Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Spiders of Heidelberg (Speidelberg?)

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Heidelberg was really beautiful today! The weather was perfect and it was just a little bit misty, so that the nearest hill was green, the one behind it was a faded green, and beyond that it started to turn into shades of blue. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera to capture it, but it would have done a poor job anyway. You have to see it in person to believe it!

Last night we had a little incident with something a bit less beautiful, though. Well, at least, in the context in which we met it.

I got up to use the toilet around 2am, cell-phone-as-flashlight in hand. When I came back to bed, by the light of the phone and without my glasses, I saw a big fuzzy dark spot in the corner, a mere foot or so from my pillow. (One of the most sacred spots in the house, of course, is one's pillow!) I was confused. I don't remember the wallpaper there being peeled away. Maybe it's a dust bunny. Jeez, that's an awfully dark dust bunny, though. Could it be a spider? Man, I don't think so. It's just too big. We get lots of spiders here, but they're the run-of-the-mill small-bodied long-legged guys.

Curiosity got the best of me and I grabbed my glasses, which were sitting on the floor mere inches from the large mysterious fuzzy dark blob, and put them on. I shone the cell phone in the direction of the blob.

Holy mother of Edison. It was the biggest freaking spider I have ever seen indoors. It was HUGE.

I used my amazing mystical creepy-crawlie-fleeing abilities to vacate the bedroom in less than 0.2 seconds, leaving Damon behind to just keep repeating, "What is it? What is it?"

I know Damon hates spiders. "Don't look! Don't look!" I was already thinking about sleeping on the couch. "IT'S NOT A NORMAL SPIDER!!!"

He slowly put on his glasses and crawled over and saw it. He recognized it right away because he saw one a few weeks ago in the bike room. And these guys came up at work too. His coworker apparently has a lot of them. And found one on his pillow one day. NOO!! The sacred pillow!!

We should have had the clarity of mind to photograph it so we could find out more about it, but at that hour of the day it was purely an automatic reaction. Ridiculously large spider in bedroom: DESTROY. So, there is no photo and Damon promptly got rid of it with the broom. Then I couldn't sleep very well because it was hot but I didn't want to come out from under the covers. 'Cause you know, spiders can't come get you under the covers. Then in the morning I thought a dust bunny was another one. All day, I've been walking around with one eye checking the corners of the room. I like those little normal spiders even more now. If they're occupying a corner, that means one of the big mofos isn't!!

I actually don't really mind spiders if they're the normal kind, but this was not the normal kind. And I find them downright cool if they're outside, building nice webs in the trees. But in a dark corner of the bedroom, next to your pillow, at 2am, by the bluish light of the cell phone display? NOT OK.
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Monday, August 25, 2008

Ireland, Part IX: Packing Tips and General Observations

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Packing Tips

If you are going to Ireland, here are some packing tips:

  • Layers. If and when the sun comes out it really warms up! You’ll want to be able to peel things off to a t-shirt level. And then it gets a lot cooler when it rains.
  • Raincoat! This is probably obvious, but make sure it’s a good one. What you see me wearing in photos wasn’t really good enough – with a good drenching, my wallet in my pocket got wet and my clothes underneath were slightly damp.
  • Rain pants! We really kicked ourselves for not having these when we were out for like 2 hours hiking in pouring rain. If you’re going to be inside most of the time it’s probably not a big deal, though. At the very least, don’t go hiking in the rain in jeans, they get heavy.
  • Contacts, if you wear both those and glasses. Glasses are a pain in the rain!
  • Good shoes. And by this, I basically mean hiking boots. Damon had more sneaker-like shoes and it wasn’t long before rain got into those, and they never managed to completely dry out after that. I had hiking boots which did start to get wet inside after really long stints in the rain, but not very wet, and they dried out quickly. There’s mud and water everywhere, so even just getting around town you don’t want to be in your nice, pretty shoes.

Irish English
We tried to not get too excited in advance about all the English-speaking fun we were going to have in Ireland, expecting that everyone would be so hard to understand that we wouldn’t get the full enjoyment out of speaking to strangers in our native language. Not so! Everywhere we went, the Irish were surprisingly easy to understand on the radio and in person, with only a few exceptions. They are much easier to understand than the people in London were! Perhaps Irish immigrants had a large influence on what is now the American accent? Having heard enough of it now, it’s probably the closest other accent I’ve heard to American, of course not accounting for all the variants in the accents of both countries.

It was so nice to be without the language barrier. We saw Italians, French, and Spanish struggling at the B&Bs to communicate with the hosts. The hosts spent more time on us because we were easier to talk to. One even commented to us that she was having a “language problem” with the Italians. Sarah at the sweater shop said she liked German tourists better than other continentals because they could speak great English. Now we see what people are probably saying about us as we travel around in countries which aren’t English-speaking, and see that maybe we aren’t getting treated as well as we could if we spoke the native languages of the places we go. I guess this works out for/against everyone as they move through the world – in some places one is favored for his language, and in others he is not.

Ireland for Americans
It’s easy to see why Americans love to visit Ireland. It isn’t just that so many of them have Irish ancestry (even more of them have German ancestry!), but Ireland’s culture feels very familiar, as an American. They are friendly in a way similar to Americans – not cold like northern Europeans, and not friendly in an overbearing/too-personal way like southern Europeans can be. Even the least nice Irish we met were at least as nice as your average German. Also, Ireland is very rural and not too crowded, much like Americans like their suburbs, their favorite places to live, to be. I’m sure there are many other reasons as well, such as a weaker undercurrent of anti-Americanism than other European countries, and of course the American tendency to romanticize all things Irish.

Cheap Eating
Sandwiches seem to be the way to go if you want cheap food in Ireland. They tend to cost half or less than half what the other menu items cost, and don’t come with any extras. However, you won’t get a better deal on a cold, pre-made sandwich from the grocery store. They cost just as much as the toasted ones you can get at a restaurant. You can order whatever fillings you want and they’re often priced by number of fillings. If you ask for a chicken sandwich, that’s what you’ll get – a sandwich with nothing on it but chicken! (Reminds me of my hometown restaurant’s “All Beef Burrito” – it really is all beef!) Getting tap water is super-easy – if you just ask for water, tap is assumed. And they don’t give you a dirty look for it.

And speaking of food, the short eating hours can be pretty rough! Breakfast at the B&Bs where we stayed started at either 8:00 or 8:30 and generally lasted around an hour. I love to sleep in as much as the next guy, but when you’re on vacation and itching to get started on your awesome itinerary for the day, it ends up being kind of a late start. On top of that, some places that serve food stop serving it as early as 7pm! You’re burning daylight if you eat before then! Plus we usually had an overall late eating schedule because of the late breakfast. So we always felt like we were burning daylight on both ends of the day!

Bathrooms
One thing I was eager to get back to at home was our mixed sink tap. Nearly all the sink taps we encountered in Ireland were of the non-mixed variety: one tap for hot water, and one tap for cold. And the hot is HOT. Ouch!

