Monday, October 25, 2010

Blarney Castle, the Wicklow Mountains, Brussels and Bruges, Rome, and Galway! (sorry for this HUGE delay)

Weekend of Sept. 25/26: Blarney Castle and the Wicklow Day Tour

Saturday morning, Vanessa, Betheny and I caught the bus to go to Cork (it's over 4 hours, I'd recommend flying), where we transferred buses to go to Blarney, which is only a short distance away. Cork reminded me a lot of Dublin, inasmuch as it had the canal running through the center with the typical walk bridges across. The aim of this whole trip was to get to kiss the Blarney Stone, which is rumored to give the gift of eloquence. We walked to the castle from the little town of Blarney, which is about the cutest place ever. The castle is simply gorgeous! We had to make our way to the very top to kiss the stone, and there were 100 steps of narrow, steep, winding spiral stairs. There was a rope along the axis of the staircase to hold onto so you wouldn't fall, and the only light (besides the occasional lamps they had on the walls) came from skinny rectangular windows. There were several rooms off the staircase, but eventually we got to the top. The view was amazing! We could see the gardens and Blarney House, which is only open in the spring unfortunately. It was all so gorgeous, and I felt like I was in a fairy tale. We saw a bride getting pictures taken with the wedding party at the base of the castle! How neat would that be!? At the top of the castle, there was a line around the parapet in which people were eager to kiss the stone. You had to lay down on your back, and while the employee was holding your waist/legs, you leaned backwards (holding onto two iron bars) and reached your head out to give it a smooch. We also explored the Rock Close, which is a mystical place on the site of an ancient druidic settlement. There a trail leads you under groves of gnarled oak and yew trees to the Dolmen, Wishing Steps, Witch's Kitchen and other features. A board walk took us through the water garden past two waterfalls. It was all so pleasant and pretty.

Sunday, Betheny and I took a bus tour of Wicklow along the east coast of Ireland. We met some people who went to Trinity College in Dublin and got to hear their stories and how they liked Dublin. We left Dublin at 9am and our first stop was Wicklow's Glencree Valley on the way to our coffee stop at Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Center. I don't like coffee, so I had their hot chocolate. There have been several international meetings and prestigious people who have met there in the main building at the Center. We got to view spectacular scenery as we passed through famous film locations at the Sally Gap and Lough Tay high in the Wicklow Mountains. Some of the films (I wrote them down  so I wouldn't forget) included P.S. I Love You, Braveheart, Excalibur, Saving Private Ryan, Leap Year, Camelot, and Harry Potter! I really liked the tour because everything was explained as we drove around (by Terry, our tourgide, who also sang and played us some great Irish music on the bus), so we learned a lot more than we would have just exploring on our own, such as Ireland's "smallest village," and the "driest village." It's hard to imagine a place here without a pub where you can get a pint of Guinness. We learned that Glendalough (Glen-da-lock) is one of the most important sites of monastic ruins in Ireland. There was a cemetery, and nearly every stone had the Celtic Cross on it, which is a combination of two symbols, the cross and a circle. The cross represents a unity of Christianity and Paganism and was introduced by St. Patrick. The two lakes were really pretty, and the scenery along the walk to the lower and upper lakes was very peaceful. Close to here was where they'd built a castle for one of the Harry Potter films, but evidently they tore it down as soon as the filming was finished (according to Terry). One of our last stops was to the Meeting of the Waters in the Vale of Avoca, a pretty little spot made famous by Irish poet Thomas Moore. We stopped for lunch at a traditional Irish pub in the Avoca village, which is actually the location of the famous British tv series, Ballykissangel. From there, we headed back to Dublin and ended the day. It was well worth the cost of 22 euro.

October 1-4: Belgium

We (Vanessa, Betheny, Heather, Nancy, Jessica, and I) arrived at Brussels Charlerois South Airport Friday morning. We caught a taxi into the city along with another couple because it cost the same as the bus shuttle and we avoided waiting in a long line. We got into the city and were pretty surprised when we couldn't figure out exactly where to go, and no one seemed to speak any English! But we eventually got our bearings and found the place where we were supposed to check into our hostel. We started to explore the city, and quickly found that all the things we were told to try- chocolate, waffles, fries (or frites), and beer- were all they were made out to be! YUM! Betheny and I spotted a gentleman in a Purdue hat in one of the chocolate shops, and soon discovered he was Dr. Karl Brandt, who had been in academic administration as associate dean and director of academic programs for Purdue's School of Agriculture for 18 years. He returned to the Department of Biochemistry full time as a faculty member (before moving into admin, his interest was in biochemical research). He and his wife had been on a 16-day European vacation trip (cruising the Rhine and Moselle Rivers from Basel to Amsterdam, followed by 2.5 days in Brussels and Bruges). What a vacation! Upon returning to Indiana, he gave a talk to the Biochemistry Club and mentioned what a small world it is, to have seen us in Brussels, of all places in the world. What are the chances?! 

