Ireland

First off, let me extend a special thank-you to our friends Lauren and Jon, who joined us for our trip through Ireland. As always, it’s great to see friends from the US and travel with them through Europe. We had actually traveled to Mexico with them a few years back, so we were looking forward to another trip with them!


Ireland…I’ve always heard great things about it, but never really knew what was there. I have to say, I didn’t expect it to have such great scenery. Mountains, seaside cliffs, beaches, grasslands, unusual rock formations…quite a bit to see. We spent a week and drove across the country, spending most of our time on the west and southern coasts, hitting the towns of Galway, Dingle, Kinsale, and finally Dublin. Rather than describing all of this in detail, though, this time I’m going to go through a couple of stories and try to explain what I call "the Irish experience".


Driving on the Left
Not sure why, but I was kind of excited to drive on the left side of the road. I looked at it as a challenge that shouldn’t be too hard to overcome, but that I could still feel good about (unless I got into a wreck, of course). That being said, the first three minutes were not fun at all; cars were coming from all sorts of odd directions, stoplights weren’t in the right places, the blinkers activated the windshield wipers…it was a lot to keep track of. Of course, it settled down pretty quickly, and pretty soon I was driving as out of control as any other Irish driver. I will say that the hardest part was understanding where the left side of the car was in relation to the road, but after awhile I got the hang of it. It was kind of fun in the end, although the last leg ultimately ended up in bumper-to-bumper traffic, so I can go back to remembering why I’m glad I rarely have to drive anymore.


The feeding of the lamb
Ireland has lots of sheep. When I say "lots", what I really mean is "an insanely ridiculous amount". There was apparently a contest in Dublin to see if anyone could drive across the city without passing a pub; I would propose it’s even harder to drive across the countryside without passing a sheep (and yes, "sheep" is both the singular and plural form of the animal in question). However, we noticed that when we would actually approach a sheep on foot, they would run away in terror, much like I react when a European asks me about the US democratic nomination race. So it was to our surprise when we arrived at our B&B in Dingle, that one of the all-time cutest lambs was sitting there wagging his tail at us, bleeting for us to come play with him. Soph, of course, immediately fell in love with him, and was able to convince the innkeeper to let us feed it the next morning. That little lamb was crazy! It went nuts trying to get to the bottle of milk Soph had! See the video to the side…anyway, it was a pretty cool lamb, and was surprisingly soft (although I guess wool is soft, so not sure why I would expect otherwise).

Why biking sucks
Fact: Soph and I do not exercise. Fact: Soph and I are not good at riding bikes. Fact: We should have realized that a 30 mile bike ride on hilly terrain was not something we should have attempted.


The problem is, the bike rental place (which also functioned as a tool shop and a bar – all in the same room) said it could be easily done in three hours, with stops. Also, that a family with some children had rented bikes earlier that morning to do the same trail. Yeah – six hours later, Soph and I come huffing and puffing back to the shop, her leg all cramped, my hand covered in grease from when the bike chain fell off…it’s time we accept, and act upon, the fact that we should never again in our lives get on a bike. Never. That being said, it was a great bike ride, with magnificent views, treacherous turns, and you really couldn’t ask for a better day or place to do it.


Guinness drinking and Hurling
Everyone I’ve ever talked to about Ireland has said "you have to drink Guinness there – it’s so much better!!" Well, I’m here to tell you, it is – sort of. Depends what you like, really; I haven’t had it in the US in a long time, and therefore my comparison might be slightly off, but it seems in Ireland they serve it significantly colder, and it tastes (and goes down) almost like water. It seems to be missing that coffee-ish taste I remember it having. Personally, I was a fan, although it doesn’t light a candle to the Belgian or German beers I’ve had over here. Still – I wouldn’t oppose wearing a t-shirt with the Guinness label on it, which means something I guess.


As far as hurling goes, I’m not referring to what might also be known as "spewing chunks", although the Dublin bar scene was rather crazy. Rather, I’m talking about what might be the single greatest sport on the face of the earth. Yes American Football – you have some serious competition here! Hurling is what you get when you combine equal parts men’s field hockey, Aussie rules football, and beating people senseless with pieces of wood. They should probably call this sport "pure awesomeness", because that’s essentially what it is. Basically you have to hit, kick, throw, or even headbutt the ball into the opponents goal, or alternatively (and more easily) put it through the uprights for a less valuable point (similar to the concept of a field goal vs. a touchdown). The field is roughly the same size as a football field, maybe longer – who cares – and you can only run with the ball for about 3 steps before you have to either balance it on your stick or hit it / pass it / do something with it. Generally when passing, you swing full force; note that someone is usually within 2 feet of you as this happens. Anyway – it boggles my mind that people don’t routinely die from this sport, because they're swinging these wooden sticks inches from other people’s heads. One day this will spread past the shores of Ireland, and the world will be a better place.


