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Irish Adventures part 5

September 25, 2008

“Goodbye Castle, hello??”

Ahem……let me begin this email by mentioning where I am sitting as I write it………………………

A fire is spreading warmth and the smell of pine through the room. Outside the window I see rolling green fields covered in a fine fog. We are waiting for our room in Abbeyglen Castle, and the waiting is……let’s just say…..very bearable! We have the entire bar room to ourselves, and it feels as though our own personal waiter to clear away the oysters etc., once finished. Now you may think this is all terribly indulgent, and you’d be right!! Hee hee!!!

However, in my defense we are making up for a horrendous experience in Ennis last night (more about that later). Also – the castle was once owned by one John d’Arcy – Marissa’s father’s name – so it obviously was just meant to be. (The room rates were much lower than we expected too, so the guilt factor isn’t too uncomfortable). Anyhow, am getting ahead of myself……when I last wrote we had just left the warmth and welcome of Aisling house on the outskirts of Tipperary and headed in the Galway direction. The town of Tipperary wasn’t difficult to leave behind, as it didn’t have a great deal of charm. It was in Tipperary that we came across our first doof-doof car thumping down the street. Also amongst the locals there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of people with odd facial expressions. Picture mouths hanging open widely, rapid blinking and lurching strides. I hadn’t heard of any uranium mines nearby………….so not sure what to make of that.

Bunratty Castle was our next stop, and here they have created a replica village from the 1800’s. Small cottages are scattered throughout the castle grounds, fully furnished the way they might have been in years gone by. The surrounding farmyards are complete with chickens, goats, donkeys, deer and even pigs. Marissa felt compelled to take a picture of a pigs arse because she wants to remember it forever with humour. Go figure!! We did have a giggle over the curly tail!!

We wandered around for hours in the replica village, farm and castle and it was delightful. As with every major attraction we’ve visited in Ireland it came complete with a gift shop selling authentic Ireland artifacts fresh from the factory in Hong Kong!! The castle itself was very medieval with ramparts and narrow winding stairs up to the battlements. We were quite exhausted by the end of our wandering as the grounds are extensive and there’s a lot to see. Sheesh, this holiday stuff can be tiring! Once again we were extremely lucky with the weather, as what had been a little mist turned into hard rain just as we got back to the car. The universe was smiling on us yet again!!

Moving on we decided to stop for the night in Ennis, as we’d been told it’s an excellent place to find spontaneous Irish music. As an added bonus we found a very, very cheap B & B to stay at that was only a short walk into the centre of town. Our host, Noel, stood talking to us in the hall for about an hour and what a character he was! Noel is typical of the Irish men we’ve spoken to, with a ruddy complexion, an easy smile and fast, animated speech. Tripping over his words in his rush to share with us, Noel told us tales of his travels and a bit of background on the problems Ireland is facing now. Of course Marissa and I gave him a run for his money – so the conversation was rapid and spirited – just the way we like it!

Ennis had a lively, happening atmosphere during the day. Flowerpots hung from posts all along the streets adding bright splashes of colour to the overcast day. A market was prospering just outside the main street and we feasted on crepes with lemon and sugar from a stall during our travels. As this holidaying business requires so much energy, we felt the need shortly after to replenish and ducked in to Brogan’s pub to sample their roast of the day. A comfortable fire blazed in the hearth and the murmur of families chatting and groups celebrating made it even more welcoming. Although it’s horrendously expensive to eat and drink in Ireland, they also serve GIANT meals, so Marissa and I often buy one meal and split it in two. Would you believe between us we often have leftovers from this shared meal? It’s an amazing phenomenon that the Irish aren’t HUGE, considering the size of their servings.

Stumbling out of Brogans fully satisfied (for the moment at least) we made our way back to our B& B (Banner Lodge) and relaxed for a time – Marissa with her book and me in the bath for a long decadent soak. Fully refreshed and ready to experience the legendary night life, we set off with high expectations. The ambience of the town changed remarkably after nightfall. Charming little cobbled pathways morphed into alleys inhabited by sinister looking men smoking cigarettes and spitting. As in Tipperary Doof-doof cars prowled up and down the narrow main road, windows open to spill out maximum volume.

Back at Brogan’s pub we were delighted to see a sign out the front announcing “Traditional Irish music from 9pm tonight!!” As it was just after 9, we thought the timing was perfect. However, there wasn’t much activity inside. A few people sat eating late meals and some men were gathered at the bar, but otherwise the place was deserted and there was no evidence of music. Asking a staff member when the music started, she didn’t deign to speak to us, instead she gestured rudely towards a poster on the wall; “Live Irish music here every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.” Ok. So much for the advertisement outside!! Not to be deterred we decided to wander further down the road to explore a couple more places that had been recommended. First we found “Ciarians” in a little side street and a quick glance inside had us shutting the door quickly. A few token drunks leant precariously at the bar, and the place was otherwise empty.

Next on our list was “Quinns”, or at least that was what I was looking for. It turned out that I’d misheard, as the place was in fact “Queens.” Just as we were about to enter out came several guys with guitar cases, drums etc., You guessed it – the entertainment was over. However, they did mention that another band was starting at 10.30, so thus encouraged in we strolled. All Irish pubs are dimly lit and this was no exception. There weren’t many people there, and those present were clustered thickly about the bar. Marissa nabbed a seat while I squeezed through the mob at the bar to make an order. Trying to make eye contact with the busy bar staff wasn’t going so well when I realized that a person to my right was talking to me, only it didn’t sound like words. More like “blgrbhiu shihgyei ye?” I’m getting used to this initial confusion so I wasn’t too concerned until I took a really good look at my companion. In the dim light he bore a striking resemblance to Jaba the Hut – a small bald head sloping away without a neck to ever increasing rolls of fat. The shape wasn’t the only distinguishing feature that reminded me of Jaba – the heavy lidded eyes and language was also similar. This guy spoke a slurring version of Jaba-ness for sure. Adding to the attractive picture I realized that despite his best efforts he couldn’t focus through those Guinness-goggles he was wearing for eyes. Great! Time to make my escape. Only he followed me. Ahhhh!

Moving quickly through the room towards our bench seat I thought I may have succeeded in losing him as he was taking 4 stumbles to every step of mine. Getting closer to Marissa and what I thought of as a safe refuge I realized that she had a guy sitting beside her. “Phew,” I thought, “she’s found someone interesting to chat to and this guy will probably nick off when he sees we’re not alone.” Wrong on all counts! As I sat down Marissa was giving me unmistakable ‘save me’ eyes. Glancing at her companion I saw that unlike Jaba who was staggering alarmingly on my heels, this guy had a slight build, and judging by his comb-over obviously enjoyed a close relationship with Brill Cream. At this stage I should just say that the movie ‘PS I love you’ provided a great misrepresentation of the Irish male population. We have yet to find anyone who looks like the lead characters in that movie, despite looking in every location we’ve visited. Talk about false advertising!!

