Monday, April 14, 2008

The Ring of Kerry, Dingle, and upwards towards Galway

We arrived in Dingle after a long day traveling around the picturesque Ring of Kerry. The weather cooperated to a degree, treating us with sunny spells throughout rain and hail showers. In the meantime, we enjoyed at least thirty of Ireland's reputed forty shades of green. We checked into our B&B and talked a bit with John, the owner, over tea. As is typical for our conversations thus far, topics ranged widely. Mostly we discussed the economy, surprisingly enough, and how the US housing crash has affected the EU in general and Ireland in specific. He sounded a bit worried about how the next tourist season will shape up. As he noted, "when the US sneezes, Ireland catches pneumonia."

John had to head to the neighboring town to pick up his car. He had flattened a tire driving too close the curb on a narrow road. Hearing that made me feel a bit better about driving there myself. No one is immune.

After watching John's apparently very well behaved dog Rio snatch a slab of butter off the table while she thought no one was looking, we headed into town to explore.

Dingle's a quiet town, and we had three days to slow down in it. We popped our heads into and out of a few pubs along our walk, and also met the owner of the local music shop as we looked for a CD by Paul Brady (a folk singer well known in Ireland, but only recently discovered by us). After finding the disc and chatting with Michael a bit, he mentioned that he'd be playing with a few of his friends down at The Small Bridge that night.

After biding our time talking with a pleasant French transplant named Johanne as we waited out the rain in Dick Mack's, we grabbed a quick dinner and headed down to The Small Bridge to check things out. As promised, Michael was setting up. He recognized us immediately, and invited us to front row seating as they got started. The evening flowed on, and we thoroughly enjoyed the trad session, and a pint or two as well.

The next day, we hopped back into the car for a trip around the Dingle Peninsula, then back into town for food and a bit of socializing. After some very fresh seafood from a restaurant who draws their menu up on a chalkboard based on the catch of the day, we found ourselves once again back in The Small Bridge. Music again this time, but the place was much more crowded with the Friday night scene.

We gravited towards a makeshift game of quarters going on in the back of the sprawling pub, played with Euros of course. As usual, we met a few people, but hit it off best with a localish trio around our age. We chatted it up with Patrick, who talked about growing up around Dingle, getting scorned by his mother for speaking Irish instead of English, and about the evolution of Ireland as a whole. Sadly, he's convinced that the Irish language will be gone and forgotten within the next 50 years. The government seems to agree with Patrick, which is likely why they've designated Dingle as a Gaeltacht. They've subsidized Gaelic-only schools in the region, and pushed to have local road signs displayed in Irish (with subtitles for us tourists). They've also encouraged communities to adopt their Irish names. Dingle (or An Daingean) is the exception, however, because it's name is so well established.

The town itself felt more authentic than others we've visited so far, partly because it is a functional fishing and farming village even when there aren't throngs of tourists around to watch them work. It was a treat for us, as pre-season tourists, to see the town generally as it is in the sleepy offseason.

We headed up to Galway yesterday. Along the way, we visited the Cliffs of Moher and wound our way through the rocky and barren Burren. The cliffs, while beautiful, were host a small swarm of tourists. Though not nearly as many as I would imagine on a summer's day, their presense was somewhat jarring, as we were a little better acclimated to quieter environs populated generally with locals. Now that we're in Galway, however, we'd better get used to it. Though only numbering about 65,000 or so, it's a great deal larger than the tiny towns we've gotten used to so far.

We're staying right on Eyre Square in the city's center, so I'm sure we'll adapt back to city life fairly quickly, with a war story or two to share with you soon.

Another footnote: Unfortunately, sharing some of our photos with you is proving to be a bit more difficult than I expected, so you're still stuck with my attempts to describe our travels. Please be patient. It will be rewarded. ;)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Kilkenny, Kensale and a bit of Kenmare

After landing in Dublin and walking across the tarmac to the terminal in light snow, we made our way to the car hire via shuttle. After a very friendly exchange with a very helpful Hertz employee, we got ready to jump into our VW Golf. The car was, aside from various beds and breakfasts, going to be our home for the next two weeks. Promptly, I opened the passenger side door to get ready to start our journey only to find that the steering wheel had been moved. After nearly exiting the parking lot using the wrong lane, we left the airport and headed south on the M50 towards Kilkenny.

As I acclimated to life on the other side of the road, Beth played the role of our navigator, directing us from country road to turnabout to country road as I threaded the needle over one-lane bridges and hung my tires off the edge of the asphalt on many an occasion. I'm much better adapted to it now, and feel a fair bit more confident after our initial trek to Kilkenny, where we were involved in two near-misses due to my tendency to look left rather than right when turning. I even earned a stern finger wag from an elderly local driver after I failed to give her the patch of road she was entitled to.