The reason I bring this up is, on our final day, Soph needed a little nap, so I decided to start watching tv. I might have mentioned it on an earlier blog, but we don’t really have tv here, so whenever we travel, we inevitably turn on the hotel television (even though I have a strict "no tv while traveling" policy), and end up staring at it in awe for a few hours. As I was flipping through the stations, I found a hurling match in progress. Now, I first saw hurling about ten years ago probably, and have been trying in vain ever since to see it again, due to it’s aforementioned complete unadulturated sweetness. So you can imagine how excited I was to get the chance to see a game. It was the Ireland semi-finals, with Cinderella-story Clare county up against the experienced Galway. Surprisingly, Clare handily beat them, although it got pretty close in the second half for awhile. Great sport!


Blood sausage
One of the great things about traveling through Ireland is that you don’t have major hotel chains in all the cities. Instead, you have family-operated bed and breakfasts all over the place, which provide a personal and hospitable touch to your trip. The majority of them serve you just about anything you want for breakfast, and of course we would usually order the "Full Irish Breakfast". The FIB (as I like to call it) includes 2 eggs, 2 bacon, 2 sausage, a white sausage, and a blood sausage (and also all the toast, coffee, etc. you can eat). If you’ve never had blood sausage, you should try it – it’s literally made using blood, which gives it an odd consistency. I did not like it much at all, although Soph, who counts moldy fermented spiced cabbage as her favorite dish, was somewhat of a fan. I was more a fan of the butter – Irish butter is unbelievable. It’s hard to describe why it’s so much better, but let’s just say that we were rating the butter from one restaurant / B&B to the next. Yum!

Overall, the food in Ireland was spectacular. Granted, we were in the areas where seafood is a staple, and we went to quite a few seafood restaurants – but it was pretty ridiculous how good it was. I’ve found that seafood can be hit or miss a lot of the time, but literally every dish we had was top-notch.

Castles and forts
Ireland has a lot of castles. Soph likes castles. Therefore, we stopped at a lot of castles. I’m kind of tired of castles. Soph is not. Therefore, we will probably continue seeing castles for the foreseeable future.

Pubs and music
I’m not gonna lie to you…we went to a lot of pubs on this trip. Some were good, some were bad (actually all of them were good), and some of them were the types of places you could easily sit for days at a time. Unfortunately, outside of Ireland, it’s hard to find a good pub; sure, you can find good bars, but pubs are something that the Irish, and British I guess, just do better. Now, that’s not to say they don’t make mistakes. For instance, in Dublin it’s hard not to feel it was simply Irish bars modeled on what people think Irish bars look like. However, as you got farther into the countryside, you noticed differences. First of all, some of them are old – really old, in fact, and without the architectural nuances common to places that have been renovated in the past ten years (such as high ceilings). Secondly, they often had couches and partitions. I’m a big fan of having a cubbyhole or somewhere you can sit and kind of get away from the rest of the bar if necessary. Third, and most important, the true Irish pub just has a "homey" feeling to it, like you’re visiting somebody’s living room that they put a lot of work into. To this point, they tend not to be as crowded, and it’s common to have conversations with the bartenders and patrons, which we were able to do on a couple of occasions (Lauren even got invited to a local’s farm, but that’s another story).


Irish music is a similar story; I found it interesting that in many of the pubs, people were all turned towards the musicians and actually listening to the music; as such, Irish music tends not to function as background noise, but rather as the center of the bar. One pub we walked into was dead quiet with the exception of the musician, and of course everyone looked at us as we walked through the door (always fun). You’ll also see people just walk up and join the band for a song or two, although you then run the risk of having that one idiot who only plays the tambourine showing up and trying to join in…


All in all, this was another great trip. I can't do justice to how great the scenery is in Ireland, and how varied the landscapes are. My favorite part was probably the Burren, just because it’s so weird, although it’s hard to beat the mountains and beaches around Dingle (just don't eat their berries!)

Pictures Link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swissmrsandmr/sets/72157605255993660/

Next weekend: Caves ouverte!

Amsterdam!

The idea of Amsterdam conjures up significantly different images depending on who you’re speaking to. On the one hand, it’s known as a liberal, anything-goes party city where college kids flock for a couple days of debauchery. To others, it’s the tulip capital of the world, and its bike-friendly layout is an ideal place to relax. Even more, it’s known as an arts and cultural center, influencing many of the masters such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh. If you ask a Dutch person, you would probably get an answer along the lines of it being a cosmopolitan city built upon canals and offering a selection of just about anything you could ask for, or kind of a cross between Paris and Venice.

In truth, Amsterdam is one of the oldest major cities in Europe (depending on how you define "major", but just go with me here…) It’s a center of banking, consulting, engineering, and of course, cannabis-growing. As mentioned, the city is built upon canals, and it has an extremely good restaurant scene and night-life (by "extremely good", I mean "you can get a meal for under $20 and it doesn’t taste like it’s been microwaved"). As you can imagine, the city attracts both a creative and a naturalist crowd, which translates into a very cool vibe.