Back where the real Irishmen live, as opposed to the film version, I sat down and Marissa again gave me the meaningful eye contact that I noted had escalated to ‘let’s go now,’. This was not good. Even worse, glancing at Jaba, I had a moment when his towering form seemed destined to land on me with bone-breaking force. Have you seen that cartoon where the large lady is front on in the picture calling out “Here Puss, puss? Here Puss, puss?” and then in the next frame she turns around and there’s a squashed cat indented into her bum?? Well, that was almost my fate!!!! Yes, the wobbles started and the stagger threatened to send Jaba down upon my vulnerable form. By some miracle at the last minute he pirouetted ungracefully and his great weight landed on the bench beside me.

Oh what a lucky pair we were this night! There was Jaba on my left muttering “Grsde oopengey trrddkks” and…….well I wasn’t sure yet what the problem was with Mr Brill Cream. It didn’t take long to find out though. He had a case of verbal diarrhea of the worst kind – the yawn-inducing, grit your teeth kind. Worse yet he had a hard Liverpool accent and evidently a false sense of his own charisma. “I know everyone here in Ennis,” he proclaimed. “Yep, there’s not a local that doesn’t know me, cause me families from ‘ere.” That would explain why he was lurking alone in the shadows when we arrived. Jaba leant toward me to share more insights such as “Grdhi lobjs argd,” and his breath suggested he may have been chewing cow turds for dinner. This guys charm was increasing by the minute. Meanwhile Mr. Brill Cream was still droning on about how popular he was and how his knowledge Ennis region could be used to write a book. Spittle had collected in the corners of Jabas mouth as he repeated his earlier wisdoms. Our exit was overdue.

Hastily donning our coats we escaped and strode quickly through the streets to our B & B.  As we got nearer our lodge we saw crowds of lads leaning on parked cars, often shouting out to other vehicles as they slowly cruised by. Our hearts sank as we saw that our room overlooked a car park full of these industrious gentlemen. Within our room it was also quickly apparent that double-glazing hadn’t been used on the windows and that these boys were not only talented at yelling out obscenities to each other, they also enjoyed smashing the odd bottle and leaning on their car horns. Heavy sigh. Falling dejectedly onto our beds we noticed for the first time that rather than flat mattresses, these were more of the sagging in the middle variety. All of these factors added up to a night of little sleep and even less comfort. Now we understood why the rates had been so cheap.

What a sorry pair we made driving off in the morning. Although we tried not to wear our cranky pants, it was tough under the circumstances. To add to our mood, rain seemed to fall from several directions at once and a very thick fog rolled across the road from time to time. Things didn’t look too promising for our proposed visit to the cliffs of Moher and cruise to the Aran Islands. We had an early start, and it was before 9am when we arrived at the cliffs. We knew we were there because the sign announced it, but there wasn’t a hope in hell of seeing much more than a metre ahead of us through the thick fog and what had become driving rain. We knew there was still a possibility that we could catch a boat out to view the cliffs from the ocean later in the day, so we made our way to Doolin pier to organize tickets. On the waterfront huge plumes of white spray flew up with every powerful wave. Upon enquiry we were told boats were going nowhere.

Back to the car the weary soldiers drove on towards Galway. It was still only 11.30am when we hit town, and though we were bone tired, there wasn’t much chance of booking in anywhere this early, so we continued driving through Connemara towards the coastal town of Clifden. The countryside during this drive was pure magic. Pine forests with the tips of the branches shrouded in mist were scattered throughout the hills and valleys. Lakes lapped against the edges of the road and waterfalls began to pour across the road, so driving required total concentration. The road looked to have been asphalted last in 1925, and parts of it had succumbed to the pressure from torrents of water.

We consulted our Lonely Planet guide from the warm confines of our car and it was here we found Abbeyglen Castle, which brings me back to the beginning of this email. Did I mention there are two heli-pads in the grounds, along with a golf course, fountain, tennis courts and beautiful gardens? Dashing through the rain towards the entrance we were enchanted by the open fire in what I suppose would be called the ante-room before the reception area. The Castle oozes style and grace. Throughout the bottom story there are a multitude of sitting rooms furnished with deep, comfortable wing chairs and lounges, and all boast blazing fires.

When we were told our room was ready, I was almost reluctant to leave my snug and cozy spot by the fireplace. We were curious about the room of course, as if it matched the rest of the place, we were in for a treat. Well it’s not a room – it’s a suite!!! Woohoo!! After the porter deposited our bags we did a little dance of excitement through the rooms, oohing and aahing at the view over the golf course and gardens towards the ocean, the enormous bedroom and the two-room bathroom – with bidet! It was late afternoon by this time, and once we’d organized our bags, showered and dressed it was 6pm and we were famished! Time for dinner! Before making our way to the dining room we decided to ask if we could stay for another night. This place was beyond heaven! We were more than a little sad to be told that they were booked out. Ah well, we’d have to make the most of this one evening then.

Entering the dining room we saw that it was empty except for a few staff setting up cutlery and arranging plates. A short man with glasses approached us and I said “Oh sorry, are we early? We thought dinner was starting now.” During the afternoon we’d been chatting to a group of women who had called in for afternoon tea and they’d told us about the manager Paul. “Oh he’s just the most lovely man,” one gushed, while another thought he was “Quite a character.” They were both right! Paul moved towards us reaching out to grasp my hands “Oh lovely ladies,” he began, “dinner will be starting at 7.30, but can I suggest that you have a wee beverage downstairs in the meantime?”  He went on to say in his melodic Irish “Of course ladies if you’re absolutely starving we will get something for you immediately.” We told Paul we’d wait for dinner and he escorted us down to the bar.  “Emergency, emergency!” he said to the waiter at the bar “These lovely ladies are very important guests and we must organize a beverage for them straight away, and that will be out of my pocket money now.” You can’t complain about that sort of treatment can you?

Paul chatted to us for a while about where we were from and our plans. When we told him that we’d tried unsuccessfully to book another night in the castle he asked us what room we were in, wrote ‘21’ on his palm &  headed towards reception proclaiming “Emergency, emergency! We must find a room for these very important guests tomorrow night.” Marissa and I looked at each other and laughed, and before we knew it he was back to say that it was done. Bloody hell, we were impressed! The fairytale continued with our evening meal. The theme of quality and style continued here, from the crisp white linen to the heavy silverware and crockery. The soft light created a warm atmosphere as dusk closed in and coloured lights began to glow in the fountain below our window. Marissa kept insisting I pinch her and repeated “We’re dining in a castle in Ireland. We’re dining in a castle in Ireland” When it came time to order I thought it would be appropriate to order a bottle of Moet to celebrate the occasion. Marissa had never tasted Moet, and there couldn’t be a better opportunity to sip classy bubbles for the first time!

Paul had been circulating around the room chatting to people as he went, and made it to our table when the Moet arrived. “Oh very posh,” he commented, and then checked with the waiter that it was properly chilled. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite cold, but we insisted this wasn’t a problem as we’d simply keep it on ice for a little longer. Our meals were delivered by two waiters and they came out on hot plates covered by the sort of silver dome that I’ve only ever seen in movies. The waiters carefully placed our meals before us and then counted down ‘3, 2, 1’ before lifting the lids with a flourish!! Wow! True to our experience so far, the meal was superb. We took our time, lingering over the sensational meal and savouring the champagne. Half way through the dinner Paul arrived again and plonked another bottle of Moet in the champagne bucket “A little something extra for you lovely ladies to enjoy. It’s from my pocket money” he insisted. Ok, now we felt really special! It was then I realized that this guy was part Leprechaun. It’s the only answer!!

