Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Going to the Races

The hottest ticket in town come August is the Galway Races. This year's horse racing event is held July 28-August 3. Because we're going to Stockholm this weekend, we decided to go the races on a rainy Tuesday evening. We will miss all the special themed nights -- Ladies Day (Best Dressed) and Mad Hatters Day, for example -- but that's okay. The rain didn't keep the Galway ladies from stepping out in high fashion last night either. I can't imagine running around a race track in the pouring race in a cocktail dress and three-inch heels, but Galway women love an excuse to dress up.

The Irish love to bet too. I've never mentioned that we have betting companies with stores at several locations around town (including two Salthill alone). Ladbrokes is one of the big companies and had its own VIP tent yesterday. After about 30 minutes, we figured out the system for getting race cards and betting. We put 50€ on Mountain Snow to win; out of more than 20 horses, Mountain Snow finished...2nd!!!! And by only a few feet. We would have won 25€ if we'd bet on him to place. It was pretty exciting for my first horse race. Then we went home to get out of the rain.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Galway Arts Festival

Every July in Galway, a big event comes to town. Over its 30 year history, the Galway Arts Festival has become a "showcase for Irish arts and international arts and is now firmly established as Ireland’s leading arts festival." About 100,000 people attend each year. While we couldn't attend every event, we picked a few of the highlights.

Lisa watched the Rebels street performers down in city center one afternoon. Here's a video of the Rebels someone posted on YouTube:

We attended the Circa, the opening show at the "big top" blue tent placed on a sprawling lawn next to the cathedral here in Galway. Circa was four Australian gymnasts/acrobats/tumblers. They contorted their bodies, did lots of flips and even brought out one trapeze and one suspended rope. It was a little slow for us, but I think we are jaded by Cirque du Soleil.

We also stayed up late and went to city center on a Sunday to watch Apocolopolis, the Street Parade. I also forgot to take my camera to this event, but found a video on YouTube:

Hair stylist recommendation

If you're looking for a great hair stylist in Galway, I recommend the following:

Barry - haircut
Tamicka - color/tinting

They both work at Momento; I was really impressed with their services, definitely on par with what I've received in San Francisco's Bay Area.

Momento Hairdressing
18 High Street, Galway

Finally: really good food in Galway

We finally found a GREAT restaurant in Galway. It opened three months ago. But before I get to that, let me tell you why I'm rejoicing.

In our opinion, Ireland has lived up to its reputation as mediocre when it comes to culinary arts, great food. Sure, they have these cows and sheep, so butter and cheeses are excellent here. And those potatoes. Produce is fresh and usually flavorful.

But dining at restaurants has always been a let down for us. To date, the best meal we had the entire year -- as far as Irish cuisine is concerned -- was at The Winding Stair in Dublin. And I've read several stories about Ireland's fine dining scene coming to life.

But we've been on a budget, so splurging at the best spots wasn't in the cards for us. Our only big splurge of the year was for Valentine's Day at O'Grady's on the Pier, located about 15 minutes from our apartment and rated the Georgina Campbell Seafood Restaurant of the Year in Ireland in 2008. The weathered wood table by the old fireplace was cozy and romantic. The food was quite good, almost as good as The Winding Stair. But we felt it lacked something -- I can't put my finger on it, maybe integration of flavors -- and for €105, we definitely recalled many better meals we've had in San Francisco and Napa Valley with a $150 tab. We also dined at Itsa4 in the Dublin suburbs for my birthday. The food and wine were great, but €18 for a hamburger?!?

After several "just okay" meals in Galway -- then the ridiculously expensive and disappointing one at the Huntsmann which cost us €48 for some fish and chips, a burger, one Coke and a glass of New Zealand Pinot Noir -- we gave up on going out to dinner here. For the first time in my life, I actually preferred the value-quality from my home cooking over well-regarded local restaurants.

