Friday, April 27, 2012

Ireland Trip 2012 Post 6

This was our last full day in Ireland before we spend tomorrow morning in some last-minute souvenir shopping and head off to London. SNG and I took the Connemara tour that the grandmothers took yesterday. We had the same tour guide, Joe, who usually works for Lally tours doing school runs and ferry shuttle. He told us that he had been getting his bearings as a proper tour guide, but I thought he was fantastic. He remembered our moms ("They were darling! Was your mum the little one? She's a lady who's full o' beans, that one. Very fit and energetic. I loved them both, the dears.") and had that classic self-deprecating humor that you can't help but like.
I took some notes along the way, so this post will be more disjointed than most because I'm pretty much putting those notes here for posterity.
We drove through mountains which I remembered, from some book I once read, that people used to have all sorts of odd theories about how the large granite rocks had moved and how the terrain became so bare. The strangest theory was that they had floated there in a huge flood, a la Noah and the Ark. Then someone realized that it was actually a (relatively recent) ice age that had caused about a mile-thick glacier to form there, and as the ice receded, it pushed along the landscape relocating boulders and scraping away the landscape leaving an environment suited only to growing peat. The peat has been forming there for about 12,000 years, at a rate of about a foot of thickness per millennium. 80% of the world's peat comes from Ireland as it happens, although Connemara peat is not as thick as the peat further inland.
As we drove along, a couple in a silver sedan kept showing up nearby, always on the wrong side of the road. The driver joked that they were either American or French (all the passengers on the tour were American or French). I just wondered how they could end up on the wrong side of the road so often. Had they not noticed the other cars?
Our first stop was at the Quiet Man Bridge, where I got some pictures for the Lands End saleslady at the mall in Cary, who once quoted about 1/3 of the film to me as I tried stuff on. She really loves that film. And there were the elderly couple in the silver sedan. American accents.
The next stop was at a pub in Leenane. We met a pair of older than dirt dirt farmers with 3 teeth between them who were curious about us and spoke unintelligably but were unmistakably flirting with all the women from the tour. We also met the older couple in the silver sedan. They were on vacation from Oregon, and were just the most adorable, sweet people ever. I told them that Joe was talking smack about them, and Joe was delighted to learn the expression "talking smack." The dirt farmers were definitely putting the moves on the old lady from Oregon. Her husband was a longboard surfer from SoCal in his younger days, which raised his status to totally cool in our estimation. Everyone on the tour decided they were a-OK, even if they didn't drive too well.
Next stop was at the fjord, where we saw blue mussel nets being anchored by cement-filled DeLoreans and a fairy tree (or wishing tree) grew along the bank. It was tied with scraps of children's clothes and tiny shoes, each a wish for a child's health.
We spent most of our time at Kylemore Abbey, which wasn't a lot to write home about except that it is set in such a gorgeous setting. We decided to hike instead of visit the abbey, and frolicked with adorable black-faced and black-legged hairy clouds of sheep before I got ankle-deep in the bog and we decided to stick to the roads after that.
We had such a good time. This vacation has been long, but I could stay in Galway another week and still find things to do. This group of traveling companions have been perfect, and I hope the kids made some good memories. The last night here, our neighbors to the left seem to be having a bachelor party and to the right a hen party (or an all-girl birthday party?). Bad techno music blasting through all the walls. I hope it won't get me down, because I have felt so good this entire trip that I'd hate to have it all ruined by rude neighbors.
Tomorrow we fly to London, and then Sunday we fly home. But I'm not done with you, Ireland. Not by a long shot.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ireland Trip 2012, Post 5

On Tuesday, Tuti and Granny took the bus to the ferry to the tour of Inishmoor (the larger of the Aran Islands), while SNG and I had the kids on one of the best wether days we've had on this trip. Actually, THE best weather day of the trip so far. I might not have said it, but we've had rain every single day and it's always high around 50, and usually windy. Tuesday was a high around 55 or 60, with mostly cloudy skies and no rain.