Marissa and I were a bit doubtful about our ability to drink two bottles of champagne without ugly consequences, so it remained unopened for several hours while we finished off our first bottle and made our way through three delicious courses. Eventually feeling that another bottle couldn’t do too much damage if consumed over several more hours, the cork was popped and we had the bucket taken downstairs to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. We found the bar area had been transformed by candle and firelight. A woman played the grand piano and sang with finesse, and we settled in for a long and memorable night. Marissa chatted to some newlyweds from Ohio while I talked to some Irish and Americans around the piano for most of the evening (when I wasn’t singing along with the rest of the crowd). To top the evening off, the piano player invited any other guests to sing or play or both, and what a treat we had. A guy got up from the crowd and took his seat at the piano and proceeded to blow us all away with his talent. Man, could he play, and could he sing. It was goosebump stuff!!

Falling into bed around 2am we both fell asleep with huge smiles on our faces! This was too good to be true. The morning dawned with a crisp blue, cloud-free sky for the first time and we were overjoyed! Could it get any better? Another bonus was the absence of a hangover. What a difference quality makes. Paul once again worked the room during breakfast until he spotted us and pulled up a chair for a chat. “And what are my very special guests planning for the day?” he asked. We hadn’t decided that much at this stage and told him so. This prompted him to jump up muttering “Emergency, emergency, we must find a map for these wonderful ladies.” Returning with said map, he suggested that rather than enduring the long drive back to Doolin to go out to the Aran Islands, we visit a local, less-touristy spot instead. He also mentioned that he had some other important (frequent) guests arriving by helicopter that day and that he would arrange for us to ‘go for a ride’ if we’d like. If we’d like???? Someone pinch me!!!

Taking turns pinching each other, Marissa and I set off for the island of Inishboffin that Paul had recommended. We’d been told that hiring a bike was a great way to see the island, so that’s just what we did. It’s been years since I’ve pedaled a bike, and it was fantastic to jump on and race off to explore the island. The first hour was grand as we rode up and down gentle slopes overlooking the ocean and stopped to take photos from time to time. It got a bit hairier when the gentle slopes turned into thigh-burning monsters, but we survived (walking up them of course) and considered it a bonus to burn off our gourmet meal of the night before. I joked to Marissa that I was probably sweating Moet bubbles!

The return ferry wasn’t due for a couple of hours, so we parked ourselves at a glass-fronted hotel overlooking the bay and sipped hot chocolates and just absorbed it all. Arriving back at the castle (God that has a ring to it doesn’t it??) we were very excited to see a bright blue helicopter sitting in the pad outside our window!!! Wow!! Could this really happen? Would we get a ride over Connemara, maybe even by the cliffs of Moher in this?? Like a couple of excited teenagers we skipped up to our room and began getting ready for dinner. Marissa was in the shower when the phone rang and Paul the leprechaun invited us to join him with a few other “Very Important People,” as his guests of honour for the evening. After we stopped dancing the jig and squealing (again like a couple of teenagers) we dashed about moaning about our lack of appropriate clothing and guessing what our dinner companions would be like. Maybe we would meet a celebrity? Whatever the case, it was sure to be interesting to meet with people who regularly fly by helicopter.

How fortuitous that we couldn’t get to the Aran Islands when we planned! It’s unlikely we would have discovered this part of Ireland if we’d been able to stick to our original plans. Life is stranger than fiction, wouldn’t you agree??? This chapter is definitely my favourite part so far!!!

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Irish Adventures part 4

September 16, 2008

“Castles and Champagne”

Ahem……let me begin this email by mentioning where I am sitting as I write it………………………

A fire is spreading warmth and the smell of pine through the room. Outside the window I see rolling green fields covered in a fine fog. We are waiting for our room in Abbeyglen Castle, and the waiting is……let’s just say…..very bearable! We have the entire bar room to ourselves, and it feels as though our own personal waiter to clear away the oysters etc., once I’ve finished. Now you may think this is all terribly indulgent, and you’d be right!! Hee hee!!!

However, in my defense we are making up for a horrendous experience in Ennis last night (more about that later). Also – the castle was once owned by one John d’Arcy – Marissa’s father’s name – so it obviously was just meant to be. (The room rates were much lower than we expected too, so the guilt factor isn’t too uncomfortable). Anyhow, am getting ahead of myself……when I last wrote we had just left the warmth and welcome of Aisling house on the outskirts of Tipperary and headed in the Galway direction. The town of Tipperary wasn’t difficult to leave behind, as it didn’t have a great deal of charm. It was in Tipperary that we came across our first doof-doof car thumping down the street. Also amongst the locals there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of people with odd facial expressions. Picture mouths hanging open widely, rapid blinking and lurching strides. I hadn’t heard of any uranium mines nearby………….so not sure what to make of that.

Bunratty Castle was our next stop, and here they have created a replica village from the 1800’s. Small cottages are scattered throughout the castle grounds, fully furnished the way they might have been in years gone by. The surrounding farmyards are complete with chickens, goats, donkeys, deer and even pigs. Marissa felt compelled to take a picture of a pigs arse because she wants to remember it forever with humour. Go figure!! We did have a giggle over the curly tail!!

We wandered around for hours in the replica village, farm and castle and it was delightful. As with every major attraction we’ve visited in Ireland it came complete with a gift shop selling authentic Ireland artifacts fresh from the factory in Hong Kong!! The castle itself was very medieval with ramparts and narrow winding stairs up to the battlements. We were quite exhausted by the end of our wandering as the grounds are extensive and there’s a lot to see. Sheesh, this holiday stuff can be tiring! Once again we were extremely lucky with the weather, as what had been a little mist turned into hard rain just as we got back to the car. The universe was smiling on us yet again!!

Moving on we decided to stop for the night in Ennis, as we’d been told it’s an excellent place to find spontaneous Irish music. As an added bonus we found a very, very cheap B & B to stay at that was only a short walk into the centre of town. Our host, Noel, stood talking to us in the hall for about an hour and what a character he was! Noel is typical of the Irish men we’ve spoken to, with a ruddy complexion, an easy smile and fast, animated speech. Tripping over his words in his rush to share with us, Noel told us tales of his travels and a bit of background on the problems Ireland is facing now. Of course Marissa and I gave him a run for his money – so the conversation was rapid and spirited – just the way we like it!

Ennis had a lively, happening atmosphere during the day. Flowerpots hung from posts all along the streets adding bright splashes of colour to the overcast day. A market was prospering just outside the main street and we feasted on crepes with lemon and sugar from a stall during our travels. As this holidaying business requires so much energy, we felt the need shortly after to replenish and ducked in to Brogan’s pub to sample their roast of the day. A comfortable fire blazed in the hearth and the murmur of families chatting and groups celebrating made it even more welcoming. Although it’s horrendously expensive to eat and drink in Ireland, they also serve GIANT meals, so Marissa and I often buy one meal and split it in two. Would you believe between us we often have leftovers from this shared meal? It’s an amazing phenomenon that the Irish aren’t HUGE, considering the size of their servings.