Public bathrooms tended to be mostly okay and they were free. Not really as nice as the paid German ones, but probably better than your average American public restroom. I always had trouble with the flush mechanisms, though! They have to be pushed really fast and then let go really fast, or they won't work.

Marys!
This is probably not something that most people would think about, but since I’ve developed a habit of photographing them, I did: the Mary statues in Ireland were very different than in Germany. In Germany Mary is nearly always portrayed either holding baby Jesus or stepping on a snake, or both. In Ireland, I never saw her with a baby or a snake, she was always alone, either with her arms outstretched, or praying. I wonder why there is this particular difference? I think we have a mix of Marys in the US (although I didn’t pay as much attention to them back before I was taking pictures all the time), but the ones you find in front yards are usually more similar to the Irish variety.

Irish Radio
Irish radio wasn’t too hot. There was a surprising amount of talk radio going on! At any given time more than half of the stations were talking rather than playing music. Those who did play music did not play a very big variety. I guess this is probably normal for radio, and I’m just out of the loop because I don’t have a radio at home. There were 5 songs which became known to us as The Five Songs because they were played over and over:

* Madonna, “Give It to Me” – this was easily played twice as much as the other 4 combined. It was on all the time!

* Coldplay, “Viva la Vida”

* The Blizzards, “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” - I didn't look forward to hearing any of The Five Songs, but this was probably the best of them, with Madonna coming in second.

* Kanye and somebody, “American Boy” – this is the only one I’d actually heard previously, on German MTV while Damon was flipping channels

* Something about taking off your clothes. I realize that in the current pop music atmosphere this does not narrow the field very much.

We also kept ending up back at a station that was obsessing about something called a “Naked Bus” that they were doing. The Naked Bus was mentioned several times per hour. There is also an Irish-language station which was mostly talk.

Coming Back to Germany
I thought coming back to Germany would be really rough. The whole time, as the Irish were being friendly as all get-out, I thought about how the lack of that sort of easy interaction with strangers in Germany really sucks. It’s partly a language issue, but mostly just a cultural issue. Germans tend to not really be interested in strangers. After long stints in Germany I start to forget what I’m missing, and to be reminded just makes Germany seem like an awful place. But as I wrote at the end of my Dublin post, Germany is home now. When I got back, I was surprised to get a sort of cozy feeling from hearing all these cute little German words all around and even just from riding the Deutsche Bahn (who we’d just been complaining about on the plane because the newspaper said they’re raising prices). This is a good thing, as we will be staying at least until September 2009!

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Ireland, Part VIII: Dublin

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The next morning, we again had different options for breakfast. Though the bacon and eggs breakfast is only marginally healthier than the Irish breakfast, I went with that. Damon went with the full Irish again, but she brought him the wrong food. Haha, nothing went right for us there!

The reason we’d stayed near Kildare was because it’s quite close to Dublin without actually being in it, so we’d be in a good position to return our rental car before the morning deadline without paying Dublin prices to sleep. We did manage to get the car in on time, and the inspector didn’t notice the black scuff on the rear-view mirror caused by our little goof in Spiddal. As we were waiting in line to pay, Damon pulled out his wallet and realized he had something else in his pocket….the room key for our last B&B. Oops.

It was around 11:30 at this point at our flight wasn’t until 6pm, so we had a bit of time to go into Dublin and look around. We took an Airlink bus (10 EUR per person roundtrip) right into the heart of town near Trinity College. We looked around the campus. I felt a little funny about this because when we lived in Boston I always found it very weird that tourists would come onto the Harvard campus to gawk. Trinity is certainly prettier than your average German university, but I still think my alma mater has it beat. J We didn’t stop to see the Book of Kells as it was rather expensive and you only get to see a couple of pages. We did browse through the Book of Kells books in the gift shop there to see photos and scans of it, which were nice. The gift shop was a complete madhouse.

Dublin Aug 08

We had some agony trying to decide where to eat here in tourist central when I saw something in the guide book that caught my eye: DIM SUM. Yesssss…. (In Heidelberg we have only found it in the frozen section of the Asian shop, in a limited selection – it’s just not the same.) We went to the restaurant noted, Good World, and they handed us a very short menu with about 10 dishes on it and no dim sum. Noooo, we are there for dim sum and no other reason! We asked them if they had dim sum. They said yes. Then we had to ask if we could have the list. They then brought us a huge book-like menu with not only the entire selection of dim sum but many, many other dishes that were not listed on the menu they initially gave us. I don’t really understand it when restaurants have two different menus. Anyway, we ordered us some dim sum and it was great, not to mention pretty cheap, considering prices in the area. Afterward we stopped for beverages at a bar down the street with the goofy name of Shebeen Chic. When I googled it to link here, I found lots of Dubliner sites knocking it for being crappy and lame, but we had a really good experience there. They were very friendly and when I ordered just tap water, they offered to put some mint in it (yum). The bartender was from Paris originally and found Dublin to be just a giant village, too small for her. Of course, having just found dim sum and coming from little 130,000-person Heidelberg, we had the opposite feeling!

We walked through the garish, themey Temple Bar area and then down a main street toward an Airlink stop to get back to the airport. On the way, we stopped at a huge, beautiful post office to send the B&B key back to the B&B. Thankfully Irish addresses are really easy to remember because there aren’t any codes to remember, so we could address it from the top of my head and send it off. The padded envelope was only like 60 cents and postage was less than a Euro!!! Eat your heart out, freaking Deutsche Post. I haven’t found a country yet where postage costs more than it does here in Germany.

We made it back to the airport and had a nice, uneventful flight back to Germany. As if he knew I was fretting about going back to a less friendly place than Ireland, the German guy in the seat next to me was really nice, helping me get our bags down after the flight and being generally more polite than I would have expected. Thanks, German guy! Germany isn’t so bad after all. After all, it has cool words like Richtung (the direction of) and Tschuessi. And, it’s home now.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ireland, Part VII: Cashel, Kilkenny, and Kildare

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We discovered that it wasn’t out of line to visit the major tourist site of Cashel and the town of Kilkenny, which just sounded cool, on our way to our next B&B in Kildare, so we decided on visiting these two places.

The Rock of Cashel is a hill in the town of Cashel which is topped with the ruins of a cathedral and chapel, as well as some other ruins and a graveyard. It was inundated with tourists in very small spaces, but really worth seeing, particulary the chapel, named for King Cormac. It has a lot of interesting details which are completely different from what we’ve seen in other places. There are also nice views from the hill over the surrounding countryside, including the ruins of Hore Abbey, which lies in a field below the hill. We walked down a muddy path to the abbey, where there are nice views back up to the ruins on the hill, and lots of cool snails on the rocks!! (Actual snails, not carvings.)

