning and well worth the nominal fee.

Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon. We walked through the streets of Alfama on Friday (where we stopped and had lunch outside) and on Saturday (for a disappointing flea market). On Friday we stopped by the Castelo São Jorge in Alfama, but chose not to pay to go inside based on recommendations from other visitors.

We climbed to the top of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument and looked out over the city and River Tagus.

Torre de Belém (Belém Tower) was built both as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon and as part of a defence system of the entrance of the Tagus river and the Jerónimos Monastery, which was necessary to protect Lisbon.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jeronimos Monastery) - Damon's top site in Lisbon - unbelieveable Cloisters.

One of the highlights of our trip for me was a visit to the São Vicente de Fora Monastery, where we enjoyed sweeping views of the city and River Tagus as well as stunning azulejos tiles throughout the hallways, stairwells and cloisters.

While in Lisbon we also learned about azulejo tiles and visited the National Museum of Azulejos, which allowed us to also see the ornate, gilded Convento da Madre de Deus church, now part of the museum. The azulejos are a typical form of Portuguese or Spanish painted, tin-glazed, ceramic tilework. They have become a typical aspect of Portuguese culture, manifesting without interruption during five centuries the consecutive trends in art.

Day Trip #1: Cascais and Sintra

Cascais, a coastal town 30 kilometres west of Lisbon, was recommended to us by wine writer Bob Ecker of Napa. It is a former fishing village with a harbor, charming shops, wonderful architecture, a castle (under renovation so we couldn't visit), Castro Guimaraes Palace and Farol Museu de Santa Marta(museum that looks like a villa perched on the rocks with a lighthouse nearby). The harbor, palace (with beautiful gardens) and nearby museum are pictured here.

Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) is located on a hilltop overlooking the village of Sintra and is recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The castle was originally built by the Moors, possibly between the 9th and 10th centuries. The steep and winding drive up the hill to the top was quite a ride.

The Pena National Palace (Palacio Nacional de Pena) was another highlight of our trip. The palace stands on the top of a hill above the town of Sintra, and on a clear day it can be easily seen from Lisbon and much of its metropolitan area. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. The architecture and grandness of the palace reminded us of Las Vegas or Walt Disney World...on steroids.

Day Trip #2: Alentejo (Reguengos de Monsaraz, Evora, Estremoz)

For our last day in Portugal, we drove to the Alentejo region to sample its wines and visit a few of the historic villages.

We first stopped at Herdade do Esporão in Reguengos de Monsaraz, had a wine tasting and took a jeep ride through the vineyards. The winery is known for its historic tower and had a beautiful lake, but it was a little farther southeast than we expected (about 35 minutes from Evora).

We then spent a few hours walking through the walled village of Évora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we also stopped for lunch at an outdoor cafe.

That afternoon, we enjoyed an insightful tour at J. Portugal Ramos winery near the village of Estremoz, then walked around the castle and church near the top of Estremoz before heading back to Lisbon.

I don't think I could go a lifetime without visiting Lisbon again. It's a special place and one that is already calling me to return.

Monday, February 25, 2008

What the f*ck? The F-word in Ireland

One of the things that caught us by surprise here was how often we hear people say "f*ck." The Irish throw F-bombs around in their conversations the way Americans would use "hell," "damn" or maybe even "shit." One of Damon's co-workers said his four-year-old said "f*ck," and he and his wife began laughing. It's just one of those cultural differences I find amusing because when you think it about, it's just a word. We are the ones who made it taboo by saying it was bad and telling our children to never say it. Here's an interesting list of urban legends about the origin of the F-word. I also read online that it could have started back in Ireland as a form of the word "feck," another expletive.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Adventure #14: Ross Errilly Friary

Damon found this killer page at Wikipedia that lists all the monastic sites in Ireland, so we decided to check out Ross Errilly, which is only 30 minutes from Galway.

The Ross Errilly Friary, a medieval Franciscan abbey, is among the best-preserved medieval monastic sites in the country. And we had no idea it was nearby. The detail on the walls and windows were amazing for such old ruins. We walked through short doorways into mazes of corridors past the chapels, a kitchen, courtyard, tombs and rooms galore. It's definitely somewhere we'll take any visitors and suggest to our American friends living in Galway.

Ireland weather in February

We braced ourselves for the wettest year of our lives before leaving Northern California for Galway, Ireland, six months ago.

It hasn't been that bad. Seriously.

Maybe this is a mild year, but this Galway winter reminds us a lot of a Northern California winter - and one of my friends here who used to live in California agrees. Sure, there's been a little snow (which comes around every five years or so but disappears within a couple hours), and some mornings it hovers around freezing. There have been a few sideways rain storms and lots of wind. We haven't seen much rain in February though.