Stumbling out of Brogans fully satisfied (for the moment at least) we made our way back to our B& B (Banner Lodge) and relaxed for a time – Marissa with her book and me in the bath for a long decadent soak. Fully refreshed and ready to experience the legendary night life, we set off with high expectations. The ambience of the town changed remarkably after nightfall. Charming little cobbled pathways morphed into alleys inhabited by sinister looking men smoking cigarettes and spitting. As in Tipperary Doof-doof cars prowled up and down the narrow main road, windows open to spill out maximum volume.

Back at Brogan’s pub we were delighted to see a sign out the front announcing “Traditional Irish music from 9pm tonight!!” As it was just after 9, we thought the timing was perfect. However, there wasn’t much activity inside. A few people sat eating late meals and some men were gathered at the bar, but otherwise the place was deserted and there was no evidence of music. Asking a staff member when the music started, she didn’t deign to speak to us, instead she gestured rudely towards a poster on the wall; “Live Irish music here every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.” Ok. So much for the advertisement outside!! Not to be deterred we decided to wander further down the road to explore a couple more places that had been recommended. First we found “Ciarians” in a little side street and a quick glance inside had us shutting the door quickly. A few token drunks leant precariously at the bar, and the place was otherwise empty.

Next on our list was “Quinns”, or at least that was what I was looking for. It turned out that I’d misheard, as the place was in fact “Queens.” Just as we were about to enter out came several guys with guitar cases, drums etc., You guessed it – the entertainment was over. However, they did mention that another band was starting at 10.30, so thus encouraged in we strolled. All Irish pubs are dimly lit and this was no exception. There weren’t many people there, and those present were clustered thickly about the bar. Marissa nabbed a seat while I squeezed through the mob at the bar to make an order. Trying to make eye contact with the busy bar staff wasn’t going so well when I realized that a person to my right was talking to me, only it didn’t sound like words. More like “blgrbhiu shihgyei ye?” I’m getting used to this initial confusion so I wasn’t too concerned until I took a really good look at my companion. In the dim light he bore a striking resemblance to Jaba the Hut – a small bald head sloping away without a neck to ever increasing rolls of fat. The shape wasn’t the only distinguishing feature that reminded me of Jaba – the heavy lidded eyes and language was also similar. This guy spoke a slurring version of Jaba-ness for sure. Adding to the attractive picture I realized that despite his best efforts he couldn’t focus through those Guinness-goggles he was wearing for eyes. Great! Time to make my escape. Only he followed me. Ahhhh!

Moving quickly through the room towards our bench seat I thought I may have succeeded in losing him as he was taking 4 stumbles to every step of mine. Getting closer to Marissa and what I thought of as a safe refuge I realized that she had a guy sitting beside her. “Phew,” I thought, “she’s found someone interesting to chat to and this guy will probably nick off when he sees we’re not alone.” Wrong on all counts! As I sat down Marissa was giving me unmistakable ‘save me’ eyes. Glancing at her companion I saw that unlike Jaba who was staggering alarmingly on my heels, this guy had a slight build, and judging by his comb-over obviously enjoyed a close relationship with Brill Cream. At this stage I should just say that the movie ‘PS I love you’ provided a great misrepresentation of the Irish male population. We have yet to find anyone who looks like the lead characters in that movie, despite looking in every location we’ve visited. Talk about false advertising!!

Back where the real Irishmen live, as opposed to the film version, I sat down and Marissa again gave me the meaningful eye contact that I noted had escalated to ‘let’s go now,’. This was not good. Even worse, glancing at Jaba, I had a moment when his towering form seemed destined to land on me with bone-breaking force. Have you seen that cartoon where the large lady is front on in the picture calling out “Here Puss, puss? Here Puss, puss?” and then in the next frame she turns around and there’s a squashed cat indented into her bum?? Well, that was almost my fate!!!! Yes, the wobbles started and the stagger threatened to send Jaba down upon my vulnerable form. By some miracle at the last minute he pirouetted ungracefully and his great weight landed on the bench beside me. 

Oh what a lucky pair we were this night! There was Jaba on my left muttering “Grsde oopengey trrddkks” and…….well I wasn’t sure yet what the problem was with Mr Brill Cream. It didn’t take long to find out though. He had a case of verbal diarrhea of the worst kind – the yawn-inducing, grit your teeth kind. Worse yet he had a hard Liverpool accent and evidently a false sense of his own charisma. “I know everyone here in Ennis,” he proclaimed. “Yep, there’s not a local that doesn’t know me, cause me families from ‘ere.” That would explain why he was lurking alone in the shadows when we arrived. Jaba leant toward me to share more insights such as “Grdhi lobjs argd,” and his breath suggested he may have been chewing cow turds for dinner. This guys charm was increasing by the minute. Meanwhile Mr. Brill Cream was still droning on about how popular he was and how his knowledge Ennis region could be used to write a book. Spittle had collected in the corners of Jabas mouth as he repeated his earlier wisdoms. Our exit was overdue.   

Hastily donning our coats we escaped and strode quickly through the streets to our B & B.  As we got nearer our lodge we saw crowds of lads leaning on parked cars, often shouting out to other vehicles as they slowly cruised by. Our hearts sank as we saw that our room overlooked a car park full of these industrious gentlemen. Within our room it was also quickly apparent that double-glazing hadn’t been used on the windows and that these boys were not only talented at yelling out obscenities to each other, they also enjoyed smashing the odd bottle and leaning on their car horns. Heavy sigh. Falling dejectedly onto our beds we noticed for the first time that rather than flat mattresses, these were more of the sagging in the middle variety. All of these factors added up to a night of little sleep and even less comfort. Now we understood why the rates had been so cheap.

What a sorry pair we made driving off in the morning. Although we tried not to wear our cranky pants, it was tough under the circumstances. To add to our mood, rain seemed to fall from several directions at once and a very thick fog rolled across the road from time to time. Things didn’t look too promising for our proposed visit to the cliffs of Moher and cruise to the Aran Islands. We had an early start, and it was before 9am when we arrived at the cliffs. We knew we were there because the sign announced it, but there wasn’t a hope in hell of seeing much more than a metre ahead of us through the thick fog and what had become driving rain. We knew there was still a possibility that we could catch a boat out to view the cliffs from the ocean later in the day, so we made our way to Doolin pier to organize tickets. On the waterfront huge plumes of white spray flew up with every powerful wave. Upon enquiry we were told boats were going nowhere.

Back to the car the weary soldiers drove on towards Galway. It was still only 11.30am when we hit town, and though we were bone tired, there wasn’t much chance of booking in anywhere this early, so we continued driving through Connemara towards the coastal town of Clifden. The countryside during this drive was pure magic. Pine forests with the tips of the branches shrouded in mist were scattered throughout the hills and valleys. Lakes lapped against the edges of the road and waterfalls began to pour across the road, so driving required total concentration. The road looked to have been asphalted last in 1925, and parts of it had succumbed to the pressure from torrents of water.

We consulted our Lonely Planet guide from the warm confines of our car and it was here we found Abbeyglen Castle, which brings me back to the beginning of this email. Did I mention there are two heli-pads in the grounds, along with a golf course, fountain, tennis courts and beautiful gardens? Dashing through the rain towards the entrance we were enchanted by the open fire in what I suppose would be called the ante-room before the reception area. The Castle oozes style and grace. Throughout the bottom story there are a multitude of sitting rooms furnished with deep, comfortable wing chairs and lounges, and all boast blazing fires.  