Cashel, Kilkenny, & Kildare Aug 08

We were hankering for lunch afterwards, but worried about the prices in touristy Cashel, so we continued down the road and ended up in a total greasy spoon place in a town called Littleton. It was nice and cheap – we had lunch and tea for less than 10 EUR – and busy with all kinds of customers. One interesting character was a man in probably his 60s with a big heart/ribbon tattoo on his arm in memory of Joe, Mum, and Dad. He slowly made his way through a giant pile of meat and potatoes, occasionally chatting with waitresses.

Next we stopped in Kilkenny, as we just remembered it sounding cool from some reading somewhere. Actually, one of the coolest things was a particular Abbey which we thought was near Kilkenny, but which is actually pretty far south of there. We didn’t make it down there. Kilkenny didn’t feel as friendly as the places we’d been before. Despite a population of only 9,000, it actually felt somewhat cosmopolitan, somehow - maybe just based on the feeling and attitude in the streets. A German town of 9,000 wouldn’t have a thing in it, but Kilkenny was a very busy place! It also was a bit stinky, thanks to a Diageo brewery right in the heart of town. The traffic was terrible, but we found a parking garage and got rid of the car so we could really get around.

We stopped by St. Canice’s Cathedral, only to discover there was an entry fee of 4 EUR. We weren’t sure whether to go in, but since we hadn’t seen many cathedrals on this trip, we decided to go for it. It was very nice – see the photos – but in the end, maybe should have been a bit cheaper. There isn’t anything special enough to warrant 4 EUR, when you consider that most churches are free to visit! We made sure to get a lot of photos to get our money’s worth, though. J After the cathedral, we wandered around town a bit, then headed off to Kildare to find our next B&B.

I was really proud that we found our rural B&B with only a map and road signs, not needing the more roundabout directions provided online and not needing to call in for help. But when we arrived, the proprietor really blew us off and I thought maybe we’d broken some big rule of B&B etiquette by not calling before showing up. We hadn’t called at the first one and it wasn’t a problem, and we only called the 2nd and 3rd ones because we couldn’t find them. When we made the reservation we had to specify arrival time, so that was done. In any case, we had much warmer welcomes everywhere else we’d gone. I really don’t know anything about B&B etiquette but I guess I’d better look into it. For the course of our short stay there, she was without question on much better terms with the other guests, and we still don’t have any idea what we might have done wrong (and immediately upon getting there). Of course that didn’t stop us from second-guessing it for hours with ever more irrational ideas. (“Was it my hair!??!” etc)

We went into Kildare to find something for dinner and look around. St. Brigid’s Cathedral was already closed for the day, so we could only look at it through the gate. There weren’t too many eating options around. We chose the one that looked cheapest. It was pretty busy, but again not as friendly as places we’d been before. Maybe it’s just a regional thing. The bar wasn’t that great. On TVs all over the room, it was showing ads for itself. Lame! We ended up back in our room early to get all our junk sorted for the flight the next day.

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Ireland, Part VI: Adare

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After leaving Kilrush, we took a car ferry across the River Shannon from Killimer to Tarbert to shave time off of our trip to Adare. The alternate land route would have taken us right through Limerick city right at rush hour. We could see another big wave of rain drifting in from the mouth of the Shannon west of us. On our drive eastward to Adare, it chased us the whole way!

Adare was another town I was worried about. We picked it completely at random off a map because we didn’t know what we wanted to do after moving on from County Clare and it seemed to have a somewhat central location that would have left our options open. After getting the more detailed Ireland book we found out it was a “twee” (per the book) tourist spot. More worries about ending up in a town that’s a parody of itself!

We checked into our B&B, which was really nice! It had an additional sink in the bedroom, which really speeds up the two-person morning routine. When we got there, the proprietor offered us tea. Since we had been sitting in wet clothes since before lunch, it sounded really awesome, so we accepted and she also brought cookies! Afterward we wandered off and explored Adare, which really was super-cute, but we didn’t see many other tourists. We wandered around an old friary and only saw two other tourists the whole time, and they were leaving as we arrived. It was very pleasant – see the photos!

Adare Aug 08

As it started to get dark, we stopped in at Sean Collins’ pub and ordered drinks and a pizza, which was delivered from a restaurant down the street! It was pretty quiet when we arrived, but pretty soon a bunch of locals came in gossiping about something that had just happened in town and whether anyone else had heard anything about it. Then everyone turned their attention to a big hurling match on TV. The owner wandered over and chatted us up a few times. He said there’s been less tourism this year because of the American dollar/economy, and very helpfully recommended some places for us to try the next day, since we still hadn’t decided yet where we wanted to go. It was a very cozy place; I would definitely recommend it. When we got back to the B&B she was waiting up for us and asked us if we’d been there, so I wager it’s pretty popular.

The following morning we had a really excellent breakfast, then set off on our next adventure!

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Ireland, Part V: Doolin to Kilrush

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I’m really not bad with maps. I thought we were about halfway to Doolin when we came upon a sign welcoming us to Ennistimon…which was not on the way. Well, it could have been a lot worse. We took off from Kilfenora at a perpendicular angle to the way we wanted to go – not completely opposite. We ended up detouring along the busy coastline and past the Cliffs of Moher down a teensy road into Doolin.

Doolin is a tiny town in three sections, each of which is about half a block in size. These three little sections sit in a vast green field sprinkled with hotels and large, almost hotel-like B&Bs, because Doolin is very popular with tourists seeking traditional Irish music. Apparently in the 70s the town became pretty known for music sessions that happened in the pubs there, and an accommodations industry has grown up all around this. Other than accommodations, Doolin is very, very small! We had to call our B&B to find it, and when we arrived it turned out they’d given our room to a guest from the previous night who fell ill and had to stay over. But, no worries, the proprietor, with the awesome name of Maeve, had gotten her friend around the corner to save us a spot at her B&B. So, we dragged our waterlogged selves over there, where she had indeed nicely saved us a room. We made some tea in the common room and changed into some dry clothes before heading out for some food and maybe music.

I was a little worried when I found out after making my booking that Doolin was sort of touristy – “trampled” as the book put it. With touristy towns there’s always the danger that the tourism industry ends up turning the place into a goofy parody of itself. But, the pub we ended up at, McGann’s, wasn’t too cheesy or themey and the food was pretty good. However, the vast majority of people there appeared to be fellow tourists. We had to order at the bar and then the kid would just find us later to bring the order. A little after 10, they did have some live music. We stayed for the good fast-paced stuff, and took the slow vocal stuff that came after as our cue to head out.

In the morning I was kind of glad to discover that there was a choice of breakfasts available aside from the usual Irish breakfast. I like Irish breakfast as much as the next guy, but it was nice to break it up with something a little healthier – so I took the fruit and yogurt plate. (For those who haven’t seen it, an Irish breakfast consists of sausages, bacon, fried egg, tomato, sometimes mushrooms or potatoes, and sometimes black and white pudding [which are more types of sausage, not pudding as we call it in the US]).