The weather has been cooler than we expected it would be. Along one stops along our way to Kilkenny, we witnessed a sunny day give way to a hail/snow storm, then back again. Twice. All in the course of about 30 minutes.

In Kilkenny, we settled in and headed out for dinner and a pint or two at Kyteler's Inn on Kieran Street in our attempts to stay up as late as possible to overcome our severe jet lag. As I drank the freshest pint of Guinness I have ever had in my entire life, I listened as a local talked down the local brew, explaining to me that the Irish Guinness would give me gas. He told me this while drinking a pint of Coors Light over ice (seriously, he emptied his bottle of Colorado Kool Aid into a pint glass full of ice). I like to think that I make an effort to understand and appreciate local trends and "customs," but this is something that I will probably never get.

After a night in Kilkenny, we meandered down to Kensale for two nights in the sleepy harbor town. There we discovered that Mondays and Tuesdays in the pubs are primarily reserved for the hardest of the hard-core patrons. We persevered, however, and were treated to an interesting glimpse of the local "culture" over a pint or three of our new favorite ales and ciders. For me, it's Smithwick's (or "smithicks") Ale. For Beth, it's a glass the Bulmers cider (known as Magners outside of Ireland so as not to be confused with British cider of the same name).

Given our experiences so far, the Irish have been most gracious and accommodating. Just about everyone has a nod or a quick "hello" for you as you pass them on the street. Even the initially cold will warm up with a little as a word or two, leading to a chat with a feeling of familiarity akin to one between old friends.

I've got to wrap this up as we'll be checking into our room in Kenmare shortly. From here we'll be heading up the western coast, stopping over for a few days in Dingle as we explore a good portion of County Kerry. Expect more in a few days!

Oh yeah, we've got some great pictures to share, but luck isn't with us at the moment. Expect an update when we find a computer willing to talk with my camera.

On Lenahan

Irish ears tend to perk up when they hear our last name. Our tour guide in Kensale called it a "fine Irish surname," and the proprietor of our B&B there mentioned that she knew of a few Lenihans in and around County Cork. According to her, our spelling of the name is uncommon, and that it's far more common to see it spelled "Lenihan" or "Lenehan." The differentiations, she said, are likely due to the aglicization of the Gaelic spelling, which can vary. She also mentioned that Irish names are sometimes changed by officials as Irish immigrants pass through Ellis Isle.

Here's the entry for Lenehan in an Irish surname book she had handy:
"Lenehan is the algicised version of the Irish O'Leannachain, possibly from leannach, meaning 'sorrowful.' It appears to have arisen separately in two localities, in Co. Roscommon in the west, and in the south in the Limerick/Tipperary region. Bearers of the surname are found in both areas today, but it is most common in the south. The most prominent contemporaries of the name are Brian Lenihan (b. 1924) and his younger sister Mrs. Mary O'Rourke, of the Roscommon family, who both served in a variety of ministerial positions in the Irish government from the 1970s to the 1990s."
So there you have it.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

And we're off...

And so another trip begins. The bags are packed, the itinerary is once again printed and bound (no joke!), and the check is in the mail (April 15th cometh whether we're here for it or not). It's time once again to downshift and reset our clocks. Luckily, that task will be a little easier this time as we scored a direct flight from LA to Dublin via Aer Lingus, so we'll have ten uninterrupted hours to adapt after taking a short hop up from San Diego.

I'm not sure what the connectivity situation will be for us on the other side of the pond, but I'm hoping to update our little 'log here every few days.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Paris, France

Saturday, July 22, 2006

One can barely scratch the surface of what Paris has to offer in merely three days. We were set to meet up with our friend Vicki upon arrival, which was a welcome change of pace. Not only were Beth and I glad to see a familiar face, but I was a fish out of water with the French language and some local help was a welcome relief. I had adapted fairly successfully to the Italian tongue having already known a decent amount of Spanish, but French was a shock. It is a beautiful language, however, and I'd like to pick up more before I return.

I digress.

Beth and I spent our days braving the heat and visiting some of the more famous sights in the sizeable city. We took in sweeping views at the Eiffel Tower, walked the Champs-Élysées, a got to see the famed Notre Dame. The Metro (subway) was a convenient and cheap way to get around, and was reasonably easy to navigate once we got the hang of it. We visited many of the sights at our own pace, knowing that we'd be back to see more someday.

