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Kissing the Blarney Stone

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This is a wee bit long but what can I say – You can’t visit Ireland without kissing the Blarney Stone.

Visiting Ireland has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember; mostly a result of my Grandfather McGarvey’s love for our Irish heritage. My knowledge of Ireland was very limited and most came from books, movies and television so a little research was required.

One of the first things I realized was that to see all we wanted to see in a short time we would need to have a car. That meant driving on the opposite side of the road from what we are accustomed to and the idea was a wee bit scary. In our research we took some very good advice from Rick Steves and flew into Shannon rather than Dublin. Shannon is a much smaller city in County Clare and that allowed us to practice driving on the “wrong” side of the road without too much traffic. Those who know us well know that Karen always drives and I happily spend my time playing with the navigator or taking short naps. This trip proved a little different though and I was more comfortable with the concept so I became the official driver for the week. I think I did well for the most part with the main exceptions being late in the day when we came to a situation with traffic or a round-about and then it got a little stressful. But we survived and there was no damage to the car or any other living creatures so I have determined that it was a success.

After we got the whole business of driving out of the way we pointed the GPS in the direction of the Cliffs of Moher and began our great adventure on the Emerald Isle. I know Karen has already covered that in a previous post so I will skip to the second day when we went to the Aran Islands, specifically the largest of the three, Inish Mor.

I had found a blog about the Islands http://www.aranisland.info/wordpress/#.UYx6ykpYWSo  that offered package deals on Flight, B&B, and Dinner for only 89eu per person which seemed quite reasonable and allowed us to fly to the island in only 8 minutes. Having never flown in a small plane I’d have paid that simply for the ride and will say it was worth every euro.

Imagine a huge hunk of limestone sticking out of the cold water in the North Atlantic and you have the Island of Inish Mor as it was in the beginning of time. When you see the photo’s or visit today it is hard to imagine that this is a solid rock because it is covered in beauty; plants of all types, cattle and sheep grazing on the hillsides. For me this proves only what I have always known – The Irish are nothing if not determined. Who else but the Irish would be Stubborn enough to haul in turf and seaweed and make a beautiful place on a Rock in the middle of the ocean?

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The Aran Islands are one of the few remaining parts of Ireland that are purely Irish. Time seems to have passed over the islands in many ways and if you can ignore the other tourists you could easily imagine life in the past. This was fairly easy for us as we visited on a Monday and it wasn’t quite high season yet but our driver and tour guide John Flaherty told us that in the summer there will often be 1000 tourists a day.  There are about 700 residents on the island and all speak both English and Gaelic with the primary language being the Irish. All of the signs are in Irish and unless talking to tourists the spoken language is as well. For many years modern culture passed over this small group of islands and even today they have yet to be ruined by modernization. The homes today do have electricity and gas heat but those are fairly new developments and not so long ago the only source of heat was burning turf that had been brought in from the mainland.

The primary industry for many years was fishing but as with the rest of the world big business has taken over. Now the commercial ships come and take most of the catch for shipping to other parts of the world so today almost all of the residents make a living from the tourist industry. I could easily imagine that being a native here would lead to resentment toward outsiders who are slowly chipping away at what was once a very private way of life but I didn’t feel that in any of the folks we met. Instead the people are friendly and more than willing to share a bit of history and have a great appreciation for the many tourists who like us come to spend a night and experience the peaceful beauty of the islands.

Simply being a place to absorb the true Irish culture would not be enough to bring in the number of tourists needed to support the economy though and there the islanders are quite fortunate to have many historical monuments.

The largest and most popular is Dún Aonghasa or in English, Dun Aengus. Dún Aonghasa is often referred to as an Iron Age Fort but the earliest building actually occurred as early as 1100 BC. and the name refers to a God of Irish Mythology. The location provides for an excellent military defense but also could be perfect for ancient religious ceremonies. Legend has it that many a Druid gathered here performing ancient rites. It is also said that from the edge of the cliff many have traveled to the nevermore. Lying on my belly for a quick peek over the side, this was easy to imagine.

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Of Course, I was scared but don't tell Karen!

Of Course, I was scared but don’t tell Karen!

Other historical monuments include the smallest church in Europe, The Black Fort, and the Seven Churches. All of great interest and many with sad stories of the damage done to Ireland when Cromwell invaded and in his attempt to banish Catholicism merely succeeded in making the Irish stronger in their faith while destroying great and beautiful places.

Unfortunately, we only had a short time to visit so we did not get to explore everything as much as we would have liked but we did get to see a bit with excellent guides along the way. Karen has already posted some great pictures from here.