Our wishes for what the weather would do were constantly downgrading over the course of the trip. At first we hoped for sun. Next, we only hoped that it wouldn’t be raining. Then, we just hoped that it wouldn’t be raining hard. So, it was a special bonus that the sun came out for around an hour on Sunday morning! We got a few photos then of the area around Doolin as we drove over to the oh-so-famous Cliffs of Moher.

Cliffs of Moher, Hag's Head, & road to Killimer 08

The Cliffs of Moher are quite beautiful. The grassy hills just suddenly end, with a sheer stone face ending in the ocean. However, the experience of going there is pretty sterile. All the areas where you are supposed/allowed to go are fenced off and paved over, and on the way to the cliffs, within the limits of the official visitor area, is a row of several gift shops. It lends a feeling that the cliffs were put there specifically to be gawked at. (Does that make any sense? I don’t really know how to put it in words.)

We decided to wander out to Hag’s Head, a pointy end of the land south of the cliff visitor center, to see what was there, and ended up getting the non-sterile cliffs experience: what it must have been like to visit the Cliffs of Moher before it was visitor-ized. After lots of aimless driving around trying to find a place where we were allowed to go across the land to walk out to the end of the point, we found a spot and set out. After about 45 minutes we ended up at the cliff edge, and there was no fence there! You could just see right over. It was windy so it was kind of scary. There were a few people walking right along it, though. We could look north to cliffs we’d seen earlier at the visitor center, and below us was a cool sea arch. At the end of the point is a tower that was erected long ago to watch for Napoleon in case he tried to come get Ireland from the west. We tried to get all the way out there, but the weather got worse and worse (wind and driving rain!), so despite having to climb under a few electric and barbed-wire fences to get as far as we had, we ended up saying the view we got was definitely already more than worth it, and headed back to the car, to set out to seek some lunch.

We headed for Ennistimon, as our book warned that the nearer, more coastal towns were on the fancy, resort-ish side. We figured we’d find cheaper food in Ennistimon. Also, Ennistimon features a big cascade (stepped waterfall) right in the middle of town! As it turned out, nearly everything in town was closed and there were a lot of empty storefronts, but we found a café that was really hopping. Sandwiches and chowder were our low-price choices and they were great. We were really a mess, completely soaked and muddy. I’d had my wallet in my coat pocket and even it and all its contents were pretty wet.

Before leaving town, we stopped to buy some whiskey and I nearly got hit by a car. Damn pedestrian-unfriendly towns! Since we were such a mess, we decided to start making a line for our next B&B, in Adare, County Limerick, stopping on the way if we saw anything interesting – which we did! Check out the pictures to see some of the little this-and-that things we stopped for along the way.

When we got to the town of Kilrush, not long before making it to the ferry that would take us across the Shannon to the Limerick/Kerry line, we were just commenting on on freaking adorable it was when we heard music!! We decided to stop and see what was going on, and it turned out to be a local festival of some kind. In the main square of town was dancing. All around the square people were watching, both standing at the sidelines and parked in cars all around the square to watch. We got some drinks at a nearby café and watched for a while ourselves.

The announcer asked the kids to get off the dance floor because “it’s too dangerous” and said they were going to do a Kilfenora something-or-other. I don’t know if it’s a song or a dance or both, but either way, isn’t that cool? Kilfenora is a little tiny town. I grew up in a little tiny town, and wouldn’t it be cool if we had our own “Wall Lake Shuffle” or something!? Anyway, here is a video we took of the dance that followed! If you have a good connection, double click on the video to go directly to youtube, then in the bottom right under the video, click “view in high quality” – it is much easier to see everything.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ireland, Part IV: The Burren

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In the morning we had our second Irish breakfast of the trip before departing our B&B – but only after running out to the ATM to get some cash, because they couldn’t take a bank card. We filled up the car with gas too, and the people at the gas station were so friendly! Our fellow guests at breakfast were all Italians, and they’d been up talking loudly with each other since about 5am.

Our new debate now that we’d spent a day on the Aran Islands was whether to see Connemara, to stop in Galway, or to skip both and head on to County Clare. As much as I wanted to see more of Connemara, and even though Galway had featured in our original Ireland plan (as much of one as we ever had, anyway), we voted on Clare and set out southward.

At Kinvara, still in County Galway, we saw a castle, Dunguaire, at the side of the road and decided to stop. It was sort of a mistake because there were many cars, several buses, and a couple of hen/stag party vans all stopped there, and the castle was very small and not really all that interesting! (I am not really a castle person so take it with a grain of salt. And can anyone really beat Heidelberg’s castle!?) We looked around it a bit, took in some nice views of Kinvara from the grounds, and decided not to pay admission to go in and went on our way.

Further down the road we found a church ruin and graveyard, and the sun had just come out, so we stopped for some more pictures! The sun was only out for about an hour, on and off, and we tried to take advantage of it by getting lots of photos! Ireland is so beautiful even without the sun, but with the sun, it’s just unbelievable. Even still, the photos don’t really capture it.

The Burren Aug 08

We then continued into the Burren, a strange rocky landscape full of ancient tombs and other structures. One type of structure is the dolmen, a tomb consisting of a large top rock balancing on side rocks all around, forming a kind of box. We wanted to first see the most famous dolmen, Poulnabrone, before it got too crowded, so we headed there first. There were already a lot of people there, but we managed to get some photos of it without anyone in them! The landscape in the area of Poulnabrone is some of the most interesting we saw in the Burren. Some areas are covered in lots of loose rocks, some are grassier, and some even have trees, but this area had a ground paved with flat rocks. In the crevices between them, some of which are really deep, all kinds of different plants grow.

The guide book we had mentioned a cheap restaurant in a town called Carran, so we turned off on a teeny tiny road in that direction. The views along the road were incredible, as it was very hilly and lonely out there. A lake sitting in a sort of bowl-shaped area came into view, and Carran was situated above the lake. It turns out the lake isn’t really a lake but a turlough, which is sometimes a lake, and dry at other times of the year. Normally the summer is the dry season for the turloughs, but this year has been particularly rainy.

After lunch we stopped at the Burren Perfumery, a little garden, café, and perfume-and-soap-making shop northeast of Carran. They had a video about the various plants in the Burren, but it wasn’t as informative as I hoped – more artsy and new-agey. Plants from both arctic and Mediterranean climates can live in the Burren and I was hoping more for a tutorial on identifying some of the more common ones. But, we did find a map of the area there that was had a few more points of interest listed on it than what were included in our book, and there were some cool plants in the garden!

After we set out from the perfumery we saw a sign by the side of the road for St. Fachtnan Well and pulled off to go look. The well was on the right but we first ended up wandering off toward the left, where there were 5 big cairn-looking piles of rock standing around. We didn’t know if they were actually really old or not but the whole experience of being out there in the misty, rainy weather, with absolutely no one else around, and some weird man-made rock formations was really something else. After checking out all the cairns we found the well, which was actually pretty near the road. It was pouring at this point but with the umbrella we managed to get some pictures of the well without drenching the camera! Definitely see the photos to see what was there.