Our hostel was in a prime location- right next to the Grand Place! It was probably the most beautiful architecture and most magnificent buildings I've seen in any city ever. The style was very Gothic, but there were also styles from other time periods. I liked how in Brussels, they'd leave old stone castles and ruins as they were, and simply build their city around them. It gave a very historical sense to the area, and allowed your imagination to run wild with questions of what had happened there, and in whose footsteps were you walking. Such a neat feeling. 

There were several neat little shops, including a miniatures store that was basically a little girl's dream (or my 22-year old dream lol). It was filled with exquisite doll houses and every little tiny thing you could imagine a doll would ever need. I could have spent all day in there just looking at all the stuff. The little old lady who worked in there made it practically perfect. There were also a lot of shops with doilies and crocheted items, like tissue box covers, wall hangings, table runners, napkins, and parasols. They were all so gorgeous, but I know Grammy could do any of that. Sometimes I really wish certain people were with me to experience these things. But I take pictures so I can share with them what I experienced and how much more meaningful it would have been had they been there. I'm so grateful I had the sewing teacher I did. I hope my mom wants to teach my daughter(s) how to sew. It's a great way to connect with your grandmother, and such a relaxing enjoyable hobby. 

We stopped at a little square where there were numerous venders all selling their merchandise. I couldn't help but use my bargaining skills and make a few purchases...I'll leave out those details for sake of keeping some surprise in certain people's Christmas presents. It was really a neat place with lots to look at: jewelry, perfumes, hats, gloves, paintings and artwork, etc. Jessica even got a hair wrap! It only took like ten minutes. I was impressed. 

After we'd explored pretty much all Brussels had to offer, we decided that we'd take a train to Bruges on Sunday, since so many people had recommended going. It wasn't a disappointment! The train ride there let me see what I really wanted to see: the countryside. The cows were mostly Belgian Blues I think. The pictures I took of them aren't the best because the train was moving so fast, but their double-muscling definitely outdid our common American beef. I was impressed, if you couldn't tell! Bruges was such a small town, which right there had me from the start. We could walk across the whole town in like half an hour. There were a couple beautiful churches and parks. And there were horse-drawn carriages, swans, and cobblestone streets EVERYWHERE! I think there were more horses than cars. The main square was absolutely adorable. The architecture was very unique, and the buildings were so colorful! It reminded me of something from Alice and Wonderland, and also the Wizard of Oz. The latter, because there was this walkway through the center of the square through some gardens, and it wound its way through hills of green grass like the road to Emerald City. 

Oh, and how could I forget?! There were dogs everywhere! I took so many pictures of people's dogs. Everyone had their dog out and about, and there didn't seem to be any trend to a certain breed or size.
One of the highlights of our day in Bruges was the canal tour. We got to see the town from the boat, and got a little history lesson along the way. One of the hotels we passed was featured in the film "In Bruges," which is supposed to be a gangster/hitman-type film starring Colin Farrell. Seems kind of ironic when considering the calm, quaint nature of the town (from my point of view at least).

Belgium was a really neat first place to travel out of Ireland. A great place to call the third country I've ever been! :)

October 14-17: Rome and the Vatican

Betheny and I departed Dublin airport bright and early Thursday morning. Yes, I skipped class to leave, but that is the only time I've done this here, and the ticket was cheaper. I obviously wasn't too worried about it. I can go to class anytime, but how many times will I have the chance to go to Italy?! I mean, c'mon. One thing I was so surprised to see, and wish I'd taken a picture of, was the Alps (I assume that's what they were) on our flight there. I can't even describe how magnificent they were! They reached up through the clouds, and I could see the snow caps on the peaks. My camera was up in my bag in the overhead storage, and I didn't want to make everyone move so I could get it, but looking back I really wish I would have been selfish enough to do so. I couldn't stop thinking of how neat it would be for George to be able to see this. I have always loved the mountains, and Switzerland is one of the places I really wanted to go when I came over here, but coming into the winter is prime tourist (snow sports) season, so the tickets there are quite a bit more than I'm willing to spend. They stretched as far as I could see and, while everyone else was typically sleeping on the flight, I couldn't help just taking it all in. It was the neatest thing I've ever seen from the air. 
When we finally landed, I was very proud of our navigation skills. We're pretty much professionals at navigating airports by now, but when we get to a new country, with a different language, it helps to have a good map. If I've got one of those, I'm good to go. We took the bus from the airport to the city center. That's one disadvantage of flying cheap with Ryanair. The airports they use are almost always a good distance from the main city, so you have to spend some on transportation to the city. There was so much graffiti on all the buildings, as I quickly realized on the bus ride in. It really turned me off. I guess I'd just thought, you know, Rome...old...beautiful....pristine...perfect. But I was sadly disappointed in that respect. 
We found our hostel from the Metro station. Its location was a little ghetto, but once we got settled in it proved to be a nice home base. Rome is a huge city, and my feet have never hurt so much in my life. I'm not exaggerating at all. Literally everything from my knees down was in constant pain after that first day. We did so much walking. Our first stop was the Colosseum, then we attempted to go to the Borghese Museums, but found out that there were no available openings until that following Wednesday. I knew we had to book in advance, but had no idea how far in advance. So, if you're planning to go to Rome and want to go to the Borghese Museums, make sure you check on making reservations!! We looked up beforehand and purchased a Roma Pass once we got into the city. It cost 25 euro for students, and you get the admission to two sites free (the first two you visit), and then good discounts on all subsequent sites you visit in a 3-day period. Also, as part of the Pass, you get free unlimited public transportation, which is a great relief after having spent all day on your feet (even if it is just the metro, where you have to stand up anyway). At least you get to your destination in a fraction of the time. So, instead of the Borghese, one of the guys who worked at the hostel told us to go to the Capitoline Museum, which turns out to be the OLDEST museum in the world! I'm not really a museum person, but I thought it was pretty interesting. 