Then our friends Mike and SuAnn who moved here one month before us from Minnesota for a one-year assignment with Medtronic invited us out for a farewell dinner. They return home in one week. I suggested the Thai restaurant in town, which is decent; then SuAnn called back and asked if we'd like to try a new place called the Asian Tea House on Mary Street in Galway city centre. We're always up for something new, so we said we'd "give it a go" as they say here.

This place was outstanding. The chef is Malaysian. They consider their menu a blend of Asia, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and China. SuAnn is from Malaysian, and she praised the quality and authenticity of the food. All ingredients were fresh and cooked to perfection. The ambiance is great too. The floor tiles in the restaurant came from Cambodia. Asian Tea House rivals The Slanted Door in San Francisco from a food standpoint, though it's on a much smaller scale.

We may actually have to go back there before we leave the city!

Sure, it's not Irish cuisine, but it's high-quality cooking, and this country needs high-quality cooking from many different countries to converge here for the culinary scene to continue to mature and thrive.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Adventure #30: Aran Islands encore

We couldn't leave Ireland without another trip to Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands. Last fall, we didn't get to see half the island because we decided to walk versus rent bikes or take a guided tour by van. Inishmore was our first adventure last September not long after we arrived in Galway.

In July, we spent a full Saturday on the island, riding bikes to all the top sights. The sun shined down on us all day -- it was brilliant! This is such a great way to see the island; we highly recommend it. I also recommend stopping off Joe Watty's pub about 10 minutes from town to listen to local music, if the weather is good. Joe Mac's Pub next to the hostel and SuperMac's in Kilronan, right near the docks where all the ferries land, is also a great place for socializing.

You can find a list of all the top attractions here.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Adventure #29: Switzerland

Our tourism book said that pictures can’t do the surreal beauty of Switzerland’s landscape justice.

But we decided to give it our best shot (pardon the pun).

Every time we turned our heads, another gorgeous lake, mountain, valley, forest, Alpine-style building or cow appeared as if to taunt us. I’m not sure we really ever put down our cameras the entire trip…except to eat or sleep.

Photographically speaking, Damon met his match in Switzerland...or at least his camera did. In just four days, he burned through 10 MB of memory and two batteries. On our last night in the country, my memory chip declared itself full right before my last battery died.

One of the greatest parts of traveling in Switzerland is its compact size. It’s bordered by five countries: Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. This makes travel (by train or car) quite easy, but it also gives Switzerland its fascinating cultural diversity. There is really no Swiss language; cultural traditions, lifestyle and language are influenced by the borders. While German is the most prevalent language, 20 percent of the population near the France border count French as their official language. Close to that many do the same on the Italian border.

One of the bummers about Switzerland is cost of living. Switzerland is very expensive for everyone – food, drink, hotel, train tickets, gondolas, you name it. The only thing we found that was not more expensive than Ireland was gasoline, surprisingly. But in all honestly, with restaurants perched on river banks and cliffs with great food and service, you can’t blame them for charging what they do. The views alone are worth the price.

We flew Ryanair from Dublin to Basel direct. It was the first time we’d ever been to an airport where the exit signs directed us to two different countries: Switzerland or France. Then we drove north to the German border, which took all of maybe 15 minutes. We walked around the town of Freiburg in the southwest corner of Germany, and visited its cathedral and ate an authentic Bratwurst before driving through the Black Forest. The winding roads and forested hills reminded us of our commute back home.

Germany Photos:

We crossed over into Switzerland and stopped at Rheinfall, the largest plain waterfalls in Europe. We ate dinner on the terrace of a riverfront restaurant in Stein am Rhein, a town famous for its Hans Christian Andersen-style architecture. The restaurant specializes in fish from the river, so we had perch and bass. We watched kids jump off the bridge into the chilly waters below while we ate. Little did we know that a Swiss game show with card players was broadcasting live from the center of Stein am Rhein. We watched the game show host parading around the streets, as residents sat at dozens of picnic tables drinking beer. As part of a competition, a young couple sawed a log. It was truly a step back in time. On the first night, we stayed at the cute Seegaertli B&B in Berlingen, a town on the shores of Untersee, part of Lake Konstanz. Our room had a balcony and views of the lake. The owners had a private beach and patio area across the road for guests to enjoy, but we didn’t have time to enjoy it.