Our first day there, we decided we’d start with the tulip-thing, so we ventured outside the city to see the fields upon fields of, well, tulips. Which reminds me – what’s better than roses on your piano? Oh wait – my parents might be reading this…anyway - we went to the Keukenhoff Gardens, which is the single largest bulb-garden in the world. This place, if you have any interest whatsoever in flowers, is awesome. Millions upon millions of brightly-colored flora, most of which I don’t know enough about to name. We spent a few hours here, and it could have been more – but we had some serious walking left to do.

So, back in Amsterdam, we started looking for places to shop. When I say "we", I mean "Sophia and Wendy", because they’re girls, and shopping in foreign cities is one of those things girls apparently like to do. Yeah – Wendy decided to travel with us, and if living with a married couple didn’t scare her away from couple-hood, then traveling with us surely did! Anyway, Soph’s ankle wasn’t having anything to do with this shopping thing, so it proceeded to twist itself for no apparent reason. The bad part about this was that it was a pretty bad sprain (in Soph’s defense, she gutted out the next two days like a champ). The good news was that it got us out of shopping, and gave us an excuse to find a Belgian beer bar and get some drinks! Belgian beer rules, and there’s lots of it in Amsterdam – almost as much as there is in Belgium. So that was pretty much Friday, as the combination of getting up at pre-8:00 am and a foot injury allowed for us to not feel guilty for going home and to bed before midnight (although the excuse of "being in our thirties" should probably suffice).

Saturday we went to the Van Gogh museum, which still gets high marks on my "things that make a museum great" list. A handful of great paintings, it’s not too overwhelming, and you don’t have to waste your entire day there. I think we were done in about two hours, and I totally felt like I got to look at every painting rather than just rushing through. After that we took a walking tour of the old city, which was pretty sweet, as Amsterdam has a very underrated history. I personally feel you could write a great thesis on why capitalism is good or bad, based solely on the history of Amsterdam, but I’m not sure why you would want to do that. Anyway – Saturday night we stayed out a little later, but we still need to step our game up if we’re to continue pretending we can hang with the under-thirty crowd.

Sunday, we were sad we had to leave – at least Soph was, because there were cheap Chinese take-out places all over the city, and she can’t get that anywhere in Geneva! I think she had Chinese more times in the three days we were there, then she’s had in the nine months we’ve lived in Geneva combined. Chinese food aside, we were all surprised at how big Amsterdam is. The city is massive! You could walk for hours and hours and still not get to the other side. So we walked a bit more, went to the flower market, bought some tulips, then went shopping. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get out of that.

The thing with Amsterdam is that there’s simply so much to do there; you can take trains outside the city, visit windmills, go on bike tours, or, as we did, just walk around. For hours. So we might have to go back again. Maybe when the tulips start blooming next spring…

Next weekend: Grocery shopping in France!

Stuttgart, Germany

Ok, so we had some friends going to a German beer festival, and while we don’t want all our travels to revolve around beer festivals or wine tastings, it’s hard not to go to these things when the opportunity presents itself. That being said, we donned our half-fare cards, and took the Swiss rail system north into Stuttgart, Germany.

The thing about Germany is, it keeps surprising me; I’ve had this conversation with a couple of people, and we all agree that, while it doesn’t get the tourist destination-buzz of other European countries like France or Italy, Germany is a really cool place. The towns are ├╝ber-cute, people tend to be friendly, it’s extremely clean, and great for walking around. There aren’t a ton of "you-have-to-see-this" sorts of places, but it’s just…nice. Anyway, that sums up Stuttgart. There isn’t a hugely compelling reason to visit it, but it’s a nice city. I believe it’s known as the greenest city in Europe, evident in the fact that seemingly every block has a park, and the town is divided in a couple places by a forest (seriously, there are thousands of trees just growing randomly in large swathes of land throughout the city.) That’s pretty cool.

As this was only a weekend trip, we didn’t get to do the usual amount of sightseeing, and also it was more of a trip to hang out with friends and enjoy a giant festival. The Spring Festival, as it is known, draws a lot of people, and it’s kind of similar to Oktoberfest, the main difference being that Oktoberfest is bigger and is probably more family-oriented (I know that sounds weird, but it’s true). This was more of a carnival atmosphere, with lots of rides and food stands, and was basically a giant unpretentious party. That being said, we did go up in one of those gigantic towers where you can look across the rest of the city, and also walked around quite a bit.

Anyway, it was another good weekend, and it ends what might become our most intense period of weekend traveling in Europe. Almost looking forward to spending next weekend lounging around in Geneva…almost.

Next weekend: Partytime in Geneva!