Here are a couple pictures taken on February 4 and 12. Today is just as sunny as either of these. Not too bad!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Irish Pottery

Brenda and Steve gave us a gift certificate for Christmas to Louis Mulcahy Pottery. He's a talented Irish pottery maker (all handmade pieces) who relocated from Dublin to the Dingle Peninsula, where his workshop and studio are now located. He still has a shop in Dublin, which Lisa visited last month and purchased a beautiful fruit bowl to match the wine chiller and goblets they gave us a few years ago. I also found out there is an annual studio sale in Dublin on March 1, and I hope to return and buy some great pieces at up to 70% off.

Deterrents in Ireland

From my perspective, the Irish go to great lengths to deter certain activities. Massive ad campaigns featuring teenagers with mutilated faces to scare kids into not drinking and driving. Millions spent on supermarket shopping cart locks so that shoppers cannot get their one euro deposit back from the cart without returning it to one of the designated bays in the parking lot. Charging customers for plastic bags so they won't request them, thus decreasing waste.

But the most puzzling of them all is the recycling situation. The only way to get glass recycled is to drive it to a recycling center (see below), just like Americans used to do back in the 1960s and 1970s with old-fashioned soda pop bottles. For an island nation that is concerned enough about waste to charge a 22-cent levy on each plastic bag, you would think they would be focused on developing a more sophisticated recycling program. When we moved in, we were given no instructions from the building management company here about do handle our trash and recycling. It took me a good month to figure out that food waste is separated from all paper and plastic, but that's about the extent of it. We organize all our empty glass into a plastic trash can, which we had to purchase, and tote it to the recycling center once every two weeks. I am probably hurting the environment more by driving the car to the recycling center and buying a 12-gallon plastic trash bin that will reside on this planet in a landfill for the next 300 years than it would for the trash collection company to add glass recycling to its services and charge for it.

But I care about the planet, so I gladly drive my empty wine bottles to the gigantic plastic recycling receptacles, which will also be living in a landfill some day too. I hope all the young students at NUI, our local university, have the foresight to do the same.

I'm not saying any of these initiatives are bad. It's just frustrating that some countries don't realize that if you give consumers incentives to do something, they will do it. And if you provide them a service that adds convenience to their lives, they will pay for it - especially something that helps the environment.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ireland: the island nation of premature expiration

Every morsel of food in Ireland has an expiration date it seems, and it's always two days from the date you are standing in the store, but 3-4 days from when you expect to get around to eating it. Expiration dates are starting to control my life. I roam the Tesco aisles for an hour, calculating dates and planning out meals precisely because anything perishable I buy is going to die within 48-72 hours. I feel like Jack Bauer in the kitchen, racing against the clock every day, trying to cook that chicken and boil that broccoli before times runs out.

I have no idea how the Irish do it. I watch women in the store, buying six jugs of milk, five cartons of eggs, four sticks of butter. How many men does it take to woof that down in less than two days? Our tiny refrigerator here barely holds a week's worth of groceries for two people. One of my U.S. comrades who's living here shops for a family of four. She goes to the store at least twice a week because her fridge only holds enough food for three days of meals, and of course, everything would expire if she did all her week's shopping in one day. Every thing is smaller here: the fridge, the milk jugs, the cartons of juice. People buy less on each visit and just shop more frequently each week.

Damon says the food doesn't last as long because they don't use as many preservatives here, which frankly is probably healthier for us. But that still doesn't explain why the fresh tomatoes are moldy and splitting two days after purchase.

Every now and then we see a side-by-side refrigerator in the newspaper or on TV, which is referred to as an "American Refrigerator." This society would hiss at the concept of Costco, don't you think? Maybe Americans should go back to the old days where everything was smaller, food perished sooner and daily life just wasn't so convenient.

Baby Rave? You've got to be shitting me

The title of this blog says it all.

I was researching the event calendar for the 2008 St. Patrick's Day Celebration in Dublin, which Damon and I plan to attend March 15-17 to celebrate my 34th birthday. I found an event calendar listing I thought said "Babe Rave @ Temple Bar." I was expecting a dance party with lots of beautiful girls. I googled it, and found nothing. Then Damon said, "Are you sure it's not a Baby Rave? They just had one of those at Leisureland last week."

He was right. As part of this year's St. Patrick's Day festivities, there will be Baby Raves held on two nights.

Have you ever heard of a Baby Rave? If you google "baby rave" only Irish and U.K. web sites come up on the first page. They are all the rage here in Ireland, because half the population is between 20-35 and popping out kids left and right. Throw an adult bash with lots of loud music and dancing, but bring your kids. Just because you're parents doesn't mean you can't party anymore, right? Americans are too uptight to think this is cool and host such events. It wasn't too long ago in the U.S. that Happy Hour Playdates were profiled in many top media outlets, questioning mommies' morals for enjoying a glass of wine and good conversation while their tots played Lego.