If we had more time I could easily imagine spending 3 or 4 days just riding a bicycle exploring the islands  soaking in the beauty and the culture. Instead though, we were off to the north with a long days drive through County Donegal and then across the border into Northern Ireland to see the Giant’s Causeway.

We will post more about those on another day but for now we are back in the Netherlands. Since it is a rare day off for me we will soon drive to Brugges to see the swans and take a boat trip on the lovely canals.

Ciao,

Kris

across the big pond

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And we are here. Our flight landed in Amsterdam Friday morning the 10th at 11am. Since we were tired from not sleeping all that well on the flight we decided to take a taxi to IJmuiden aan Zee (on the north sea) where we had booked a room at the trusty Holiday Inn. I think the driver charged us a bit too much but at that point all we wanted to do was get a good long nap. We walked around the “boardwalk” and found a cafe to get a snack (frites=french fires with mayonnaise) before we could check in at noon. I really believe we would have slept all the way till midnight if someone hadn’t accidentally rung our phone in the room at 6pm. Nevertheless, we got up and went for a walk on the beach, put our feet into the North Sea (chilly but not as cold as the Pacific) and went to dinner. Kris ordered a delicious pan-fried Dover Sole and I had a pasta dish with “gamba’s” or shrimp as we Americans call them. We enjoyed our meal with a local beer.

On Saturday morning we were up at 5:30am with no place to go since the locals don’t start moving until 7 or 8am. The hotel breakfast room opened at 7am finally and we enjoyed  traditional Dutch fare which included some American/ English breakfast items like scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage but the best part were the breads, various cheese’s and meats with the best yogurt I’ve ever tasted in my life. Kris even tried the yogurt with fruit jam and liked it. Amazing, huh? The little seaside town was perfect to get our bearings before we headed to Amsterdam on a local bus at 9:30am.

Arriving in Amsterdam approximately an hour and 1/2 later, we found ourselves at the bus depot without a clue on which way to go. We walked for quite a while with our big suitcase and backpack type bags marveling at the quaint old buildings trying to figure out where the canal street where our houseboat might be.

Finding ourselves back at the bus depot, we decided to get a taxi. By that time Kris had found the location of the houseboat on her trusty little gadget (Android) giving the taxi driver instructions on where to turn. A neighbor on the canal street was watching for us and waved us over to the houseboat. Melle, the owner had left a key hidden with a note on the houseboat’s door so we were able to get in and get oriented.

Making sure to carry proper ID and euros, we headed out to explore our neighborhood and get burner phones so we could make local calls while here in Europe. Most everyone speaks perfect English here making it easy to make purchases and get basic directions. I have to say that Amsterdam reminds me of a cross between New Orleans and New York City with all the people bustling around. The only difference is the amount of bicycles everyone rides. It is nuts and rather scary if you are not on the alert. Of course we rented bikes for ourselves Saturday afternoon so we’d have an easy mode of transportation. Not near as easy to maneuver as it looks but we made it back alive to the houseboat to meet our host that evening to get instructions and pay our rent.

There is lots more but right now it is almost 7:30am on Monday morning and I need breakfast. I will catch you up later with all of our adventures from Sunday. Our main destinations today are the Anne Frank House, the Dutch Fighter’s Resistance Museum, the Heineken Brewery tour, and much more.  We will put some pictures on the travel blog soon!

Till next time,

K & K

Anticipation…

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is almost killing us.

Today is the day we “leave on a jet plane” and we are rushing around like chickens with our heads cut off. Well, not quite. That was actually last night when we were packing everything into one smallish suitcase due to Europe’s Ryan Air weight and size requirements for when we hop their plane down to Italy after our visit in the upper area of Europe. I (Karen) have decided to go forego the traditional purse and have opted for a courier type bag that stores all of my essentials. Kris has an extremely lightweight backpack looking thing that can fold down into a pocket of clothing if needed. We also found on amazon little plastic see-through bags to carry basic stuff in while knock’n about. A few Euro coins, lip gloss, tissues, etc.- you know, STUFF. Maybe a piece of fruit for a light snack.

So anyway folks, we will be off soon. I will let you know we have arrived in the land of faraway when we have settled in on the houseboat in Amsterdam on Saturday.

Until then, Tot ziens!

k & k

P.S.: Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” song was in my head when I opened my eyes this morning so I thought it was an appropriate title for the trip. “Leaving on a jet plane” sung by Peter, Paul, and Mary is a song Kris and I have shared for many a year. We actually sung it to karaoke together a long time ago and yes, we are coming back home. It is just a great song and gets in your head sometimes like that one about a “backpack on your back.” Ok- I’ll stop while I’m ahead now. Ciao!