We had a Sincere Talk with the kids about riding in strollers for a long, long walk. Amazingly, they both complied perfectly and we walked to Salthill again. Jambuca was so excited about the possibility of petting a fish that he was willing to do anything. E-baby never complains about riding in a stroller, because she is old enough to appreciate a break from walking.
We arrived at the aquarium 15 minutes before opening time, and instead of the BIG FANCY PLAYGROUND next door, Jambuca wanted to stand by the door and wait for them to open the aquarium. We convinced them to look around the gift shop instead, but didn't buy anything. They are learning to be very good at delaying gratification. When they finally opened, the kids were the happiest in County Galway. The Atlantaquarium is the national aquarium of Ireland, and is almost entirely comprised of local fish. We saw trout, sea stars, rays, tiny sharks, skates, octopus, trout, salmon, etc. I pet a number of rays before e-baby touched one and Jambuca never quite got up the nerve. It was a terrific aquarium and I'd recommend it to others with kids.
Next we got some tiny souvenirs at the gift shop and played at the playground awhile. E-baby had a shadow most of the time - a girl about 18-20 months old who decided e-baby was the best girl ever. After playground it was lunch in Salthill at the Gourmet Tart Co. (yes, we ate real food!) and then the long walk back to Galway City. On the way back it was low tide, so we let the kids go down to the shore and walk "on the sea floor" to collect some shells. The high-low tide difference right now is about 4 meters, so you can walk a LONG way out during low tide.
The kids decompressed after our long trip on some Gaelic cartoons. It was weird to watch them watch the shows because it was exactly like watching them watch shows in English. I guess cartoons are mindless enough that it doesn't matter whether you can understand the words. SNG and I took turns walking around town a bit. When it was my turn to go, Jambuca insisted on coming with me. He was a very good boy and walked at his usual two speeds: 1) standstill posing as a superhero and 2) running like a superhero. He was on the hunt for Secret Passageways and found a few in the form of manhole covers, small metal panels on walls, and the trim moulding underneath a shop window display.
It was a wonderful day with the kids.
Wednesday was one of the worst weather days we have had so far on the trip. It was cold and super-windy with afternoon rain in the forecast. It was also our day to tour the Aran Islands, so we had the bus to the ferry to Inishmoor. We had planned on taking a minibus tour, but when we got there changed our minds and rented bikes. I know that sounds unwise, but it is definitely the best way to see the island. We tootled at our own pace and stopped anywhere we felt like it. I got some scary pictures hanging over the edge of the ring fort Dun Aengus. I could see two sea mammals in the water below that were either dolphins, porpoises, or whales. In some sections of our ride there were no people or houses visible at all, and we felt like the only people on Inishmoor. The last stop on our self-guided tour was the world's smallest church, on a hilltop in the strongest wind I have ever stood up in.
Riding crappy rented bikes in 60 mph wind and cold rain, seeing some of Ireland's oldest monastic sites... it was the best day ever.
Today we have the kids to ourselves while the moms are taking a day tour of Connemara. Most of the tour looks like a revisitation of places in the film The Quiet Man. I have tried to see this movie, but it is very hard to get hold of a copy without either buying it or paying for a months of Netflix mail order DVDs.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ireland Trip 2012, Post 4

Our final day in Dublin was the perfect end to that part of the trip. The kids played in Merrion Square, all six of us walked all over town, we bought some music and a few tchotchkes, and we had lunch at the Queen of Tarts. Lunch consisted of (for 4 grown ups and 2 kiddos):
2 slices of chocolate fudge layer cake
1 slice rhubarb crumble
2 pancakes (somewhere between a crepe and a crumpet) with strawberries and bananas
1 raspberry cheesecake tart
(all above with a dollop of freshly whipped thick cream)
1 cafe au lait
1 cappucino
1 hot chocolate
1 espresso
2 waters (poor kiddos)
The day before, e-baby and Granny visited Dublinia, which was (so far) one of the highlights of e-baby's trip. They skipped the Black Death part of the exhibit. Jambuca has been such a super-cuddly guy. He is in a mommy-love phase right now, which is, of course, heaven for me. Whenever SNG and I return from an outing, he says, "I missed oo, my mommy. I'm so glad oo came back!" He's hamming it up, though because he is perfectly happy having the complete attention of at least one grandmother at all times. Frankly, both the kids are going to be sorely disappointed when we go home and they are back to boring old mommy and daddy all the time.