We wandered southward on some more teeny tiny roads and came upon something the book said would be there, Cahercommaun, another fort like the one we saw on Inishmore. We pulled over and hiked for 15-20 minutes to get to the site of the fort, in a big grassy field on top of a hill. Three sides of the fort had rock walls and the third side was again a cliff, although not as dramatic as the ocean cliff at Inishmore. Inside the fort some underground tunnels which lead to the side of the cliff were found, but it was pretty clear we weren’t supposed to go in there. (And, it was really pouring again.) We saw no other people on the trail or at the fort! Again, it was just really eerie to be at this ancient ruin in the middle of nowhere, all alone. I wished we just had weeks to spend hiking around the Burren finding spots like the well as this fort.

We continued on in the pouring rain, and saw a wedge tomb right off the road, then got caught behind a guy herding cows right down the road. In Kilfenora, we stopped to see a cathedral ruin. It looked like a pretty cool town, but we were absolutely drenched from our earlier hike in the rain and just wanted to get to Doolin, our goal for that night, to check into our B&B and change, so we continued onward.

On the wrong road.

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Ireland, Part III: Inishmore and a Corner of Connemara

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One of the biggest debates of our trip planning was whether to visit the Aran Islands. It started with a yes. They are described as having “desolate beauty” and sites more ancient even than the mainland. Islands are cool. So of course it sounded good. But on more reading it sounded jammed with tourists. You can’t experience a feeling of isolation on a beautiful, desolate island with a zillion strangers milling around you. So then we thought no. But then we thought if we stayed overnight on one of the islands, we could be there very late/early and out of the crowds and really enjoy it. But staying on an island is a big time commitment and we weren’t that sure we wanted to do it. Even just visiting was a big time commitment, as we’d be beholden to the ferry schedules whether overnight or not. And our favorite islands from what we read were the small, less touristy ones, and they are an even bigger time commitment because there are fewer ferries there. So, we reserved two nights in Spiddal, which is near the ferry leaving point, and decided to decide later.

Friday morning was the point of decision. We couldn’t decide. We drove over to Rossaveal (Ros an Mhíl – also in the Irish-speaking region), where the ferries leave, hoping to have an epiphany about it on the way. It was pouring rain. We got to Rossaveal and checked out the ferry schedule. Not too bad, if we just wanted to go to the big island, Inishmore. But we’d be stuck out in the rain with nowhere to escape if we went to the island. We started to drive away. But going to the island would save Damon a day of driving around Connemara, which was our Plan B for the day. We turned back toward the ferry again and bought tickets to Inishmore – 25 EUR per person round-trip. Again, this wasn’t really the one we wanted to visit, but we hoped to find some info about catching a boat to the other islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, once we got out there.

The ferry ride was nice and smooth. When we got to Inishmore, we headed for the tourist information office to ask about boats to the other islands. Unfortunately, boats only go to them twice a day, with only one possible round trip if you wanted to go to one of them for a day. And, we’d already missed it. If we took the next boat we’d be stuck out there overnight. So, we were stuck on Inishmore. It’s the largest island so you can’t just walk around and see everything – you need a bike or some other form of wheels. The other form of wheels on the island for tourists is a van tour operated by local guys. Since it was raining and raining + bike + glasses = bad (I should have packed my contacts on this trip!!), and we didn’t think we’d cover that much on bike in the short time we had before our return ferry, we had to go with the van. From what we knew, the van drives around to island sights and stops so you can check them out. It costs 10 EUR per person and lasts about 3.5 hours. We arranged a ride with a guy named Patrick, who would also be driving around some fellow tourists from other European countries.

Inishmore, Lough Corrib Aug 08

He drove out and pointed out a few things as we drove past. He stopped on the road next to a thatched cottage and said we could get photos of it. Then he drove on, past some memorials to those who died at sea or left the islands and were never heard from again. Then he announced that we were going to stop at Dún Aengus, a big 2000-year-old fort up on a cliff, for an hour and a half and he would come pick us up again after that time. There were shops and a restaurant nearby so we could grab lunch and funnel some cash into the island’s economy while we were there too. (The island economy, as told to us by Patrick, consists of 40% tourism, 50% fishing, 5% farming, and 5% knitwear.)

Dún Aengus is cool, but I was pretty disappointed. The things I had read about the islands specifically stated that the majority of tourists never get beyond Inishmore and Dún Aengus. Of course I had wanted to get beyond those, for all the time and money it took to get out there. Already we couldn’t get beyond Inishmore, and now we saw why no one got beyond Dún Aengus: because all the vans had the same itinerary and basically only gave us any decent amount of time there. It’s about a 15 minute walk up to the fort and there’s an admission fee. Looking up the hill we could see a long line of tourists snaking up and down the path. We walked up in the company of about 400 Italian tourists. The fort is surrounded on three sides by stone walls, and outside the stone walls are more stones spiking up to further deter would-be invaders. The fourth side of the fort is the cliff straight down to the ocean. Guess they didn’t need a wall on that side! On the way up to Dún Aengus we escaped the crowd for a bit by branching off to a small church, Teampall Mac Duagh on a side path. It was marked with a sign, but no one was there.

After returning from the fort we stopped in a sweater shop at the bottom of the hill. It was dead quiet and nothing grabbed me, so we left and went into the one next door. The proprietor, Sarah Flaherty, immediately started to chat us up about the crappy weather. Then she asked if we were Australian. When we said that we were actually Americans, she said at first she thought we sounded American, but then after some more talking she wasn’t sure anymore! Then some Americans-who-actually-live-in-the-US came into the shop and I guess the difference in our accents was somewhat clear. Maybe we just start speaking differently in Germany because we don’t speak to too many Americans (and those we do are also living in Germany and may also be getting influenced by other accents). I really don’t think we sound Australian though. I started trying on cardigans and Damon started trying on scarves and she started recommending proper colors for us and the other Americans in the shop to wear based on eye color, hair color, gender, and the clothes we were wearing. Then a local friend of hers came in and they started chatting away in Irish – the Aran Islands are also an Irish-speaking region. We ended up with a natural sheep-colored cardigan for me and a black scarf for Damon. Aran knitting is full of complex patterns and is pretty interesting. It was developed a little over a hundred years ago as a way to bring income to the islands and has become very famous and popular!

We grabbed sandwiches at the restaurant and waited for our van to pick us up. The tour continued with more driving around and only one more extremely brief (like 3 minutes) stop at the Seven Churches, a site with several church ruins and a cemetery. The site was quite flooded so we couldn’t actually go walk around in it, only take a look at it from the road.

The main thing Damon had come to the islands to see was Clochán na Carriage, a perfect beehive hut (clochán), but the driver would not take us there and although generally friendly was barely able to conceal his annoyance at being asked to make any stops off his scheduled route. They run on a tight schedule. We ended up never seeing a clochán on our trip. The rest of the tour finished with a drive past a seal hangout which had no seals because it was high tide. The guy was full of good information about life on the islands, being a local, so it had its high points. But it’s not really the kind of way I like to get around, without any freedom and stuck on a generic, preset itinerary.