The hostel we stayed at had free pasta nights during the week, so that was one less meal we ended up having to pay for (yay!). 

Friday we mapped out our route and pretty much saw the entire city. There are so many cathedrals and churches that are gorgeous on the inside, but the outsides give no hint of it. It's kind of neat, because I was always so curious to go into the simplest of buildings just to see if there was a "treasure" on the inside. It kept everything interesting. Some of the big places we saw include the Quirinale (where the president of Italy lives), the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and the Spanish Steps, among others of course. I've still got my map with our route drawn out so if I ever go back I'll at least have that to help me remember what I've seen. We both threw a coin into the Trevi Fountain over our shoulder, and it's supposed to mean that you'll come back to Rome one day, so we'll see. We ate lunch at an Italian restaurant, and I had a true Italian pizza and wine. It was simply amazing. I already knew I loved Italian food, but this is nothing like the food from Olive Garden or Fazoli's I've had. It is sooooo good. Besides pizza, I tried gelato (lots of it), cannoli, cannelloni, and gnocchi. The cannelloni was by far my favorite! I just can't say enough about Italian food. Mmmmm.
There were several spots on our journey that had wonderful views of the city. Nancy and Heather flew in on Friday, and we met up with them that night to plan our Saturday at Vatican City. I was soo excited to actually get to see where the Pope lives, even though I wouldn't get to actually see him. I still felt very priveleged to get to visit the tiniest of countries. It was quite an experience. We had to go through security at St. Peter's Square. St. Peter's Basilica is the most magnificent cathedral ever. Even though I'm not the most religious Catholic out there, this was a very memorable and meaningful experience for me. I wish Grandma could have been there, but I got her a rosary from the gift shop at the cupola of the cathedral. That's another story. We decided to pay the 5 euro and climb the over 500 steps to the top of it! It was quite the workout, but the view from that height of the sunrise coming up over Rome was priceless. Once again, a breathtaking moment. Other places we saw were the Papal Tombs and the Vatican Museums (where I "illegally" took five pictures of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo). There were a lot of sculptures, paintings, murals, and tapestries. It was very impressive, and I took an excessive number of photos. That's why I've been so bad about keeping up on my blog. Uploading those takes a LONG time when you have over 500 and can only load 15 to facebook at a time (thanks to the ridiculously slow internet here). So bear with me. I'm going to try and update this weekly from here on out.

I unfortunately didn't see the Alps on the flight home, but I guess that's just reason to go there one day! :)

October 22nd: My 22nd Birthday!

I was surprised by my roommates, Jessica and Vanessa, with candles and a birthday card and Butler's Chocolates! What a nice gift! And then Betheny came over and brought all the fixings to make a delicious cake. I have the best friends! It was so nice of them and a really great birthday. That night us 4, along with Heather, Nancy, and Rachel (a girl in my animal physiology class from Kansas State) all went to Porterhouse Brewery in Dublin. The special was two for one daiquiris! My FAVORITE! We had a delicious meal and plenty of drinks. I had such a great time! :)

October 23/24: Galway

This is Steve Earle singing "Galway Girl." If you've not heard it, you should really listen to it. It's my favorite Irish song :)