When we were told our room was ready, I was almost reluctant to leave my snug and cozy spot by the fireplace. We were curious about the room of course, as if it matched the rest of the place, we were in for a treat. Well it’s not a room – it’s a suite!!! Woohoo!! After the porter deposited our bags we did a little dance of excitement through the rooms, oohing and aahing at the view over the golf course and gardens towards the ocean, the enormous bedroom and the two-room bathroom – with bidet! It was late afternoon by this time, and once we’d organized our bags, showered and dressed it was 6pm and we were famished! Time for dinner! Before making our way to the dining room we decided to ask if we could stay for another night. This place was beyond heaven! We were more than a little sad to be told that they were booked out. Ah well, we’d have to make the most of this one evening then.

Entering the dining room we saw that it was empty except for a few staff setting up cutlery and arranging plates. A short man with glasses approached us and I said “Oh sorry, are we early? We thought dinner was starting now.” During the afternoon we’d been chatting to a group of women who had called in for afternoon tea and they’d told us about the manager Paul. “Oh he’s just the most lovely man,” one gushed, while another thought he was “Quite a character.” They were both right! Paul moved towards us reaching out to grasp my hands “Oh lovely ladies,” he began, “dinner will be starting at 7.30, but can I suggest that you have a wee beverage downstairs in the meantime?”  He went on to say in his melodic Irish “Of course ladies if you’re absolutely starving we will get something for you immediately.” We told Paul we’d wait for dinner and he escorted us down to the bar.  “Emergency, emergency!” he said to the waiter at the bar “These lovely ladies are very important guests and we must organize a beverage for them straight away, and that will be out of my pocket money now.” You can’t complain about that sort of treatment can you?

Paul chatted to us for a while about where we were from and our plans. When we told him that we’d tried unsuccessfully to book another night in the castle he asked us what room we were in, wrote ‘21’ on his palm &  headed towards reception proclaiming “Emergency, emergency! We must find a room for these very important guests tomorrow night.” Marissa and I looked at each other and laughed, and before we knew it he was back to say that it was done. Bloody hell, we were impressed! The fairytale continued with our evening meal. The theme of quality and style continued here, from the crisp white linen to the heavy silverware and crockery. The soft light created a warm atmosphere as dusk closed in and coloured lights began to glow in the fountain below our window. Marissa kept insisting I pinch her and repeated “We’re dining in a castle in Ireland. We’re dining in a castle in Ireland” When it came time to order I thought it would be appropriate to order a bottle of Moet to celebrate the occasion. Marissa had never tasted Moet, and there couldn’t be a better opportunity to sip classy bubbles for the first time!

Paul had been circulating around the room chatting to people as he went, and made it to our table when the Moet arrived. “Oh very posh,” he commented, and then checked with the waiter that it was properly chilled. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite cold, but we insisted this wasn’t a problem as we’d simply keep it on ice for a little longer. Our meals were delivered by two waiters and they came out on hot plates covered by the sort of silver dome that I’ve only ever seen in movies. The waiters carefully placed our meals before us and then counted down ‘3, 2, 1’ before lifting the lids with a flourish!! Wow! True to our experience so far, the meal was superb. We took our time, lingering over the sensational meal and savouring the champagne. Half way through the dinner Paul arrived again and plonked another bottle of Moet in the champagne bucket “A little something extra for you lovely ladies to enjoy. It’s from my pocket money” he insisted. Ok, now we felt really special! It was then I realized that this guy was part Leprechaun. It’s the only answer!!

Marissa and I were a bit doubtful about our ability to drink two bottles of champagne without ugly consequences, so it remained unopened for several hours while we finished off our first bottle and made our way through three delicious courses. Eventually feeling that another bottle couldn’t do too much damage if consumed over several more hours, the cork was popped and we had the bucket taken downstairs to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. We found the bar area had been transformed by candle and firelight. A woman played the grand piano and sang with finesse, and we settled in for a long and memorable night. Marissa chatted to some newlyweds from Ohio while I talked to some Irish and Americans around the piano for most of the evening (when I wasn’t singing along with the rest of the crowd). To top the evening off, the piano player invited any other guests to sing or play or both, and what a treat we had. A guy got up from the crowd and took his seat at the piano and proceeded to blow us all away with his talent. Man, could he play, and could he sing. It was goosebump stuff!!

Falling into bed around 2am we both fell asleep with huge smiles on our faces! This was too good to be true. The morning dawned with a crisp blue, cloud-free sky for the first time and we were overjoyed! Could it get any better? Another bonus was the absence of a hangover. What a difference quality makes. Paul once again worked the room during breakfast until he spotted us and pulled up a chair for a chat. “And what are my very special guests planning for the day?” he asked. We hadn’t decided that much at this stage and told him so. This prompted him to jump up muttering “Emergency, emergency, we must find a map for these wonderful ladies.” Returning with said map, he suggested that rather than enduring the long drive back to Doolin to go out to the Aran Islands, we visit a local, less-touristy spot instead. He also mentioned that he had some other important (frequent) guests arriving by helicopter that day and that he would arrange for us to ‘go for a ride’ if we’d like. If we’d like???? Someone pinch me!!!

Taking turns pinching each other, Marissa and I set off for the island of Inishboffin that Paul had recommended. We’d been told that hiring a bike was a great way to see the island, so that’s just what we did. It’s been years since I’ve pedaled a bike, and it was fantastic to jump on and race off to explore the island. The first hour was grand as we rode up and down gentle slopes overlooking the ocean and stopped to take photos from time to time. It got a bit hairier when the gentle slopes turned into thigh-burning monsters, but we survived (walking up them of course) and considered it a bonus to burn off our gourmet meal of the night before. I joked to Marissa that I was probably sweating Moet bubbles!

The return ferry wasn’t due for a couple of hours, so we parked ourselves at a glass-fronted hotel overlooking the bay and sipped hot chocolates and just absorbed it all. Arriving back at the castle (God that has a ring to it doesn’t it??) we were very excited to see a bright blue helicopter sitting in the pad outside our window!!! Wow!! Could this really happen? Would we get a ride over Connemara, maybe even by the cliffs of Moher in this?? Like a couple of excited teenagers we skipped up to our room and began getting ready for dinner. Marissa was in the shower when the phone rang and Paul the leprechaun invited us to join him with a few other “Very Important People,” as his guests of honour for the evening. After we stopped dancing the jig and squealing (again like a couple of teenagers) we dashed about moaning about our lack of appropriate clothing and guessing what our dinner companions would be like. Maybe we would meet a celebrity? Whatever the case, it was sure to be interesting to meet with people who regularly fly by helicopter.

How fortuitous that we couldn’t get to the Aran Islands when we planned! It’s unlikely we would have discovered this part of Ireland if we’d been able to stick to our original plans. Life is stranger than fiction, wouldn’t you agree??? This chapter is definitely my favourite part so far!!!

Irish Adventures part 3

 September 13, 2008

“Snogging the Blarney Stone”

Hi again,

It had to happen! We’ve finally experienced the miserable weather that everyone warned us about! Rain is whipping away like crazy at the windows as I write this, but thankfully we managed to find refuge before getting a drop on us. Must be the luck of the Irish Aussies! We’ve been so damn lucky with rain so far. It can be pouring down, and just as we pull into a car park it will slow to a drizzle or stop all together. The universe is smiling on us!!