Lake Konstanz was our first destination the next morning. The northeast border of Germany and Switzerland rests just outside the center of Konstanz, the village. We strolled through the village’s old town, saw its cathedral, then walked across the big bridge over the lake before starting our drive to Interlaken.

Rheinfall, Steim am Rhein, Berlingen and Konstanz Photos:

We drove through Zurich, Switzerland's largest city, and the beautiful regions south of Zurich with many lakes (Lucerne, Zugger, Alpnacher, Sarner, Lungerer).

Interlaken is an alpine village near the center of the country, within the region known as Bernese Oberland. Interlaken is flanked by two lakes, and is a great base for the best peaks in the Swiss Alps. Damon had been talking about taking the Jungfraujoch train to the highest train station in Europe to see Jungfrau since last fall. He wanted to photograph the Alps from over 11,000 feet. We arrived into town mid-afternoon under blue skies. It was too late to go to Jungfrau, so the owner of Rugenpark B&B where we stayed recommended Schilthorn. He said the views of all the highest peaks (Jungfrau, Mönch, Eiger) were actually better from Schilthorn. We could even see Thun and Lake Thun.

We rode three separate gondolas to reach Schilthorn. All I can say is, “Holy Schilt.” Schilthorn is a mountain located at about 10,000 feet. The views were breathtaking. We hiked out to a ridge and took some funny photos with a caution sign featuring a high-heeled shoe (???). On the way down from Schilthorn, we got off the gondola at Murren, a pedestrian-only traffic city (supposedly, but we found a couple transport vehicles). Murren was really charming. The mountain views were gorgeous, the architecture cute. We ate fondue and Swiss beer outside on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking a steep valley.

The weather didn’t cooperate the next day. This happens in Switzerland, we’re told. We couldn’t go to Jungfrau--who would want to pay $200 per person to take a train up the mountain to only see a wall of fog--so we ventured out into the rain to go see Trummelbach Falls. This amazing waterfall is a series of 10 glacier-fed waterfalls flowing through one cave, the only one of its kind in Europe open to the public, we were told. The snow-pack run-off from Eiger, Monk and Jungfrau shoots down through this cave. Watching the insane water pressure was quite an experience.(Trummelbach is a UNESCO Heritage Site.)

Next we drove to Grindelwald village and did some shopping in the rain, then ate sandwiches in the park. Once it stopped raining, we took a bus to the stop just below Upper Glacier. (Our bus drive said “hello” in German, “thank you” in French and “good bye” in Italian. If that doesn’t sum up Switzerland’s diversity, I don’t know what does.)

We hiked into the entrance of Upper Glacier, then climbed up all 887 log steps (Damon counted) to the rocky, flat tops of the cliff to see the glacier. The glacier wasn’t really visible (it’s been receeding for a few decades, sadly), but the climb up and the walk across the suspended bridge made the trip worthwhile. I snapped a photo of the traditional Swiss drummers (gigantic cowbells for drums!) in the town of Lauterbrunnen. We celebrated (or negated) our climb with a banana split at the restaurant located near the base of the mountain. That evening, we took a walking tour of Interlaken (in the rain), bought some Swiss chocolates from the famous Schuh shop and restaurant, then grabbed a casual dinner at Brasserie 17 in the bar-cum-restaurant-cum hostel.