The trip to Galway was certainly easy enough, with a bus to a train, and then a long wait in the station. On the bus to the station, Jambuca had an acrobatic flip off of the seat on the top of the double decker bus (we were inside, no risk of falling out!). The lady across the aisle caught him by the ankle in mid-cartwheel and held him so I could get him upright again. We were all shocked and worried until Jambuca came up and said "Woo! That was COOL!" heh. The train ride across Ireland was just beautiful. Prettiest scenery so far on the trip.
My first impression of Galway after two years and one big honking recession is that it has become grungier. There's more graffiti. There is an Occupy Galway shantytown in Eyre Square. Even the playground in Eyre square is in poor shape. I hoped there would still be some of the magical charm I fell in love with when we were here before.
We are staying in the same place we stayed last time (The Western apartments and hotel) and I still recommend it. But like everything else we've come across on this trip, there are so many things that aren't quite right. That is a separate blog post, though. We're on a different side of the building but our view, like the last time, is amazing. We share a balcomy with the unit next door that overlooks Galway Bay and across to the mountains of County Clare in the distance.
Today was a free day for SNG and me, with the grandmothers taking care of the kids. We walked through city center to the Claddagh to see old fishing boats and swans (you know the symbol of a crowned heart with two hands? Called a Claddagh, after the little (former) village across the River Corrib from Galway). Then we walked out the jogging paths along the waterfront to Salt Hill, about 2 miles away. We dampened our appetites at a tart shop (a big raspberry meringue for me, a chocolate almond croissant for SNG) before walking back to Galway, where we wandered in and out of nearly every single shop in the city center. Lunch at a pub (The Front Door) where the starter of seafood chowder and brown soda bread should have been lunch, but we made the mistake of also ordering main courses. Way too much food. I think tomorrow is a soup and salad day for me. Except for one more stop at the tart shop with the kids.
Tonight, a huge, bright rainbow stretched across the bay with a perfect view of the whole arc from our balcony. We got the kids out of bed for it. It lasted well over an hour, like our own private gallery of faerie art. There is still plenty of magic in this place after all.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Ireland Trip 2012, Post 3

So, the trip to Newgrange didn't work out quite as planned, but we did go eventually. On Wednesday, we got up early, left the kids with the grandmas, and walked across town to the bus station. When we got there, we learned that there is no day tour on Wednesdays. So we went back to the hotel and found everyone about to head out the door, and all 6 of us went on the hop on-hop off bus. It circles the city giving tour information and has 20+ stops at various places of interest. SNG and his mom hopped off at the Guinness brewery, and my mom, the kids and I hopped off at Phoenix park and the Dublin Zoo. It was windy and cold, but worth the visit to see the penguins and seals at feeding time.
The siberian tigers were right up at the near edge of the enclosure up against the thick glass window, and I was surprised how scared e-baby was of them. Jambuca thought they were wonderful and got nose-to-ear with one of them through the glass. Later, e-baby found some tiny black macaques that  were more her speed, and they were at least as interested in her as she was in them.
After the zoo, all 6 of us got back together and went back to the hotel. SNG and I went to dinnr at a local brewpub that has small craft beers from all over the world but no Guinness (on purpose). I didn't care for the food and the service was pretty poor, but it was a cool pub.
The original plan for Newgrange had been that SNG and I would go alone Wed, and the moms would go along on Thur. The revised plan was to combine and all 6 go on Thursday instead: the day tour runs on Thursdays. I wasn't excited about taking the kids on an all-day bus tour of an stone age archeological site, but you just roll with these things and hope for the best.