So……where was?

From Waterford we visited New Ross and a replica of one of the ships that took Irish famine victims to America, the ‘Newbrody’. What an experience it proved to be. It wasn’t a large vessel, yet up to 300 people were crammed on board for the 6 week trip across the ocean. A space no bigger than a double bed was allocated for up to 10 people. Inadequate food rations, disease and lack of sanitation meant these vessels were referred to as ‘coffin ships’. Actors dressed as they would have at the time gave a performance below deck based on real records. A Mrs. O’Neill from steerage came forward mopping her brow as she burnt up with fever. Typhoid and Cholera were the main killers on the journey. Mrs. O’Neill explained in softly spoken Irish that she came aboard with her husband, 5 children and 40 shillings. Sadly Mrs. O’Neill and her husband died on the voyage, and there is no record of what became of the orphaned children. There were many, many such stories and it was both fascinating and horrifying to hear them recounted.

After that rather somber experience, we decided to lighten things up by driving one of the scenic routes to Kilkenny. The path we took has been called the ‘craft route’ as this region of Ireland is well known for its artists. We’ve found the Irish term ‘scenic route’ usually also equates to ‘dangerous, narrow and winding’, and this was no exception. Just had the thought that maybe we’re crawling into bed so embarrassingly early each night partly because of the white-knuckle driving we’re doing each day? Of course we stop whenever the whim is upon us, and this day we spied an old church set back from the road and decided to explore. The building sat next to a creek that was foaming white with the influx of water from the recent rains, causing a pleasant gentle roar. Huge fir trees with trunks covered in thick rich green moss towered over the building, dwarfing its simple lines. There was a bell tower in a little courtyard to the back, and childish though it may have been, I just couldn’t resist giving the rope a tug and smiling at the impressively deep tone that sounded – though I did half expect some angry clergyman to come charging out of the church to abuse me!

We were alone there though apart from two local Irish ladies who we suspected may have been nuns who encouraged us to go inside.  It was clear as we entered that the church still being used regularly. It looked exactly like any other working church, complete with a lit candle on the altar, hymn books on the back of the pews and a statue of Jesus up there gazing down on it all. The stained glass window bathed the whole inside with gentle coloured light, and the sound from the creek outside was a gentle murmur that could only just be discerned. Passing the confessional, again the little devil inside me couldn’t resist opening and peaking at the side that the priest sits on. Much cozier than the whole kneeling situation the ‘sinners’ have to endure I must say. We got a couple of pictures of ourselves in pious poses within the confessional. Naughty maybe, but we didn’t get struck by lightning or thunderbolts as a result. Hee hee!

Safely arriving in Kilkenny (land of the victorious Hurlers) we immediately settled ourselves into Kytelers pub for the necessary lunchtime refreshments. History seeps out of the walls in these place with their low ceilings, dim lighting (gotta love that), and thick old beams. Marissa has taken quite a liking to Guinness, and was so thrilled when her first pint arrived with a perfectly formed clover indented in the foam. So amazed was she by this clever artistry that she proceeded to take a great many photos of the glass. There were a few raised eyebrows from the locals at that, let me tell you! Bloody tourists taking photos of Guinness! Sheesh! What’ll they do next? I still haven’t been brave (or drunk) enough to try the stuff. It looks so dark and nasty to me and doesn’t smell too good either.

Refreshed and revitalized we set off for a tour of the totally restored Kilkenny Castle. Oddly, the tour guide had a strong Yugoslavian accent that made him difficult to understand at times,  but he also had a sharp wit and his anecdotes were amusing when we heard them. The castle has been restored to its full magnificence, complete with some original furniture and artworks. It was easy to imagine the royals striding regally down the grand staircases or dancing in the ballroom. Well worth the stop!

Our next port of call was the city of Cork. Driving in to Cork the skyline was peppered with big chimneys’ spewing smoke and the silhouette of cranes. Not terribly inviting or attractive. Many of the main roads in Irish cities were designed before cars were invented, so in Cork, as with many of the cities we’ve explored, the traffic congestion was nightmarish. Crawling slowly through the peak hour traffic, we were again frustrated with the absence of signs.

One of our hosts at a B & B told us that the Irish absolutely hate signs. We’d been moaning over the fact that we often came to a T intersection or some such that provides no clues as to which direction we should head. “Oh yes indeed,” he smiled, “We had a big sign erected just down the road from us some years back showing that it was the N24 motorway and some other information. Of course it was a huge thing, cemented into place solidly. Well the day after it was put up wouldn’t you know that it was found half submerged in the river? Indeed the supports had been sawn off,” he chuckled. “Again and again they’d put the thing back up only to find it back in the river the next day. Oh yes, the Irish don’t like signs much. In the end they gave up. I suspect that may be a common enough thing to happen in these parts,” he mused. Hmmm… that explains a lot.

Thankfully we didn’t get too lost this time. It only took us a couple of days to establish that Marissa is missing the part of the brain that is able to interpret maps. Once we’d worked this out I took over the navigating and she has been doing a lot more of the driving and it’s proven to be a good formula. We also stop and ask for direction more often, though this has mixed results. The Irish seem to have a fairly flexible approach to the concept of right and left and a rather vague way of describing routes. “Ah yes love,” is often the response, “You’ll be after this road here for a little while before you turn off right on a ways.” At this point they will indicate with their left hand where we should turn. We’ve also noticed that asking for a repetition of the instructions can sometimes lead to a complete contradiction of earlier information. Altogether confusing, but that’s Ireland!

So, despite the challenges we managed to find the B & B we’d picked out from the lonely planet guide. Street numbers are also a rare thing over here on the Emerald Isle, and most addresses have none. This establishment was listed as “Garnish House, Western Rd, Cork.” Western Rd is long…….and packed with B & B’s, but by some miracle we found it. Unfortunately a bunch of American tourists had found it before us and in true red, white and blue style managed to fill the place up with the sound of their loud twang. Cork wasn’t one of our favourite stops, so we moved on.

Time for Blarney Castle and some lip smacking on stone! Once again our luck held with the weather and having ascended the very narrow, steep and uneven steps inside the castle, we got to the Blarney Stone to find the drizzle had stopped. This was a very good thing, as it would have been a miserable experience standing exposed on the top of the castle waiting in line to kiss the rock. As it was we didn’t have to wait long, and now we’re both ‘blessed with eloquence.’ Eloquence is what the Blarney Stone imparts apparently. Can’t you tell by my improved writing style?? Well, maybe not! Lol!!

Our next stop was Killarney, and after a visit to the tourist information for a map and list of B & B’s we set off to find a bed for the night. To our disappointment the first few B & B’s were fully booked, so we had to go down the list to the less salubrious establishments. At one place we knocked and when she answered the door the woman retreated several paces down the hall to speak to us from an uncomfortable distance. It may have been that she thought it was dimmer from that vantage point? She had severely crossed eyes and a rather disconcerting twist to her mouth. She also had a stooped posture and a habit of rubbing her hands together up close to her face that totally added to her witch-like countenance. Creepy!!