Time to move along. We packed up our things the next morning and drove to Thun, a town on the Thunersee (Lake Thun) west of Interlaken. We toured Thun castle, then walked through town and over its bridges before continuing on through the Berne canton, the more scenic drive to Lake Geneva. We stumbled upon a beautiful waterfall along the way, which flows into the Jaunbach stream, and stopped at Jaun to photograph it. We also took pictures of the cows and the gigantic bells around their necks. (Chiming cow bells were within ear shot at two out of three places we stayed.) Check out this video we filmed with my cell phone:

Interlaken, Thun (Bernese Oberland) Photos:

The road signs soon changed from German to French. We stopped in the town of Gruyeres in the Fribourg canton, famous for its cheese, and visited the cheese center (more of a tourist trap than anything). But the cheese aging room was cool to look at, and we were able to say we tasted Gruyeres in Gruyer...what more could you ask for?

We arrived in Corseaux, one of the many villages on the border of Lake Geneva, in the late afternoon. (Lake Geneva is shared with France, where it's known as Lake Leman.) Our B&B (and its pool) overlooked the lake and mountains. We toured Chateau de Chillon just outside of Montreux, then walked along the Montreux boardwalk and ate a nice Italian dinner at Restaurant au Parc. The next morning, we took a train up to Les Pleiades, an area in the mountains overlooking Lake Geneva, but it was too rainy and foggy to see anything. We then drove through the Lavaux wine region and photographed its stony terraces, built by monks 800 years ago. These vineyards and their terraces are a UNESCO Heritage Site. The views of the steep vineyards, lake and mountains were absolutely stunning. If I hadn’t fallen in love with Switzerland yet, I did right then. We stopped at a few wine villages before driving over to Lausanne, located across the lake from France's Evian (yes, that Evian). Lausanne’s cathedral sits at the top of a hill. We climbed to the top, toured the church, then climbed up into its tower. The tower bells rang while we were still at the top…very cool. We decided to buy some wine and local products (ham, cheeses, nuts, chocolates) and return to Lavaux for a picnic. The sun finally broke from the clouds while we ate at a arbor-covered picnic area next to the vineyards. That night we listened to jazz at the world-famous Montreux Jazz Festival, held there since 1967, and took another stroll down the Montreux promenade. We witnessed the most gorgeous sunset, but we’d both already ran out of memory on our cameras.

Montreux, Lavaux and Lausanne Photos:

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Top 10 Things We Will Miss

We've been talking about all the things we'll miss when we return back to the States. Here's a short list of our Top 10:

10. Tesco Buffala Mozzarella di Campania for €2.76 per ball.

9. Diplo wall heaters

8. Bus stop steps from our door for public transportation

7. Gym with a sauna (!!!) only a 5-minute walk from the apartment

6. All the lakes and islands of Ireland

5. Castle ruins everywhere

4. Evening walks on the Prom (weather permitting)

3. Sea views from our living room windows

2. Galway's energy and entertainment scene (the hussle and bustle of a college town with tons of pubs, cafes and live music)

1. Visiting any country in Europe in about two hours or less on a plane

Top 15 Things We Will NOT Miss

Here's the list of things we won't be missing when we leave Galway in September:

15. Dog poop everywhere on the sidewalks

14. Lack of organization and forward planning

13. No electricial outlets in bathrooms

12. Double beds (and two twins pushed together qualifying as a double)

11. Electric showers (and showers with only half a door)

10. Bathroom faucets with separate hot and cold taps (how fun it's been to fill the sink with hot and cold water every night in order to wash my face in warm water)

9. Clothes dryers without ventilation (no more emptying the bladder of my dryer every four loads)

8. Cost of living, in general (bottles of contact solutions costing 16€, drinks for 6€ a pop)

7. Mediocre food at a pub/restaurants

6. Lack of garbage disposals

5. Separating food trash from paper trash (because we have no garbage disposal)

4. Radiator heating

3. Paying our bills at the the Post Office

2. Timid Irish drivers (causing unneccessary traffic)

1. The weather (rainy, cool days all year long)

Dodgy Construction: The Ride of Your Life

Last fall, we were intrigued by a rollercoaster located next to our local gym called The Wild Mouse. The name cracked us up, as did the fact that a gymnasium here also offered water slides, miniature golf, and amusement park games and rides.