We got up early, and walked across town (2 littles in tow) only to find that the tour was cancelled. Not enough people. The ticket agent recommended we check at the tourist office, so we hoofed it over to the tourist office (2 littles in tow) and luckily, there was another private tour coach going to Newgrange in half and hour, picking up at the tourist office! Tickets in hand, we got on the bus. The guide, Mary Gibbons, has her own access to the arheological sites in County Meath apparently owing to her brother being "one of the foremost archeologists in Ireland." I would guess she has some strong history credentials as well; she knows everything that is Ireland's history. The only problem is that she talks nonstop and has a strict no-sound-while-I'm-talking policy. That's hard when Jambuca starts to softly hun to himself as his head rests in SNG's lap. She didn't like that at all. But she adored e-baby because e-baby stayed quiet. I wouldn't really recommend the tour for anyone with kids, though.
Newgrange and the Hill of Tara were the stops on the tour. Newgrange is a 5200 year old tomb/temple. That makes it older than the pyramids or Stonehenge, and it is in surprisingly good condition. The Hill of Tara has one of the loveliest green countrside views in Ireland, and we had clear weather. The only real downer was when e-baby went hunting for fairies under a tree and landed in a bed of stinging nettles. At least we know how to spot them now, but poor kid was in horrible pain.
Last night after we got home, Jambuca started feeling badly - bad belly, a little runny. At 2am, he woke up with explosive diarrhea, and then again at 2:30. At 3, he vomited all over his bed. Since we have no spare sheets and there is no one at reception until 8am, he spent the rest of the night sleeping on towels. Fortunately, there were no more disasters, but he has had diarrhea all day today.
This morning, SNG and I took a walk all around town and had lunch at The Farm. My mom took Jambuca to the playground until he had to get back and go to the bathroom. Granny took e-baby to Dublinia, the Viking museum. Now I'm spending the afternoon with the kids while the others have a walk. We only have one more full day in Dublin, and I've pretty much checked everything off my todo list, so it will probably be parks and playgrounds tomorrow, since I mostly want the kids to have some find memories before we go on to Galway Sunday.
In spite of the several setbacks, we are having such a wonderful time. This is a fantastic group of traveling companions. I am already thinking about the next vacation the six of us will be taking together...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ireland Trip 2012, Post 2

Our first 2 full days in Dublin have been cold, windy, and alternately rainy and sunny. Monday, SNG and I got to roam free while the grandmothers took the kids to a playground at St Stephen's Green.
In the morning, we did the historical walking tour. This is a tour that is led by historians from Trinity College, and gives you, in about 2 hours, the history of people in Ireland. I had done this tour 3 years ago, and it was easily the best tour I've ever been on, and the second time around was just as good. Different historian this time, and so the stories, perspectives, and analysis were different. Our tour guide, BTW, got his doctorate at Trinity, then was on faculty at Notre Dame (in Indiana), and decided he wanted to come back home so he's back in Dublin. I'm sure he'd prefer something more lucrative and stable than leading history tours, but it was to our benefit to have such a knowledgeable guide, and his thoughtful discussion of the factors leading to what we see in Ireland today was something you don't just find Googling Dublin.
After the tour, we visited the book of Kells (meh) and the Trinity College library Long Room. Oh. Wow. What a library. It is breathtaking.
Today, we had the kids while the grandmothers went on the history tour, etc. We took the kids to the playground again (they can never get too much of a good playground. I can. But, that's why we switch off days!), and Jambuca was tired and grumpy before lunchtime. We went to Bewley's for lunch, and I have to give the kids credit. They've been away from home for 5 days, been to 3 different cities in that time, endured a 5-hour time change, weird food that they don't like very much, and some pretty crazy travel/sleep arrangements. You'd never know it to look at them. I am so proud. They sometimes get a little noisy in restaurants, but I think they are doing better than I expected under the circumstances.
By afternoon, they were ready for some down time, so we came back to the apartment and they played with their toys, while SNG and I took turns either napping on the couch or going out to walk around town alone. Each of us visited Merrion Square gardens and the Oscar Wilde memorial. Merrion Square is prettier than St Stephen's Green, and less crowded. Their playground is kind of sad, though. For my own time, I'd prefer Merrion Square. With the kids, it's definitely Stephen's Green.