It had started to rain by then, so we decided to check out the room anyway. Usually the B & B owners offer to show you the room, and welcome you with a smile. Not so Ms. Witchy-poo. She just stood in the shadows with a malevolent stare until we asked if we could see the room. Turning abruptly she lurched up the stairs to a room with two single beds in it and nothing else. It was empty of other furniture because there wasn’t any space for more. The two beds were touching in the middle, and if you breathed in you could get around the edges. Obviously no ensuite or any other ‘luxuries’. Like an old married couple Marissa and I did the eye contact thing and we both knew exactly what the other was thinking. That would be a resounding ‘NO’. The whole time Witchy-poo stood there watching us – though admittedly it was hard to tell what she was looking at because her eyes seemed magnetized to the bridge of her nose., Dry-washing her hands with frightening intensity she leered from a distance. It was brighter upstairs and we could see that she had a wee problem with facial hair that in no way improved her looks. We didn’t want to offend, so I tried to be diplomatic, “Look, sorry, but we have a lot of luggage and we actually need something a little bigger.” Colour crept up her grimacing face and spittle collected at the corner of her mouth. “What are you after then,” she snarled, “a castle?”

I muttered something like “Yes, actually that would be good,” before high-tailing it out of sinister headquarters. There’s that Deliverance soundtrack again! Sadly, the next place we tried we also had a frigid welcome. Again, there was no offer to show us the room, and with a rather loud sniff and a turning down of her already-pursed mouth she simply turned her back on us and lead us up the stairs. This room wasn’t a closet like the one at Witchy-poos, but it was still very small, and the house totally reeked of a mix of Mortein and Mr. Sheen. It was about as welcoming as a septic tank. Pursed-mouth wasn’t too pleased when we politely turned this room down too. She just gave another obvious sniff, looked down her nose like she’d smelt something bad and turned her back on us. Again, she didn’t attempt to show us out and we rather hastily made our way down the stairs and out of the noxious smelling premises.

We decided that Killarney was altogether too scary, and that we needed to blow this town. Wearily, we returned to the car to explore the smaller outlying B & B’s. Thankfully we found a place off the beaten track (The Pot of Gold) that had a really large room and blissfully, an ensuite. It was in the town of Beaufort, and as a double bonus it was stumbling distance to two pubs! Excellent! Or so we thought.

Pub number one was obviously a working man’s hang out, and the bar was populated by Ireland’s equivalent of Australia’s blue-singlet brigade. There was only a low murmur of conversation, as most of the men propping up the bar seemed to be frowning dejectedly into their beers. The barman scowled at us when we ordered as though we’d trodden mud (or worse) into his establishment. There was also a very pungent body odour permeating the room that contributed to the rather unpleasant vibe. We drank up fast and headed down the road to what we thought might be a more family-oriented place. Not! Perhaps smiling had been banned in Beaufort and nobody told us? Again our reception was hostile, but we decided to persevere and ended up playing a few games of darts. The barman handed over three mismatched darts – very begrudgingly I might add. Altogether disappointing, as we’d been hoping to chat with locals, maybe experience a bit of the legendary spontaneous music. Not likely in this town! Ah well – the rain turned into a nasty storm as it turned out (I began this email in Beaufort) and we were snug and tucked in by then, so perhaps it was for the best.

The next day we headed for Killarney National Park, Dingle Peninsula and Dunloe Gap. It was a miserable, blustery day and our host at Beaufort mentioned that as the weather was so inclement, the ‘Jaunting Cars’ wouldn’t be running and that we could take our car through Dunloe Gap, despite this usually not being possible. ‘Jaunting Cars’ are horse-drawn buggies and for a mere $160 you can ride one through the gap for an hour. At that price, had there been opportunity, we probably would have passed on that anyway. That would have been such a tragedy, because we were to experience some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery imaginable.

We were a little taken aback to discover a very large sign that announced cars were not allowed through the gap. Hmmm………should we trust Joan’s advice? The rain lashed down and horses with their heads hanging low and their carriages covered in blue tarp stood forlornly near the entrance. We decided there was nothing to lose and off we set with Marissa clutching the steering wheel tightly and leaning forward with intense concentration. Mountains rose majestically before us, mist and rain obscuring their peaks. Waterfalls were abundant and flowing fiercely. It’s difficult to describe how utterly breathtaking the scene was. Dark, almost black clouds hung between the valleys and the rain was a fine mist that caused the most curious effect in the wind. The very air seemed to consist of ghostly waves, adding to the mystical atmosphere. At times the road was very, very narrow, and rocks jutted out so frighteningly close to both sides of the car that we found ourselves holding our breath as we inched between them. Thank God there were no other cars we thought! If we were to meet up with another vehicle on this steep, tight road it would mean one of us would have to reverse down. Aaaahhh!  No sooner had we spoken the words and we spotted a car heading towards us. Gulp!! We both broke out in a cold sweat and decided this had been a very bad idea. Shit! We should have taken out the extra insurance!! Inching around the next bend we saw with intense relief that there was just enough space on the edge of the track for us to pull aside, though it looked like we might get bogged in the mud, there was no choice. We survived a couple of these encounters during our trip through the Gap, and only had to reverse once in a relatively easy space.

We emerged from the gap feeling that we’d just had a truly magical experience. The pictures can’t possibly do the place justice as the scale and ambience can’t be transferred (at least not by this photographer). Having said that, we took many, many shots (often from inside the car as it was raining so hard).  The next leg of our trip was towards Dingle and the peninsula. Here the road was better, but at times the edge of the asphalt dropped away to a steep cliff without any barrier between us and empty space towards the ocean. While it’s refreshing to travel in a country that hasn’t taken OH & S on as a religion, it can also be a teensy bit scary at times, particularly when wind gusts rocked the car or another vehicle came towards us at speed. Sometimes the words ‘Go Mall’ (Irish for reduce speed) were written in big white letters on the road just before a particularly dangerous hairpin or steep incline, but usually there was no warning. At one point a creek flowed over the road, though it was relatively shallow, we still weren’t too keen on taking our little Fiesta through it. Again – no choice as reversing wasn’t possible. We survived and patted ourselves enthusiastically on the back after!

Dingle was obviously a popular tourist attraction as busloads of tourists thronged along the waterfront. The accommodation was the most expensive we’ve had to fork out so far (70 Euros each for a bland room with no view). The bonus was that we were staying at the Dingle Bay Hotel and the place had live music that night! Woohoo! Time to party!! All frocked up and excited about the prospect of real live Irish music, we wandered down to the bar. The music was beautiful, but more of the haunting ballad-style than the rowdy tap your feet kind of mood we were after. Dashing out in the rain, I checked out Murphy’s pub next door and that was where it was rocking, so there we moved and there we stayed until the place closed. The group called themselves “The Shenanigans” and they didn’t play traditional Irish music at all, instead, they had the place rocking with numbers like “Living next door to Alice” (you know the one where the audience yells back “Alice, Alice, who the f&^Ik is Alice?”. They played Wild Colonial Boys for us – the only Aussies in the place. We danced with Americans, Spaniards, Germans and English. Danced and sang and drank and laughed and crammed a couple of weeks partying into one night! At around 3am we found ourselves back at the closed bar of the Dingle Bay Hotel having a drink or 7 with the owner and a few of the staff……. I think…….hiccup……Thankfully I have control over the downloading of photo’s each day, and let me tell you some of the less flattering pictures of me will not be saved!!