Before we could take a picture, The Wild Mouse was disassembled.

The good news is that she's back. The bad news is that we got to watch The Wild Mouse -- and several other rides -- being constructed this summer, constructed on gravel slopes, sidewalks and old parking lots.

Dodgy is the word commonly used in the U.K. and Ireland to describe anything broken, unreliable, not good. If this isn't dodgy construction, I don't know what is. How could any parent be comfortable letting their children ride on a rollercoaster that's being balanced by some blocks of wood? Maybe we Americans are just too cautious about these types of things. But honestly, there's no way I could get on The Wild Mouse after walking past the visible foundation under which this ride was built.

Ride, as a word, doesn't have the same connotation over here. Ride is bad, very bad. Drunk men say it to girls they want to shag, if you catch my drift. Because I still don't know the word the Irish use for amusement park rides, I guess I'll leave that vernacular as is, and probably insult all the parents in Galway by calling a rollercoaster their children enjoy a "ride."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Ninjaphobia: Don't Fear the Ninja

Damon learned the other day that before the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could be launched in eight countries in Europe, the censorship board/laws made them change their name to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Obviously, they found a negative connation/association with ninjas they didn't want children exposed to. According to Wikipedia, consequently, everything related to the Turtles had to be renamed before being released in these nations (comic books, video games, toys, etc.) The lyrics were also changed, such as changing "Splinter taught them to be ninja teens" to the "Splinter taught them to be fighting teens."

This continued until 2003.

This begs the question: What about the naked lady lingerie advertisements in the newspapers? Or the use of the word "fuck" on prime time TV?

I guess in this corner of the world, that's far more conservative than a cartoon turtle welding a toy knife.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Irish weather karma

As soon as I blogged about how bad the summer weather is in Western Ireland, Galway enjoyed its sunniest day this year -- a beautiful Thursday filled with sunshine, rarely a cloud in the sky, and temperatures around 18-20 degrees (about 70). My cousin and I sat outside at The Quays in Galway, drinking Guinness and basking in the sun.

Then the rain returned on Friday. And Saturday.

My Travel Map

Damon and I updated our Trip Advisor travel maps today. It's really cool to get this perspective of all the places I've visited back in the States, as well as in Europe. But when we looked at an atlas of the entire globe, it reminded us of this: We have so many more continents to visit. Hopefully in the next couple of years, we can see Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and South America.


The Final Tourist To Do List

The clock is ticking. We have less than two months left before we return to California and tons of places in Ireland still left to discover.

Here's our list of must-see places we've yet to visit (in order of priority):

1) Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland
2) Skellig Michael, County Kerry
3) Slieve League Cliffs, Carrick, County Donegal
4) Aran Islands (again -- first time wasn't enough)
5) Connemara National Park hike up one of the Twelve Bens
6) Galway Irish Crystal Heritage Centre

We've decided to scrap plans to visit Waterford, Wicklow or Wexford on the east coast. Simply not enough time left. I was hoping to watch a horse racing event in Tipperary or Galway, but Damon's not keen on it, nor does he fancy taking a cruise on the Lough Corrib. If we can squeeze in another island trip near County Galway, maybe we'll go to Inishbofin or Clare islands.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Adventure #28: Cousin Bruce visits Ireland

My cousin Bruce from Kansas visited us this past week. While Damon worked, Bruce and I spent our days touring Ireland. (Damon broke away to sightsee with us on the weekend.) Here are some of the places we visited:

Aillwee Caves
This was a new destination in The Burren I'd never visited; very cool caves, great butter-cream fudge in the farmhouse shop and amazing birds of prey exhibit. We also had lunch at a tavern near the Burren Smokehouse; instead of eating salmon, we opted for our first plate of bangers and mash.

Cliffs of Moher
We got lucky this day -- some rain but low winds -- we visited the Cliffs after our cave tour.