Our evenings were spent with our gracious host Vicki, and a few or her friends. Philippe, Laura, Leah, Leslie, Margaret and Vicki joined us for a few nights on the town spent chatting up Brits, Scots, Spaniards, Brazilians and Canadians in a sampling of pubs, clubs and restaurants around town.

Paris is a beautiful and romantic city, and was an ideal way to end our trip abroad. I can definitely foresee ourselves spending more time there in the future. There's a lot going on there, and one could probably spend years exploring it. Until then, our thanks go out to Vicki and our new friends for sharing their fair city and making it a visit to remember.

À la prochaine, we bid you a fond adieu.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Two Tour de France Posts

Congratulations to fellow San Diegan Floyd Landis for winning the 2006 Tour de France! In case you missed them, here are links to the two Tour de France posts from the stage that we got to see:

Hollanders know how to party
Allez! Allez! Allez!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Allez! Allez! Allez!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 - Race Day

We awoke at 7:00 (AM) to the sounds of the PA on the L'Equippe van, advertising their newspaper and various other Tour souvenirs. After a night of tossing and turning on our 10 euro sleeping bags set on an 8% cement slope, this wasn't an ideal way to start our day. We begrudgingly got out of bed and were pleasantly surprised with the handiwork that had occurred the night before. Since we had left for "the Dutch corner" to party with the Hollanders the night before, we hadn't noticed that the entire road had been covered with acryllic paint T-Mobile logos, devil's pitchforks (for Didi), and various other cyclists' names with motivations in multiple languages.

We spent our day sleeping in what little shade we could find, playing cards, chatting up our neighbors, and watching the steady stream of tired riders make their way laboriously to the summit. I even had a Frenchmen offer me 20 Euro to drive him to the top. Unfortunately I had to refuse, as giving up our spot now could be disasterous, but offered some water as consolation. Disappointed, he pressed onward.

At around 15:30 (3:30 PM) the caravan began to pass through our section of the route. The caravon consists of outrageous "floats" (if you could call them that) throwing "prizes" to the crowd. Grown men turn into little boys as they push, shove, elbow and gouge other spectators, scrambing for their free candy samples, keychains, hats and magnets. The purpose of this caravan is to amp up the crowd as the race approaches (and to advertise, of course). I have to admit that it worked for me, as I was waving my arms like a kindergartner and getting into the scrum with the rest of them. Beth fared better than I in the "swag" department, catching a good bit of the goodies, all while covering the event with our camera.

The wait during the next hour was almost unbearable. We (my new Scottish friend and I) found an RV with a satellite TV hookup, and watched with race as the riders approached, judging their distance by the helicopters following the peloton.

Finally the riders began to arrive, and I watched the legends of cycling pedal by. The group was fairly tired from the nearly 180 grueling kilometers they had already traveled that day, and as a result began to spread out on the climb, allowing us a great view as they passed. I have to admit, though, that I had a hard time recognizing the faces that I had until now only seen on TV. I did spot George Hincapie, and was able to run alongside him for a short bit, encouraging him with "Allez! Allez! Allez!/Go! Go! Go!" He looked to me, but seemed a bit to tired to respond. Seeing as he had a lot of work still to do, I'll let it slide.

The caravan of riders and vehicles ended with a blue van labeled "Fin de Course." At that point, we packed up and worked our way slowly back to Grenoble. We had originally planned to camp another night, but it became apparent that we would be the only ones doing so, so we decided to try our luck in Grenoble. It wasn't easy, but we managed to find a place right by the train station.

Seeing Le Tour in person, and sharing the intensity with about one million people was an amazing experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. This was somewhat of a pilgrimmage for me, and I'm so happy to have been able to do this with Beth, and on our honeymoon no less!

Update: Added pictures!

Hollanders know how to party

Monday, July 17, 2006

After cleaning house at the Decathlon (a sporting goods store) in Grenoble, purchasing a tent, two sleeping bags and two tripod chairs for 50 euro, we arrived at l'Alpe d'Huez at what seemed like just the right time. We parked about halfway up the final climb, just above turn N° 7 and set up camp on the road. Shortly after, the entire road filled in with vehicles behind us. Beth and I met a French family that we had initially mistaken for Americans, who had been following the entire tour. They were big Discovery fans, as their car was bedecked in American flags and Discovery-clad stuffed animals. I found myself wishing that I had brought my bike as I watched countless riders of varying age and condition making their way around the switchbacks that I had memorized from watching the tour on TV. After a delicious meal of bread, cheese, salami, and pesto (from Cinque Terre), Beth and I headed up the road to check out the scene.