For someone who wants to visit the Aran Islands, unless you are just fine with the sort of tourism I’ve just outlined above in our experience, I would recommend making a real commitment to go out there for about 3 days. This will give you the time and freedom to get around by bike (take contacts if you’re a glasses-wearer – it will certainly rain!) and to visit two or more islands, not just the big one. If you can only do a day trip out to Inishmore, I’m not convinced it is worth the time and the ferry charge. However, we were very happy with the stuff we learned about the island culture from the driver and with the stuff we bought directly from the knitter herself! But we would not do it this way again. It was frustrating to be near so many neat sites but only be able to see two of them, and the price of gas to just drive ourselves around Connemara for the day instead would have been cheaper than the ferry.

After returning to the mainland, we dropped in at our B&B then continued on toward Oughterard, hoping to get a nice view of Lough Corrib, a lake just a few miles northeast of us, before dinner. We ended up choosing poorly on the rural roads and found ourselves in a sort of endless suburbia, but finally toward the end got a couple of nice views of the lake. It was pouring again! On the main road south of Oughterard, we came across Aughanure Castle, but it was already closed for the day. What little we did see of Connemara while driving around was beautiful, with green, purple, and orange everywhere, dotted with rocks, horses, cows, houses, and some trees now and again. I would love to spend some more time there! The photos we took really don't do anything justice.

The reason we’d come to Oughterard was to visit a particular pub we’d read about, but when we arrived, it seemed to have shut down. We wandered a bit looking at the food options, but it wasn’t any cheaper than the places we saw the previous night in Spiddal. We found a Chinese joint that appeared to have some cheaper options in the menu posted on their window, so we went in and sat down. But upon opening the menus they gave us, we found all the prices had increased! So we left and ended up at Supermac’s for the second night in a row.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Ireland, Part II: Spiddal

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There wasn’t anywhere to pull over so we just kept driving to the edge of town, I frozen in a face of horror and Damon starting to giggle. There we found a lot to pull into. I got out to take a look at the damage. Luckily the rear-view mirror just popped right back into position! It had a big black mark on it that wouldn’t rub off, though. Damon thought it wasn’t bad enough damage to be a problem with the rental company. Then we headed back into town (since we’d overshot the turn for our B&B), eyeing all the parked cars for signs that we’d damaged one. Thankfully, we didn’t see a thing. Probably we had just hit another rear-view mirror and it too just folded in as they are designed to do. Whew!

We found our B&B. A family of four Germans checked in right behind us! We can’t escape the German! They were cool, though. Their kids were very cute. Damon wanted a catnap so I started to move our stuff into the closet and shower. The shower door didn’t seem to want to close after I put all our shampoo and stuff in there, so I pushed it a little harder. *CRACK.* It came right off the top hinge. I flashed back to the curtain-pull I broke last year at our Pension in Ottenhoefen. There they were forgiving. But a whole shower door!? Damon heard my big “uh-oh” and came in and figured it out somehow. We popped it back in and he did something with the Swiss Army knife and all was well. Whew. This episode ended the brief period when I could still tease him about hitting the parked car.

We explored the town a bit, which consisted of a church with graveyard, a grocery store, a beach, and a few eating/drinking establishments. Then we looked for a reasonably-priced dinner. Everything cost a damn fortune! Even the fast food at the Irish chain Supermac’s cost more than it seemed it should have. But, that’s what we ended up eating, because we didn’t come to Ireland for the food and wanted to keep our money for the gas to drive around! Guess who else was there? The German family!

Afterward, we wandered into a pub around the corner called Tigh Hughes. The bartender was a cranky older woman. We got some drinks and settled into a little side table. About 20 minutes later, the thing they say happens in Ireland sometimes actually happened – some random people who were drinking at one of the tables whipped out instruments and started playing traditional music! And no one seemed to think anything of it.

To cap off the day’s theme of minor accidents, I then knocked over my glass, which hit the floor and shattered. The musicians stopped playing and one of them whooped! The cranky bartender came over to sweep it up without a word.

Stay tuned to find out what other things we can break in Ireland.

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Ireland, Part I: Reserving, Flights, Car Rental, Kilbeggan, and Clonmacnois

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As detailed in my earlier post, we had a hard time deciding what to do with our five days in Ireland. But, we didn’t want to wait, because everything we read indicated that it was a good idea to make advance reservations during August, the height of Ireland’s tourist season. We debated and debated, finally making some reservations using Gulliver Ireland at around 1:00am the night before leaving on our trip to Leipzig. Naturally, the best decisions don’t generally happen at that hour and, later, after buying a more detailed Ireland travel guide, we started to doubt our choices a bit, but stuck with them.

We’d resigned ourselves to flying out of some inconvenient airport on Ryanair, but then discovered that at the late hour at which we were purchasing tickets, Lufthansa cost only a few Euros more, had better timing, and went from the easiest airport to get to, Frankfurt am Main. Ryanair flies into Karlsruhe/Baden-Baden and Frankfurt Hahn (nowhere near Frankfurt – seriously), but both take longer to get to than Frankfurt am Main. There’s also Ryanair service to Duesseldorf, but that’s about 3 hours by train from here. Not to mention, Lufthansa has seat assignments, seat pockets, snacks and drinks, and a generally nicer atmosphere than what I hear from all the Ryanair stories. (Something I learned in an Irish newspaper: Ryanair isn’t doing so well now because they didn’t bother to raise their ticket prices in response to rising fuel costs!)

So, we had a great flight on Lufthansa! Passport control was friendly and easy, though it looked like some of the other lines had more prying officials. (I had started to worry that they’d ask us the name of where we were staying and I’d have no idea how to pronounce the name of it!) We’d found a car in advance through irishcarrentals.com and went to pick it up. We don’t have a car so we had to purchase car insurance for the rental, and Damon had done so through the website. But, when we went to pick up the car, they said they wouldn’t recognize the insurance we bought, so we had to put up a 1200 EUR deductible in advance, which would be refunded when we returned the car. The limit on our bank credit cards is only 500 EUR, so this was a problem. We can call the bank for a temporary increase on the limit, but it takes some time to get to the right person at the bank (they pass you around a bit) and we didn’t know in advance that this would be a problem. So, we ended up having to purchase car insurance from the rental company in addition to the insurance we’d already bought. So, don’t buy the insurance from the internet, unless you have room in your credit limit for the giant deductible!!

Damon was nervous as hell about driving on the left-hand side of the road. I failed to learn how to drive a stick, though, so it was all him. It was madness at first – the stick on the wrong side, the steering wheel on the wrong side, the wipers on the wrong side, everything wrong wrong wrong. Despite all this, we successfully made it out of the airport and out of the Dublin metro area, out to Kilbeggan, where we decided to stop for some lunch.

