Friday, September 26, 2014

Our Incredible Irish Adventure, Part 2

After bidding a bittersweet adieu to Maire and Carl, it was time to head out on our own, with no real plan except to end up in Dublin for our flight to Birmingham in 3 days. We got our rental car in Shannon and started south. I had heard of the Ring of Kerry (who hasn't?!) due to it's incredible views of the water, steep cliffs and windy one way roads. But we'd also heard that it was packed with tour buses and people, and quite frankly, a pretty long day in the car. So we elected instead to enjoy the Ring of Dingle (or "Ringle" as we came to call it), which is a bit shorter, with fewer people and no tour buses, but also insanely beautiful.

The view from our morning departure in Shannon
We spent the night in Dingle, a ridiculously charming summer town (and yes, we were there in November) with cobblestone streets and cozy pubs, right on the water. We stayed in a B&B we found in an old stable on the waterfront (the charming Quayside B&B), run by a fabulous (and tiny) man who introduced himself as a leprechaun. And he really did look like one! Because we arrived a little late (due to many stops on the incredibly gorgeous drive from Shannon that morning), we didn't get on to drive the 30 mile loop of the Dingle Peninsula until about 2pm. And by then it was kinda stormy and getting dark, but we didn't go to Ireland in November for sunshine and butterflies!

Gallarus Oratory
We took Rick Steve's guide of the peninsula with us, so we would know where to stop and learn things, but either our odometer was off, or his directions were, so we mostly ended up just stopping where we wanted to. And it seems each time we stopped, the sky would open up, dump a bucket of hail down, and then 3 minutes later, the sun would come out, and we would explore. The two highlights of the pensinsula were the pastures of sheep (I just couldn't get over all those cute sheep!) and the church at the end: the Gallarus Oratory. We almost didn't make it in time to see it in the light, but it was a special place. Built 1300 years ago, it is one of the earliest Christian churches preserved in Ireland today, and well worth the visit. After our amazing (and cold) day, we spent the evening in a pub, playing dominoes by the fire, drinking hot wine and enjoying some live music.
Scenes from the Ring of Dingle
Local haberdashery in Dingle
The aftermath of my hike through a pond
The next day we drove east, with the goal of reaching Kilkenny, but didn't make it very far out of Dingle before a castle-type structure by the water caught Cory's eye and we decided to go find it. We drove down some local roads between pastures, which ended at a gate with a path into a pasture that said, "public path." So it was on foot from there. We started up the path into the pasture, following the general direction where we thought we'd seen the castle. Seriously, we were just traipsing across someone's sheep pasture, sheep and all! The path went through a bit of a muddy section, so I figured I would go above the mud, uphill. But it turned out uphill was a muddy pool, and I was soaked up the knees. Once Cory picked himself up from all the laughter, we decided a little freezing water in my socks wouldn't kill me and we should really press on and find the castle (and I'd like to take a moment here to applaud my Balega socks...because I went hiking in November in Ireland with soaking wet socks and shoes and I hardly noticed!). After the sheep pasture, we climbed a fence to get to into a cow pasture, and then another fence to the castle! And it was...ok. The hike there in my wet shoes was so much better :)

We continued east, meandering through little Irish towns, stopped in Waterford for dinner (where Waterford Crystal comes from) and found an incredible little Polish restaurant, Koliba. We were the only ones there and when the Polish owner found out we had been there a few months earlier, I'm pretty sure she brought us a bit of everything they serve. It was a truly delicious and incredibly memorable meal. But enough stops! There's still a few hours to Kilkenny and we don't yet have a bed for the night.

We drove down the main street in Kilkenny (a charming medieval town) and saw a sign in a pub window saying "accomodations" so I stopped in to ask. For a mere $20 US we could have a charming private room above the empty pub. Yes please! And by charming, I mean the walls and ceiling were peeling and the heat was broken, but it was ours and it was cheap!

After a cold sleep, we had a few hours to see the town before we needed to be in Dublin for our flight, so we went straight for the biggest draw in town: the Round Tower at St. Canice's Cathedral. Although it was windy and positively freezing outside, the nice church lady opened the tower up for us and we made our bone-chilling way to the top, up the wooden staircase that ladders across the inside of the tower. The view from the top was excellent, until my nose froze and it was time to come down.

The Round Tower at St. Canice's Cathedral
Back to Dublin, our amazing adventures on the Emerald Isle were over, though I know now without a doubt that we'll be back again. It is an incredible country, filled with friendly people, beautiful vistas, toe-tapping music, charming towns, fascinating history, and invigorating weather. Until next time, Ireland!

Overall Costs: The costs for our Irish adventure aren't really accurate, because our friends were so incredibly generous with us. These costs are only for the 4 days on our own, where we stayed in hotels and rented a car (again, Ireland has some expensive gas, but we saw so much of the countryside, we would absolutely do it again!). Average daily cost was $160, split between housing ($59 for two small inns, a night in Dublin, and a night in a hostel above a bar in Kilkenny), food (usually cold cut sandwiches from the supermarket) ($55), transit ($56) and other expenses ($5).