The EuroMattsons raise a pint of Guinness to you and say, "Craic on, Baby Ravers." We salute you, but we childless couples may never join you in your follies.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Adventure #13: The Rock of Cashel

This weekend we took a day trip to County Tipperary to see the famous Rock of Cashel, located about 2.5 hours southeast of Galway City.

The Rock of Cashel, with its well preserved ecclesiastical remains, is one of Ireland's spectacular landmarks, rising high above the surrounding plain on a hill of limestone (i.e. "the rock"). History at Cashel is only documented back to the 4th century, but St. Patrick converted the local King Aenghus here in the 5th century. The Rock served as the traditional seat of the Kings of Munster, one of the four provinces of Ireland, whose kingdom stretched over much of Ireland's south and southwest. Its greatest king later became the High King of Ireland, Brian Boru - prior to the Norman invasion.

In 1101, Cashel was handed over to the church where it flourished as a religious center until it was laid seiged to by Oliver Cromwell's army's in 1647. This resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people.

I read online that the Rock was one of the film sets for the movie "Excalibur."

The site includes several structures built with different architectural styles; highlights include:

- Cormac's Chapel, a Romanesque church (the "Jewel of Cashel," circa 1134)
- A Gothic cathedral (built between 1235 and 1270)
- A traditional Irish round tower (90 feet high; circa 1100)
- A tower house
- Hall of the Vicars' Choral (built in the 15th century)
- St Patrick's High Cross (circa 12th century)

Our tour guide said that all the buildings were built from limestone from the surrounding hills. Inside the Cormac's Chapel is a sarcophagus that probably contained the remains of either a king or a Cashel priest at one time. The original sits in the National Museum in Dublin on Kildare Street. The chapel entrance features a wonderful Romanesque archway with supports.

The cathedral is the largest building on the site. Within the walls of this grand structure are many interesting features: several carved tombs in the North Transept with remarkably detailed, well-preserved carvings despite exposure to the elements; stone hooks on the walls where a wooden balcony would have housed the vicars choral during mass; tomb of Miler Magrath, who caused a scandal by being both a Protestant and Catholic archibishop at the same time (he lived to be 100); and The Crossing, a lovely detailed arch where the four sections of the building come together.

The Round Tower is the oldest and tallest building on the site. Round towers were known as both a storage place for valuables and a lookout for advancing intruders. The doorway is about 10 feet from the ground. Cashel priests and students would climb a ladder and up into the many levels of stairs to fill the tower, then the ladder was raised up inside, according to several sources. Our guide also said that further research has questioned the true reason why the doorway is 10 feet off the ground. It probably was most likely because round towers were built back then without cement (just stacked stones), so it was critical that the base of the tower be the strongest point. Having a door at the base would have weakened the structure.

The original Saint Patrick's Cross now sits inside the dormitory museum onsite. St. Patrick was said to have visited Cashel in 450 AD, and the cross was erected in his honor. The east side of the cross shows the image of St. Patrick carved into its surface.

Although Cashel looks like a monastic site with all its various buildings housed inside a wall, only the archibishop, his aides and the vicars choral resided here, according to our tour guide. (There are ruins of Dominic's Abbey and Hore Abbey nearby, which we do not visit on this trip.)

The vicars choral were laymen appointed to assist in chanting the cathedral services. At Cashel there were originally eight vicars choral with their own seal. The restoration of the Hall of Vicars' Choral was undertaken by the Office of Public Works as a project in connection with the European Architectural Heritage Year (1975). Along with the dormitory block, is now home to the visitors center and museum.

There is also the O'Scully's Monument near the corner of the outer wall of the Rock of Cashel, an ornate memorial erected in 1870 by a local landowning family. Brú Ború, a national cultural centre, is located at the foot of the Rock of Cashel, but we didn't pay a visit.

On our way out to Cashel, we made a quick stop in Nenagh, the bustling provincial town owes its origins to the Norman Butlers who build a castle here in 1220. We snapped a few shots of the castel ruins, which are being restored, as well as St. Mary's Church of the Rosary, a neo-gothic church, built 1896 and noted for its stained glass windows from the famous Harry Clarke studio. We also drove past the nearby are the remains of a medieval Franciscan Abbey.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Pancake Day in Ireland

You learn something new every day.

My teacher at Alliance Francaise de Galway pointed out to the class that today is Mardi Gras, aka "Fat Tuesday." I've had the pleasure of celebrating Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, in New Orleans during the official Mardi Gras when I was 20 and it was easy for those under 21 to enjoy a few drinks. There were no pancakes there, only lots of beer, beads, gumbo and king cakes with plastic baby Jesus dolls inside. No pancakes.

Anyway, we began to share our "Fat Tuesday" experiences - although I was the only one who called it that - and Mardi means "Tuesday" in French and Gras mean "Fat." Here in Ireland, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia, it's Pancake Tuesday. I had no idea what they are talking about and when I walked out of class and down Shop Street to the bus stop, a chef from Malt House restaurant was serving free pancakes and recipes in the streeet.