Hollanders know how to party. They set themselves up with a DJ booth and a bar next to the church at turn N° 9. The orange clad mob drank beers and danced in conga lines while singing along to cheesy techno remixes (a la The A-Team theme). It was gloriously campy, and ended up turning into a great way to pass the time as we waited for race day.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Cinque Terre, Italy

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Life slows down in Cinque Terre. The picturesque terra cotta buildings seem to be carved right into the hilly coastline in the small one or two road towns that make up the co-op known as Cinque Terre: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. There isn't much more to do here but hike, swim, and eat. All businesses are owned and operated by the locals (they prefer it that way), and the towns are connected to each other (and the outside world) by footpaths, rail and ferry boats that service each town's very small harbor. The hills surrounding the town are generally terraced, and are laden with vineyards used to create the local wine. Cinque Terre wine (or vino di Cinque Terre), as it is called, is a sweet semi-dry white table wine. It's easy to drink a bottle (or two) on a hot summer day before it loses its cool.

Beth and I spent our days in Cinque Terre hiking, relaxing, and letting the locals "show us Americans how to eat," which was fine by us. We met a number of Americans and Australians as they passed through, usually on their way from or to Rome, and enjoyed several hours of great wine, great conversation, and great pesto (it was born in Cinque Terre). All in all, it wasn't a bad way to spend a couple of days.

We're pressing onward to France, so it's now time to try to pick up yet another collection of phrases in an effort to, er, "blend in." Soon Beth and I will be waiting on the race course waiting hopefully for an American rider to be the first to round the final switchback at the top of L'Alpe d'Huez (Floyd Landis, perhaps?). Whether or not that happens won't really matter, though, as the experience we'll share with a million other spectators on the course will likely eclipse whatever the race result will be. I'm extremely excited to be a part of this spectacle, and I'm glad that I'll be able to share this with Beth. I don't know how I managed to talk her into doing this, and it's hard to believe that it is actually going to happen.

Update: Added pictures!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Florence, Siena and Tuscany

Friday, July 14, 2006

History buffs will probably have a field day in Florence and Siena. They'll probably have another pointing out the inaccuracies in this post. I'll do some fact checking when I get back, but until then, comment away!

Florence and Siena had a bitter rivalry dating back to the Middle Ages. There is a long history of war between the two cities. The last major defeat to Florence, coupled with the aftermath of the Black Plague was too much for Siena to recover. Whereas Florence flourished, Siena languished. Without the benefit of the many rich families to subsidize further development, Siena was left trapped in the Middle Ages.

Nowadays, Florence is a bustling, vibrant city filled with kamikaze moped drivers and high end shops. It is home to an enormous collection of paintings, sculpture and architecture. The Renaissance started here, thanks to Florence's many rich families and guilds who commissioned works from the greats: Donatello, Botticelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to name a few.

The architecture appeared to be a mish-mosh of medieval and Renaissance, with a sprinkling of Baroque. Renaissance influenced architecture seems to have won out though, as it appeared on most of the buildings we saw.

Our days in Florence were spent touring the city and its museums and churches, fitting in a two-hour lunch or dinner at a cafe when we could. Our vacillation between the two was a welcome way to break up our day and slow things down a bit. It also gave us a welcome respite from the oppressive heat (Florence is hot!)

Siena, on the other hand, is a sleepy hill-top medieval town. Its ancient brick buildings are almost all uniform in style and color, giving name to that famous "burnt" Crayon in your box of 64. Being on the top of a hill, we appreciated the breezes that made their way through the narrow, shady alleyways.

We saw most of the town in an afternoon, and began to wonder what else could be found there. Where was this bustling nightlife we'd heard about? There were no pubs to speak of, no clubs, and the famous Enoteca Italiana wine bar was bereft of patrons (save for us, of course). We headed for Piazza del Campo, the central town square, figuring that'd be as good a place as any to start. Surprisingly enough, the square was packed with people. Many were milling about aimlessly; others were sitting in the amphitheatre-like square as if waiting for a concert to start. There was no concert, of course, but many (people of all ages) had brought bottles of wine. It seems that you make your own nightlife in this sleepy tourist town. With no drinking age and no open container laws to speak of, it doesn't seem like a hard thing to do. Just add vino.

The next day, Beth and I took a trip to Tuscany to visit a couple wineries in the Chianti region. This country is absolutely beautiful. A Slovak we met mentioned that he'd wanted to visit this region since he got a book about Tuscany to see if the country was really as beautiful as the pictures in his book. He wasn't disappointed.

Siena was a nice transition from the frenzy that was Florence to Cinque Terre, a very sleepy collection of five towns along the Italian Riviera. After a couple more rail transfers (we're really starting to get the hang of this now) we'll be able to relax with a glass of the local vino in Vernazza. From what we hear, it should be a bit more temperate. If not, we could always take a dip in the Mediterranean!