We found a pub that looked cheaper than the others. The menus were hand-written! (See photos.) A friend of the waitress walked in, and she said, “How’s you?” The overall style of the bar was much more similar to an American bar than a German one. I guess that’s why Americans in Germany can always be found hanging out at the Irish pub. As we left, people we didn’t know on the street said hello to us. I don’t think that has ever happened to us in Germany, no matter how small the town we were in.

We continued down the road and saw an exit sign for the Clonmacnois monastery ruin, so we decided to try it. I got out the book to look it up and it turns out that it’s a major site that attracts a lot of tourists. When we got there, two buses full of German-speaking tourists had just pulled in! There was also a large French group there. We managed to get around the crowds and check it all out – see the pictures! The monastery has a museum with several high crosses (large, detailed crosses) from the church grounds inside, and it is situated right on the Shannon River. This was one of the only things we saw under the sun in Ireland. After this, it pretty much rained the whole time.

Kilbeggan, Clonmacnois, & Spiddal Aug 08

We continued onward toward Galway. Our goal was Spiddal (An Spidéal – as it’s inside the edge of an Irish-speaking region, the road signs for it are by law only in Irish), a town on the Galway Bay just beyond Galway. We’d looked for a room in Galway, since visiting there was part of our original plan, but it was cheaper to stay further out, so Spiddal it was. Adding to Damon’s nervousness about the roads were the roundabouts, which were confusing at first. We had those in New England too – there they are called rotaries – but of course here they are all backwards! He was also having trouble deciding how close he should be to the center line, as most of the smaller roads were extremely narrow. Some were too narrow to even have a center line. He told me to let him know if he got too close to the edge of the road, since he wanted to err on that side instead. “Okay,” I said. We slowly made it through Galway’s rush hour traffic and soon emerged on the other side with amazing views of Galway Bay across to County Clare.

As we pulled in to Spiddal, the road was very narrow and lined with parked cars that narrowed it even further. Very ugly when there’s two-way traffic. It was clearly bugging Damon, as he was inching closer and closer to the side of the road and all those parked cars. So, it was time for the warning he asked for.

“Hey, you’re getting really close to these parked cars over here, you should move over.”

A block later the situation hadn’t improved. “Hey, um, you’re still REALLY close on this si….” *THWACK*

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Strasbourg, Take 2

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We first visited Strasbourg in December 2006, in the midst of its extremely popular Christmas market. It's an Alsatian town just inside the French border, and seems to be beloved by everyone who visits. We had a great time, although the weather ended up being terrible and it chased us in to one of the museums. This time we had better weather and more time and got to see much more of the town. See the photos!

Strasbourg Aug 08

Although the highlight is the cathedral, which looks like a huge, incredibly beautiful wall as you approach it from the crowded little streets, Strasbourg is just gorgeous all over. Tons of cute old houses, other important and interesting churches, picturesque bridges over the Ill River, and even an Art Nouveau house all decorated in an Ancient Egypt theme. In the end we topped it all off with some great food at a little restaurant right on the water. Check out the sights in the photo album!
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Freiburg

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This one should have a big fat "FINALLY!" next to it in the title! Freiburg is not that far from here and we have always wanted to go, and it just never happened. In one particularly bad instance, we passed it up for some cuckoo-clock town in the middle of the Black Forest. That was a dark day. But, finally we made it to Freiburg!

The weather was great and the town was packed with people. And everywhere we went, they were extremely friendly by German standards! Even on the way there, we encountered niceness from a stranger when Damon was asking about antacids in a little store. They didn't sell them and a guy in line behind Damon gave him one. We ate at an Afghan restaurant for lunch and the people there were super-nice. We were looking at the church and a woman came up to us and chatted us up about the church and even tried to sneak us in a place we weren't supposed to go. (That didn't work.) At a wine fest at night, a bystander started offering all sorts of advice on the wines.

We stayed in a hostel overnight so we would have a head start on our trip to Strasbourg the next morning. It was a little strange (see the photos!) but everything was fine, even the windowed shower capsules.

Freiburg Aug 08

The most amazing thing is of course Freiburg's cathedral, which is incredibly detailed all over the outside and has beautiful stained glass windows. You should really click on the photos; it is unbelievable. The rest of the town is also super-charming, with cute little canals running everywhere, pretty old houses with adorable names and dates from the 1400s on them, and designs set into the stone in the sidewalks. It's just enough bigger than Heidelberg to start being able to support a wider variety of businesses, too. Damon's ready to move there anytime.
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Dresden (3rd time!) and the Saechsische Schweiz

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After arriving from Leipzig, we checked in at the same hostel Damon and I stayed in before, Louise 20, which was definitely nice enough to warrant going back. Then we wandered around the Altstadt admiring everything there (in sun, even! It was cloudy on my previous visits!), following it up with pizza and people-watching in Neustadt.

Dresden Aug 08

Wednesday, we rode the S-Bahn down to Rathen, a small town in the Saechsische Schweiz, or "Swiss Saxony", an area south of Dresden near the Czech and Polish borders with interesting rock formations and plateaus. Rathen is a good place to stop off and climb up the Bastei, a rocky cliff overlooking the river. The path up has beautiful views of the surrounding area and includes a very picturesque stone bridge crossing. But, you won't be enjoying it in solitude - the trail was packed, even though it was the middle of the week. It does take a little bit away from the beauty, but it's still very nice. As a special bonus, there's an open-air opera arena at the bottom of the canyon, and we could hear every note!

Saechsische Schweiz / Hrensko Aug 08

Afterward we thought we'd try crossing the Czech border for a little country-collecting for my friend. And hey, I'm always game for this sort of thing! (Although I had already been to Prague so I wasn't really collecting it for the first time.) We rode the S-Bahn down to Schoena, the last stop. From the map, it appeared we were a very short distance from the border if we just walked down a bike path along the river. There was a ferry that crossed directly to the other side, but we wanted to try it without crossing the river first. We walked about 4km and there was still no sign we had crossed, other than my cell phone alerting me that I could call Germany from the Czech Republic for 58 cents per minute. So, we walked back and took the ferry across to Hrensko. When we got there we saw a map that showed we'd walked less than a kilometer from the border! Oh well.

Hrensko was sort of depressing. It was in a beautiful setting with high rock cliffs and a small river coming out to meet the bigger one, and some pretty old buildings. But the whole town was primarily made up of shops selling knock-off clothing, purses, underwear, hubcaps, lawn ornaments, beach towels, and everything else imaginable. Interestingly, all the sellers appeared to be Vietnamese! But, there was nothing for us there since we weren't looking for any cheap stuff, so we took the ferry back to Germany. There, we rode up to Koenigstein, the site of a large castle complex on top of a plateau. We discovered when we arrived that we had little chance of seeing the castle before it closed, so we just peeked around the town, then returned to Dresden and had dinner at the old standby, Plan Wirtschaft.