We've been cooking dinner in the apartment each night, and the kids get to watch the bedtime BBC show, on their Ceebebees channel, which is called "In the Night Garden." It is Just. Plain. Horrible. I can't begin to describe how inane this show is, people. But my kids are completely entranced. I do not get it. Apparently, I'm not meant to.
Tomorrow, SNG and I are heading out of Dublin for a bus ride to Newgrange, in the Bru Na Boine (Boyne valley). Newgrange is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is older than Stonehenge or the pyramid at Giza. I'll let you know how it goes!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ireland Trip 2012, Post 1

I haven't blogged much lately, but we are on vacation and this is the best time to keep up with blogging! Besides, this way, I'll have a record of the whole trip.
We left Raleigh Thursday the 12th on the nonstop flight from Raleigh to London. It was SNG, his mom (Granny), e-baby, Jambuca and me. My mom (Tuti) flew in separately from TX.
Just as we were boarding, we learned that Tuti's flight was delayed, and she might not make our 11:10 train in London. We are overflowing with resourcefulness, however, and figured we'd find each other somewhere in Great Britain within the next 3 days.
The flight over was uneventful, but sleepless. The cabin lights weren't dimmed until halfway through the flight, and by then, the kids were crazy with sleepiness. When the lights finally went down, so did the kiddos-- right on the floor in front of the seats. They got about 3 hours sleep each. Each of the adults slept less than an hour.
When we arrived in London, we made our way to Euston station via 2 underground trains. I picked up our tickets for the Holyhead train, but Tuti wasn't there yet. Her global phone was turned off. I couldn't figure out whether she hadn't landed yet, or whether the phone was just not working.
Since our tickets had all been reserved and purchased on the same itinerary, I had to get all of them, including my mom's. I left her ticket with the station agent, since she could use it on any train, and hoped she would know to ask about it.
We boarded the train (without my mom) and found our seats. The train pulled out of the station. And then, like some kind of Harry Potter style witch on a muggle train, my mom comes trundling down the aisle of our car loaded with her luggage. She had run into the station at 11:08, located the platform, smiled big at anyone official-looking, and jumped onto the train as it started to pull away. She didn't have a ticket, but worked her magic on the ticket taker as he passed through the train. He was so mystified by her charms that he even called ahead to the next station to be sure that the connecting train would let her on as well. My mom is a force of nature.
So, we were all on the train together, headed for the largest town in N. Wales.
We were flat-out exhausted: ate some pub food (Welsh breakfast for dinner!) and were asleep by 6pm. Slept until 7:30 the next morning. Ahhh.
We had one full day in Holyhead, Saturday. Holyhead is a quaint coastal town where everyone knows each other and they don't seem very crazy about tourists. Maybe they are aware of being a waypoint between London and Dublin, and know that mist people would rather be somewhere else. It was very cold and a little rainy, but we still had a good time. It would have been more fun with a rental car and warmer weather, but I found rural Wales to be a good place to recover from jet lag. Their kids are worse behaved than ours, which is really what you need to feel good about any situation. I learned that JRR Tolkein's made-up language for middle earth was actually Welsh. I also now understand why so many people have the mistaken belief that W is sometimes a vowel.
There was an all-night rave the second night near the B&B, which our B&B owner was at. He was pretty hungover in the morning, but the breakfast was... well, it was like all the other food we ate in Wales. I'll just say that I'm so glad to be in Ireland today where there are fresh fruits and vegetables everywhere.
This morning, we caught a ferry to Dublin, the Stena Explorer. We rode in steerage class but it was so much nicer than the first class cabin of most trains and airlines.
And now, we're in Dublin, at the Preimier Suites hotel at Stephens Hall, just off the corner of St Stephen's Green. It is heavenly here. Late lunch at an organic/vegetarian friendly restaurant called The Farm, and I just cooked up a soup of turnips, carrots, zucchini, celery, green beans, garlic and chicken for dinner. Best boring-old-grandma's chicken soup ever.