Ring of Kerry
Damon drove us south for our weekend getaway; we spent one night at a B&B in Kenmare, near the Ring of Kerry, hoping to catch one of the boats to Michael Skellig Island on Sunday, but no luck. The waves were too high. I was very bummed not to see the puffin birds on the island. We enjoyed some great food and Irish music at the pubs in Kenmare on Saturday night. This time, our drive through Moll's Gap afforded us sweeping views of the valley and lakes below.

Clifden, John d'Arcy Castle and Aughnanure Castle
The infamous crappy weather of Ireland hampered our journey that day. Our jeans got soggy hiking out to John d'Arcy Castle; we turned back and sipped on hot chocolate at the boathouse restaurant near the docks. We had to skip the John d'Arcy monument due to rain and low visibility. We also snapped some photos of Kylemore Abbey on the way home.

Ross Errilly Friary
Some of the coolest ruins in all of Ireland -- well-preserved and only 30 minutes from Galway.

We drank pints of Guinness at the Gravity Bar above the Guinness Storehouse, then went to the Jameson's distillery and drank whiskey at the bar -- the best place on the planet to drink Guinness and Jameson's, respectively.

Another highlight of the trip was simply hanging out in Galway. We watched musicians at Tig Coili, a famous pub here. Here's a video of musicians at Tig Coili. We also ate fish & chips at McDonagh's in Galway.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Cigarette warnings in Europe

The EU seems to have taken the shock-value approach to anti-smoking campaigns. They've made sure that each box of cigarettes is plastered with a clear message: Smoking kills. I didn't really notice how graphic their anti-smoking advertising/warning campaigns were until I saw some cartons of Kents at the Duty-Free Shop in Turkey. Is this only happening in Europe or has this more-aggressive tactic to curb smoking caught on the States too?

I hope it does...enough with sugar-coating it and saying wimpy statements along the lines of "smoking is harmful to your health."

Why all the Apologies?

I'm convinced that the most-used words in the Irish vocabulary are as follows:

1) bye
2) sorry
3) hiya (or how'erya)
4) pint
5) feck (or fuck)
6) cheers

Here's my rationale:

Bye -- bye is the most-used word in Ireland (or at least County Galway) because most Irish don't say "bye" once: they say it at least three times with each farewell.

Sorry -- the word that truly inspired this blog post...I'm not quite sure why the Irish feel the need to apologize for, well, almost everything. Sorry is used when you bump into someone, when you want to get past someone blocking your way, when you can't hear or understand someone, when you want to get someone's attention quickly, when you are actually sorry or when you aren't sure what else to say, "sorry" is usually the most appropriate word. They don't say "pardon me," "excuse me," "could you repeat that?" etc, etc. Yes, I do realize that "sorry" is just politeness here, the Irish aren't really apologizing, but it's really cute to witness it from the American perspective. Why do the Irish have to be so kind all the time? I love their warm spirits, but if you're not in the wrong, is there really any reason to accept the blame? I'll have to wean myself off this habit when I return to the States, or everyone will be looking at me strangely.

Hiya - the smile "hi" or "hello" just aren't that common here. Greetings need to include a warm inquiry into the other person's wellbeing, such as "Hi, how'erya?" -- which is really pronounced as more of a run-on word.

Pint - no explanation needed. This is the land of Guinness, the place where keg-truck driver is a highly skilled, sought-after and highly demanded employment position.

Feck - this swear word is like our usage of "damn" or "shit." Think of it as the ketchup in your vocabulary, if every other word was a French fry.

Cheers - from what I can tell, "cheers" means "goodbye" and "thank you." Talk about word economy. Plus it can also be used for toasts (but I think this is more common in the States.) Love this word.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Almost time to check out

Damon booked our one-way tickets home to California for early September. I scheduled an appointment with the movers today for the end of August. We can't believe the end is finally near. Ten months have already passed since we embarked on this one-year journey to discover life in Ireland.