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Our Incredible Adventure on the Emerald Isle

I have wanted to go to Ireland since I was a little girl. My stepdad is Irish and spent many years singing me “little ditties” and telling me fantastical stories about the Emerald Isle. So when we decided to go to Ireland on our big trip, I was very concerned that the Ireland of today would be modern and devoid of the culture, history and music I had always imagined. Thankfully, the expectation of my childhood visions was more than exceeded!
We arrived in Dublin and after dropping our bags at our hotel, we went around the corner to the pub in search of a bite. We walked in and it was like every Irish pub in the US, only REAL! We sat down with pints of Guinness, sausages and sang along joyfully with the live band.

The next morning, we got up early and made our way to the Guinness factory (our 3rd brewery tour so far!) and were quite pleased. Although the tour is pretty expensive, and more shiny museum than working brewery, the exhibits were excellent. We got to take a Guinness tasting class, a Guinness pouring class and learn about (and taste) some Guinness/food pairings. By the time we finished, after several tastings and the leftovers of the nice old ladies we met at the final bar, we were feeling quite Irish. But alas it was only noon o'clock!

That afternoon, it was time for our Big Authentic Irish Weekend. We met a lovely Irish couple, Carl and Maire, on their engagement night in Vietnam six months earlier, and they invited us to come stay should we ever come to Ireland. At that time, we had no plans to, so boy were they surprised when they got an email from us 6 months later asking if they wanted to meet for a drink. And boy were we surprised when their response came back, “yes, we'd love to have a drink. But how about with that drink, you come and spend the weekend with us out in the countryside at our family home and we'll take you on a big adventure?" It didn't take long to agree to that offer wholeheartedly!
Carl bought me a cookie. I knew I liked him!
We met up with our new favorite Irish people and headed south to his family's home in Wexford. My dear readers, here is where you may think I'm exaggerating my story, but I promise you, this is what happened next. As an aside, I should share that Cory has a dream of his own about Ireland. He dreams that it's like those movies where a small village has a problem of some kind, they come together to work it out and their town becomes better in the process (see Calendar Girls, Waking Ned Devine, The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a mountain). Now back to our story. In the car on the way, Carl had called his mom to "put the kettle on" so there was hot tea awaiting us when we arrived at their lovely home in the tiny village of Kilineran. His dad wasn't home yet because he was at the neighbor's house planning a dance in the village to raise money for the school. Yep, we were in a little village and they were coming together to solve a problem! Heaven :)
We settled in with our tea and introductions, but the fire started to get low. The solution? Throw some more peat bricks on it! Ah yes, we were in an Irish village, drinking tea, watching rugby, and warming our toes by a peat fire. After dinner, we all took a walk into the center of the village, to go to the pub. And by pub, I mean village living room slash gas station store. All in one. The only other non-houses in town were the school and the church. We had a couple of pints with the locals and headed home to rest up for another big day.
The next day, we hit up the beach (it was a little different than the beaches we're used to in San Diego. I was freezing), got lost in the countryside trying to find a beautiful waterfall (we found it) and enjoyed a gorgeous sunset walk to a lake. We made it home in time for a roast dinner courtesy of Carl's mom, and we contributed a slice of Americana...homemade chocolate chip cookies (recipe at the bottom, in case you'd like to thank your own Irish hosts!). And they were the best ones I've ever made. Probably something about the Irish Kerrygold butter, and the act of dipping them in fresh Irish milk. Another successful day!

Old Irish church and graveyard (including sheep!)
Matching cutesie mittens!

By day 3 it was Carl's weekend, so we opted to head west and see Kerry, on Maire's family farm. We drove a few hours and took a break in Galway, to enjoy a rugby game in the pub, a couple of pints and a photo shoot on the Blackrock Tower, re-enacting the ending scene from The Guard (without the guns, of course). Plus, Carl took us to bet on the dog races at the bookies. It was very Irish :)

At the Blackrock Tower, we saw the below guy going for his afternoon swim, and thought he was absolutely crazy. And then we returned to San Francisco, and Cory started swimming in the SF Bay. Without a wetsuit. In December. Cory is now this crazy old man... :)

Reinacting the Guard
 A short while later, we arrived in Kerry, in another delightfully small village, Tarbert. Maire had warned us that we might not understand her family - apparently the challenge is due to heavy Irish accent mixed with a sprinkling of Irish words. And she was right! Even speaking slowly for our benefit, the conversation was a particularly delightful challenge. 

This is what it looks like when you put your hand in a cow's mouth
Cory driving an Irish tractor
Maire's Dad, the Irish Farmer
We spent the next days on the farm with Maire's family, learning about the cows and the coursing dogs their family trains. And now when we are home and buy some Kerrygold butter, we say a little thanks to her family's cows. Sunday afternoon brought a special treat when we went to the village pub (also owned by her family), The Swanky for Sunday roast dinner. As I was parked between the fire and the local priest, munching happily on my roast lamb with mint jelly and all the accompanying sides, I looked out the window to see a whole herd of men and women on horseback, returning from the morning's hunt. Seriously. Just trotting down the street through the center of town, as though we are accustomed to seeing things like this in California!
It was hard to believe, after these wonderful days, how we would fare on our own in the Irish countryside for the next few days. I think we did a pretty good job, but that's another story...


Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from America's Test Kitchen)

2 cups + 2 Tablespoons (10 5/8 oz) unbleached flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons salted Kerrygold Irish Butter, melted and cooled until just warm
1 cup packed (7 oz) light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1 large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk
1 overflowing Tablespoons vanilla extract
1 bag semisweet chocolate chips
A couple handfuls of toasted pecans or walnuts, if desired
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. 
2. Either by hand or with an electric mixer, mix both sugars and the butter.  Beat in the egg, yolk, and vanilla until combined.  Add the dry ingredients and beat on low until just combined.  Stir in the chips and nuts. 
3. Taste dough liberally to make sure it's not poisoned.
4. With a cookie scoop or two spoons, scoop cookies onto cookie sheets, 2-3 inches apart.
5. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until they are golden brown and the edges are dry, but not so long that the middles lose all their moisture. Cool on the baking sheets.
6. Serve in piles alonside a jug of fresh Irish milk. Yum!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Istanbul: where East meets West

After 2 weeks traveling around the Turkish countryside, it was time we made our way to Istanbul, to see what all the fuss is about. In comparison to the more rural areas of Turkey, Istanbul seemed very European, and lacked the mysterious Eastern flair we were expecting, but we did very much enjoy our week there.

We stayed in an apartment hotel just outside the old city, and spent most of our days sleeping in a little, visiting one or two tourist sites and then making our way home by sunset for drinks and dominoes on our rooftop terrace (along with the hauntingly beautiful sunset Call to Prayer from no fewer than 5 Mosques surrounding us), followed by cooking a Turkish dinner in our little apartment kitchen.

And then there's the kitties. Many people from home who we talked to about Istanbul and their experiences didn't notice that there were cats EVERYWHERE. Maybe we were just missing our own kitties at home, but this is a city for cat lovers, as there are cute, friendly, clean kitties all over the city! The shop keepers and residents feed them and care for them, but somehow the city isn't covered in their waste. Our two favorite run-ins were a cat meandering into the hair salon where Cory was getting a cut and hopped right into my lap for some lovies while I waited. And another cat crawled into my lap and fell asleep during a visit to Hagia Sofia.

In lieu of giving a play-by-play of our 5 days in Istanbul, here's a run down of our favorite spots and experiences (other than the kitties of course!!):

Basilica Cistern: My favorite spot in Istanbul for sure! Previously on the trip, we had both read Dan Brown’s book Inferno, which has its grand climactic ending in the humid, dark, and moody cistern. We also watched James Bond navigate the cistern in From Russia With Love. So by the time we showed up, we had plenty of things to look at down below (though sadly it was devoid of men in tuxes drinking martinis).

Egin Tekstil in the Grand Bazaar: although the bazaar itself is a bit overwhelming, this shop was a delight! We meandered in because there was a kitten sitting on a shelf in the front door (are you sensing a theme yet?!) and stayed to shop because the owner was incredibly friendly and had beautiful Turkish towels, soaps and things. We bought a bunch of things for ourselves and as gifts, and upon leaving found out that this is the famous shop described in our Rick Steves book! We would absolutely return and definitely recommend it!

Market Hall
Shopping at Egin Tekstil
Topkapi Palace: Beautiful gardens, colorful tiled rooms and a beautiful view of the Bosphorus once you get to the back of the palace. We paid extra to go through the Harem Section and thought it was absolutely worth it. We got a really good understanding of the culture of the harem and the lives of the women (and eunichs) who lived there: the Sultan’s mother and all his concubines and their children.  This is a section where you definitely want a book or an audio guide to give you some context and history, or you’ll just be walking through rooms of pretty tiles!

Taksim: this is the new side of Istanbul (you may have heard of it from the protests in 2013), which I found physically overwhelming and culturally underwhelming, and which Cory found to be a spirited and vibrant treat. The main street is packed with people and lots of internationally--known stores, but the side streets meander through independent art shops and galleries (ok, that part was really cool).  Certainly a different side of Istanbul from the old town.

Overall, our trip to Istanbul was a relaxing way to end our 3 weeks in Turkey. Sightseeing by day, taking in incredible sunsets over tea and the calls to prayer in the evenings was a fantastic end to our southern adventures. And now it was time for a change…off to Ireland we go!

Catching the train through Taksim
Enjoying the local wildlife
Where we stayed: A'la House AparthotelBinbirdirek Mh., Katip Sinan Cami Sk No:13, 34200 Estambul, Turkey. The proprieter was incredibly friendly and we would absolutely recommend this place for a relaxing and central stay in Istanbul!

Overall Costs: For 23 days total in Turkey, we spent $2583, for a daily average of $112. Our biggest cost putting us over $100 per day was renting a car (turns out Turkey has some of the most expensive gas in the world!). Our daily averages were housing ($36), transit ($29), food ($28) and other expenses ($20).