Wednesday we hit the New Green Vault, a museum in the Residenz showcasing all kinds of things from the treasury of Sachsen (Saxony). There is also an Historical Green Vault, but tickets to this are very limited and we would have had to wait several hours to get in. The vault we saw was filled with amazingly intricate carved objects, miniatures of this and that, and jewelry. Getting in was a bit painful, as the woman at the desk made every effort to be completely unhelpful when I was confused regarding the different types of tickets to the different museums. I actually found most of the interactions in Dresden that I had this time around to be much less friendly than on previous visits. I don't know if it's because my German isn't as good as Damon's or because it's summer and they're tiring of tourists or what.

On the way back to Heidelberg, our train was put out of service in Leipzig because the air conditioning didn't work!! At least they did something about it instead of just letting everyone melt. Smaller trains often don't have AC at all. My friend returned to Heidelberg with me, as we had plans to visit Freiburg and Strasbourg over the weekend! Coming soon....
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Leipzig

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I'm about to spam my own blog with about a zillion travel posts. I'll try to keep it short...until I get to Ireland. Then I probably won't be able to shut up.

A friend of mine had a summer school thing in Leipzig, so on a Monday Damon and I rode over there to hang out and see the town. It was a chilly day, but that didn't stop the Deutsche Bahn from running the AC on our train to the point of freezing. Travel Tip: prepare for all possible temperatures if riding the Bahn. We met up with my friend and a friend of hers at the station, had lunch, then set off to see some sights, led by the friend-of-a-friend who lives in Leipzig. It was very generous of him to show us around; few things are more valuable when travelling than a local willing to share. See our photos which break down the sights we saw:

Leipzig Aug 08

After all the sightseeing, we had dinner on the Barfussgaesschen, a narrow street filled with restaurants and outdoor seating. It's so crowded you can barely walk through! This was followed up with a drink at a laundromat/bar filled with bookshelves and books. Yeah, another one of those kind of places you'll never find in a town as small as Heidelberg! Our waitress was so hard to understand - a great example of the Saxon accent, I guess. I'm not so great at picking out accents in German, but I know what I can and can't understand!

We stayed at a hostel called Central Globetrotter near the train station. I know it's just a hostel but it was kind of crappy. Hostels in Germany all cost about the same, but there is a huge range in what you get for that same price. At this one, the linens were completely threadbare and there were group showers (in the case of the men's room, they weren't even separated from the urinals). Does it really cost that much to just throw up a rod and curtain between the showers? Also, it's common at hostels but it still bugs me when there is no soap at the bathroom sink, because I never remember to bring mine in with me! The toilets weren't all that clean either.

I know it's stupid to bitch about a hostel because I paid just beans to stay there, but the next night we stayed at a hostel in Dresden and for the same price as the one in Leipzig, we got a clean room with its own sink, clean bathrooms with soap dispensers, doors on the showers, non-see-through linens, and even a place to hang up clothes (not necessary but a nice touch).

The next day we did a bit more walking around. We found a store called DDR Allerlei which had a strange mix of items for purchase. Presumably the theme is stuff that you could buy at stores in East Germany. One interesting thing was the handwriting books. I've been wondering how the cursive alphabet is taught here, as handwriting tends to look very different in continental Europe (compared to American handwriting). And we actually ended up buying a soap dish that has already survived longer than the ones we got at Woolworth. (Do not get the hard plastic ones, they crack way too easily!)

After stopping for currywurst and looking through the Coffee Museum (free!) we parted ways - Damon came back to Heidelberg and my friend and I continued on to Dresden and the Saeschsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland)!
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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Philosophies of Travel

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Soon, Damon and I will have been married five years. On our first anniversary, we had dinner at Aquitaine thanks to a wedding gift from Damon's labmates. On our second, we had dinner at Sel de la Terre, this time on our own bill. The fries there are amazing. We were apart on our third; it was the day of my grandmother's funeral and Damon had to stay behind to load up the moving truck - we were about to leave Boston for good. On our fourth, we were in Wismar and almost forgot about it entirely! And for our fifth, we decided to arrange a last-minute trip to Ireland, hoping to specifically hit the area where the aforementioned grandmother's grandparents were born, County Clare.

At first I was only thinking we'd get away with a weekend flying in somewhere nearby and whipping through Clare before returning, but we managed to block off a Thursday to Tuesday trip, leaving us four full days in Ireland! It's so much, and so little. We did a little research, then last night I tossed and turned. Do we just go to one area and really relax and soak it up the whole time? How about two areas - but how do we narrow it down? Or do we really push it and stay five nights in five different places, seeing everything we can on what might be our only chance to ever see Ireland?

Your average American takes the cram-it-all-in approach. This isn't because they're hyperactive or unappreciative of their surroundings (although some are - and not just Americans), it's because they don't get any vacation time. That little two-week all-of-Europe vacation they're doing? They saved up for that for months and months, working through seven illnesses and four family events across the country so they could do it. You better believe they don't feel they have any choice but to see it all now, because they won't get away again.

And hey, life is short! Why not see it all if it's feasible? You can argue for this even without bringing vacation time into the picture.

Your average travel snob, though, is thoroughly disgusted by the above approach and recommends taking one month to slowly move through one region of a country, lounging in the countryside or integrating himself into a city's scene, or whatever it is he or she is into, and really getting to know a region's culture. Those other people, they don't see anything! They need to slow down and enjoy life! Relax!!

That's pretty tempting, too. Isn't relaxing the point of vacation? It's no good to come back more stressed out than you were before you left. Sticking around in one place offers you more chances to start to interact with local people and get a feel for the area.

There are a couple of other types, too. There's the adventurer for whom a European vacation is totally lame. All of Europe is practically the same. You haven't seen jack until you've been to the jungle, the desert, the Himalayas, or any destination that requires 20-25 new vaccinations and prophylactic medications. And finally, there's the check-off list traveler. They have a long list of countries and they are marking them off or coloring them in as they go, trying to rack up the number as high as possible. You might identify them because they are itchy to cross a nearby border just to cross it, they are obsessed with hitting small countries like Andorra and Liechtenstein despite all warnings to the contrary that these places are not interesting, or they've just been to capital city after capital city to hit a country, then never returning there again, fickle as can be. My husband hates the country-collector attitude, but I sympathize with it. I would usually rather go to a country I haven't seen yet than one I have, so I can hear a new language all around, see signs in it, etc. Even crossing a border allows this. But he argues you can never really get a feel for a place's culture if you're just out collecting. That could also be true.

We still haven't decided what to do about Ireland. We could go and wing it, but several things I've read say at this time of year it is best to book in advance because it's high season. There's nothing worse than driving around in circles at 10 at night desperately searching for any place with a room you can have, no matter the cost or type of room. I have several memories of doing that, and some are sort of entertaining, but the stories usually didn't end well.

A slow-paced County Clare/Galway/Aran Islands trip? A Galway-Connemara-Aran Islands-County Clare-Dingle-Cork-Kilkenny extravaganza? I'll report back in a couple of weeks after we've been there...

What kind of traveler are you? What would you do? What characterized your favorite vacation?
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