Betheny, Rachel, and I took the train from Dublin to Galway Saturday morning bright and early. It was about a 3 hour ride. When we got there, we found a map in the tourist office and proceeded to our hostel. Galway is a very small town, which as I've said before, I really like. There's something about small towns that's much more inviting than the massive expanse and huge buildings of a city. As we were looking for the hostel we found this really cute little restaurant right by the bay. We thought we might come back for dinner. The hostel was located right in the middle of a lot of shops and pubs, so we had plenty to do. We dropped off our stuff and went to find the farmer's market that Heather, Nancy, and Jessica had recommended for the cinnamon donuts. We found it alright, and they were right; those were the best donuts I've ever had! There were a lot of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and salads, along with stands selling falafel and other foods. In addition to the normal things expected at a farmers market, there were local artists selling their paintings, jewelry, leather goods and warm wool clothing. We perused through several times to make sure we saw everything. Rachel got a little silver ring and a falafel, and Betheny got some leather keychains. I brought my lunch with me, and after the donuts I was pretty satisfied.

We walked around the whole town that day, and saw  Lynch's Castle, the town hall theater, court house, Cathedral, a river walk, the Spanish Arch, museum, park, and St. Nicholas Cathedral, which is actually where Christopher Columbus stopped to pray before he set sail to the new world. That night we ate at a restaurant promoted by the hostel. We got vouchers for a free drink with meal purchase, and this ended up being cheaper than the cute restaurant we discovered upon our arrival. Rachel and I split a burger and salad, and Betheny got pasta. We were actually both craving a hamburger all day, from the point we got to the train station in Dublin, where there was a fast food place (even though it was 6:30 am!). The burger we had really hit the spot! And I had a pint of Guinness as my free drink, of course :)

Sunday we went on a tour of the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren. We ate the breakfast that was provided at the hostel (toast and jam, coffee, juice) and then checked out. We departed at 10am from the bus station across from the tourist office, and left with a full bus. One of the places we saw was the Aillwee Caves, where we had a 35-minute guided tour in a cave basically in the middle of a mountain. This was probably my second-favorite stop of the day, second only to the cliffs of course. (The last cave I remember being in was in Flatrock when we were little. I've wanted to go to the Mammoth Caves but haven't gotten to yet.) There was a waterfall in this one, and I can't describe the feeling of being in complete darkness in the cave. There were places where they found bear bones from where the bears had hibernated during the winter months. It was really neat! Continuing on our journey, we saw the Burren Paradise, a remarkable bare limestone area with its many combinations of unusual factors such as its unique geology, flora and fauna. Other places include Lisdoonvarna (renowned for the Matchmaking Festival that takes place every September), Doolin, Blackhead, and the Cliffs of Moher. I felt very rushed at the cliffs, as we were only given an hour before we had to be back on the bus. We made the most of our time, and raced up to the top to get as many pictures as we could. There was a small castle on the cliffs called O'Brien's Tower, which I paid 2 euro to go to the top, where I shimmied up and stood on a square platform and had an amazing 360-degree view of the coast of Connemara to the north across Galway Bay and the Clare coastline to Loop Head and beyond in the south to the Kerry Mountains. I took a video if anyone is interested (once again, see facebook). I looked out across the Atlantic Ocean and thought to myself, home is just across there! It was sort of a bittersweet moment for me. It was quite literally the closest I'll be to home until December! I felt so small next to the ocean and the cliffs. It's just indescribable beauty. I read a sign in the tower that said the Cliffs of Moher was an official finalist in the 7 new wonders of nature, and for good reason! The Cliffs of Moher is Ireland's most visited natural attraction with a magical vista that captures the hearts of up to one million visitors each year. The Cliffs rise to 700 ft at the highest point and range for 5 miles over the Atlantic Ocean on the western seaboard of Co. Clare. I must say the weather was definitely in our favor, and the tour guide said it was one of the best days he's seen the entire time he's been giving tours, like 6 years or so. The visibility was amazing, as we were able to see across the Galway Bay that morning to the town from Blackhead and other places along the coast.  We saw cows, sheep, geese, alpacas, and donkeys in the rocky landscape as we drove along. It was such beautiful scenery. There were places where the cows were grazing that had more rocks than grass. They seemed very out of place, but I guess it works. I really liked how some of the rocks and boulders were covered in this green moss. It was a nice change from the normal flat pastures I've seen in the countryside of Ireland and elsewhere. The area immediately north of O'Brien's Tower below Aill Na Searrach (Cliff of the Foals) has become a world famous surf spot with the famous Aileen's wave drawing world class surfers. In certain conditions the wave can reach 60 ft and has been compared to giant waves such as "Jaws" in Maui, Hawaii. Aileen's wave has been featured in the movies Sea Fever and Wave Riders. 
We finished the tour by stopping at Dunguaire Castle, which was absolutely stunning in the light of the setting sun. We could see its reflection off the water and there were some swans and ducks floating around. It was a nice end to our adventurous day.