Update: Added pictures!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Ah, Venice!

Sunday, July 9, 2006

So much has been said and written about Venice that actually being there is a somewhat unreal experience. There's so much to soak in, with ancient buildings rising from the water, gondoliers, market bazaar's, and pigeons. Thousands of pigeons. It's strange and fascinating how the canals have shaped the pedestrian city, where simply "crossing the street" is no longer a trivial matter.

Our night in Venezia was probably atypical of the average Venetian visitor. After dinner and after the throngs of tourists subsided, we sought out an Irish pub on per our waitress's recommendation. We followed the singing and chanting to a small Irish pub named, appropriately enough, Irish Pub. It was jam-packed as the World Cup final between Italy and France began. Beth and I managed to snag a choice spot at the end of the bar, in the back of the very hot and very muggy room.

The energy was electric as the sweat soaked inhabitants erupted in song and cheer for every crest and trough of the match, almost deafeningly so when Italy scored with a header to tie the game in the first half. Italy's ultimate victory closed out the most intense television spectating experience Beth and I have ever witnessed. In the following day, we have met quite a few very happy Italians quietly humming The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," which has seemed to become the unofficial theme song of the event.

After a thoroughly enjoyable train ride filled with Heinekens and great conversation with three Iranians on holiday, we're ready to see what Florence has in store for us. We're off to a guided day-tour tomorrow, which will be a welcome break from our self-guided meanderings through the cities we've visited to date.

La contattero!

Update: Added pictures!


Saturday, July 8, 2006

I had assumed that Austrian's would be supporting their neighbors to the north. I was very, very wrong.
It may have been wrong about that. After watching the Germany vs. Portugal match for third and fourth place at Augustiner Brewery, I believe that Germany has a sizeable and enthusiastic fanbase in Austria (or Salzberg, at least).

Augustiner is a great pub, by the way. We watched the match on a twelve foot wide screen at the far end of a large beer hall, sitting at one of three 75 foot tables aligned perpendicular to the screen, drinking the haus brau out of one-liter steins.

Das es goot.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Hills are Alive

Saturday, July 8, 2006

I really regret that Beth talked me into seeing "The Sound of Music" before we left for our trip. Now I can't get Julie Andrews out of my head whenever I look to the hills surrounding the city. "The Hills are Alive" indeed.

Salzberg is a quaint and proper city. The Old Town is made up of at least a dozen churches, connected by meandering streets chock full of high-end name-brand clothing shops for tourists with a few gems and attractions sprinkled in for good measure.

We've had some interesting experiences in this town. I'll probably flesh this post out later, but a list will have to do for now:

1. I burnt Beth's hair. Badly. I plugged her hair straightener into the wall without the voltage converter, which means that the iron had 230 volts pumping through it rather than the 110-120 volts it prefers. As a result, we figure that it was running at nearly 375° C (roughly 700° F) when she applied it to her hair. Smoke and the smell of burnt hair immediately ensued. Beth will survive, but with a slight iron mark on the top of her hair. She'll be parting it differently now, so you may not see it in the pictures.

2. Beth & I attended a dinner and concert in the Salzberg Fortress. Beth managed to sleep through half of the second set, so make sure to ask her what she thought of the show.

3. If you ever have a chance to order beef aspic, don't. The best I can surmise is that it's a fancy name for beef Jello. That's beef in neutral tasting gelatin. I'm not a picky eater, but I cringe as I recall the taste. Perhaps my palate just isn't sophisticated enough.

4. After the show, we headed down to Augustiner Brewery. Unfortunately, it was closed, but we met a delightfully drunken Austrian who filled us in on how excited he was that Italy beat the Germans in the World Cup. I had assumed that Austrian's would be supporting their neighbors to the north. I was very, very wrong.

We then headed out to an Irish pub down the street and enjoyed a Guinness or two as we watched an Austrian duo sing the first verse of the Pixie's "Where is My Mind?" three times in English before resorting to German. Soon after, there was a lot of commotion at the door. A number of police came in and ordered everyone out of the bar. That's nearly 300 people. The Polizei checked ID's and passports as we shuffled out the front door. As I got to the door, I found out that they were conducting a spontaneous "age control" check of the bar. Apparently, this is not very common here, so Salzberg TV was there to cover the event. As I got through the doorway, I was blinded by TV lights and had a large microphone stuck in my face. From what I could tell, the woman behind the mic was looking for comment. The best I could muster was "sprechen sie englisch?"

It seemed as good a sign as any that we should call it a night. Augustiner will have to wait for another day (which will hopefully be tomorrow).

Update: Added pictures!