Waking up (or should I say regaining consciousness) the next morning was not a pleasant experience. There was no drummer in the previous night’s performance, but there was definitely one camped in my sore head this morning and he was pounding away in time to my rolling tummy. Marissa was begging me to shoot her, but as I told her at the time if there was a gun I’d be aiming it at myself. We didn’t get to see the breakfast banquet, as we were too busy moaning and being utterly miserable in our rooms. The concept of driving anywhere was just……appalling. However, white-faced and shaking we made our way to the car (down 33 stairs I might add) and began our journey forward. We went through O’Connell’s pass which turned out to be bloody hair-raising and the long way to Tipperary (I shit you not).

Needless to say we didn’t take any photos or make any deviations on our way to Tipperary. The scenery might have been the best we’ve seen so far – I really couldn’t tell you as my eyes were coated in sandpaper and locked on the road before us. We took turns driving and sleeping for the couple of hours our journey. Eventually we felt able to eat something and stopped in Tralee for brunch around 11.30 (that’s where I spoke to you on the phone Rog, so apologies if I sounded a bit flat am sure you understand now). Have I mentioned how incredible the colour green is over here? We’ve been trying to come up with words to describe the unique quality of the colour – verdant, lush, luxurious, emerald……..but today it was just LOUD! Towards the end of our trip this day we came across a frustrating delay in the form of roadworks. When we saw how the Irish set up their witches hats we laughed until we had tears streaming down our faces. Talk about overkill!!! For several kilometres the hats were placed – but it was their formation that had us in hysterics. Where in Australia the hats would be spaced a couple of metres apart – here they were tightly clustered – almost touching. On and on they went as far as the eye can see.  

Getting through the sea of orange and white witches hats we eventually found Aisling House just out of Tipperary. This has proved to be our favourite B & B so far. Tony greeted us to the door and gave us a warm Irish welcome – he even made us laugh a couple of times which was miraculous considering how we felt. The shower was heavenly as there was actually enough pressure to get wet under, which hasn’t always been the case at previous B & B’s. We also managed to catch up on our washing which means we smell better I’m sure!!

I’m sitting in our room now typing and it’s a HUGE space with two double beds and plenty of space to spread out. The entire home has been decorated in an opulent red and cream theme. Our window looks out over a splendid expanse of that uniquely luxurious green grass – thankfully it doesn’t appear so lurid today. We had a solid, refreshing sleep last night in blissful quite and have just polished off an excellent Irish breakfast. Tony had us in stitches over breakfast with his stories and we’re hitting the road with a smile on our faces once more. Today we’re aiming for Bunratty Castle and a few other attractions around Galway.

Leaving you now to pack up and explore some more. Onward to more adventures!!!

Irish Adventures part 2

11/9/08

“Hurling in Ireland.”

Hi everyone,

As I’m beginning this email it’s 7.30am in the morning Aussie time, 10.30pm in Ireland. While you begin your day I’m comfortably propped up with many pillows on a big double bed looking out a large, rain-splattered window. The view is down to the unfortunately named River Suir and the city of Waterford below. Marissa has just made me a lovely cuppa and we’re resting after a day of driving down endless Irish laneways in search of elusive landmarks. You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard to find a castle right? Well, today we outdid ourselves by failing to find any of the attractions we set out to see. The Irish certainly have a sense of humour when it comes to signage and directions. We ended this successful foray into county Waterford by visiting the Waterford Treasures Museum which was so stunningly boring we almost had to be resuscitated by the end of the tour. Bet you’re not jealous anymore?

Ah well, it’s the journey, not the destination right? When last I wrote we had just checked in to our Hotel in Dublin. Marissa took off to a comedy show while this raging party hound curled up in bed and tried to catch up on zzz’s. Our second day in Ireland involved a bus tour of the city. The tour guide burst into song occasionally and to my utter embarrassment, I felt myself crying every time he started! He sang such hauntingly familiar songs (that oddly, I can’t recall hearing before) in a rich, deep baritone. So there I was sitting in the front at the top of a green bus rumbling through the streets of Dublin, sniffling and blinking fast and trying not to be obvious about it. Marissa went to tell me something, noticed my snuffling and blubbering and did the ‘What’s the matter?” thing to which I wailed “I’m just SO HAPPY!!!” And no, I wasn’t drunk – though the lack of sleep may have made me a teensy bit more fragile than usual. Now I didn’t have to reveal that particular bit, so if any of you boys (or girls) reading give me any grief over it I will get violent. Consider yourself warned! 

We ended up jumping off the bus at the National Art Gallery, as we’d really enjoyed the gallery experience in London. What we didn’t realize was that it was a ‘modern’ art gallery. The very first piece of ‘art’ we studied consisted of a bit of butchers paper with the words “You give me the creeps” written in red child-like scrawl across it. Hmmm…..that was enough to set us off giggling like fools. The rest of the exhibition was in a similar vein – both in terms of the ‘art’ and our reaction. My favourite was a piece of lined foolscap paper that had obviously been scrunched up and flattened out again before being framed. Beautiful!!  The gallery staff may have thought we had a rather odd reaction to the displays, as no matter what we saw we had the same response – uncontrollable belly laughs! Yep. Everyone’s a critic.

Controlling our mirth with difficulty, we rejoined the bus tour and headed back to central Dublin. We strolled through crowded cobbled streets and window-shopped until we eventually came across the statue of Molly Malone. It was here at the base of the monument that we met the character Connor. Perched on the base of the monument to Molly, Connor played passionately on an Irish Bodrham (not sure of spelling – like a tambourine, but a traditional drum). Not a young Man, Connor would have been at least 70 years of age, but played that drum with the energy of a much younger person. What a figure he made with his infectious, open smile, the slightly reddened, shiny complexion of a man who’d spent a lot of time outdoors (or indoors with a pint) and rheumy blue eyes that nevertheless sparkled with mischief.  Dressed in traditional Irish garb – a perky little tweed cap and a worn patchwork waistcoat dotted with badges from around the world, Connor had drawn quite a crowd.

Stepping up to place some coins in his cup prompted Connor to stop playing and immediately jump up to thank us profusely and ask if we’d like a picture of with him. As it turned out, Connor was only too delighted to chat to us while the crowd dispersed waiting for him to recommence. It’s hard to put down in words what a charisma the man had, and how happiness just shone from him. “Oh and aren’t I the luckiest man in the world?” he said. “Look at the people I meet every day, the music I make, the smiles I see!” There was no doubt that his pleasure was genuine, and it was so wonderful to hear his soft accent and share his cheerfulness. We’ll each treasure the photo we have of Connor grinning so contagiously into the lense. Just before we left him to go back to entertaining the patiently waiting crowd, he recommended that we head off to O’Neill’s pub. This proved a great tip as the pub is awesome.

O’Neill’s is a rambling, dimly lit pub that smelt of roast meat, beer and laughter. There appeared to be 3 or 4 levels to the place depending on where you were standing – stairways that didn’t lead anywhere, little alcoves that once explored led to comfy, intimate little corner spaces furnished with a leather lounge or 2. When we arrived it was relatively quiet, and by the time we left it was throbbing with the sound of raised voices and clinking glasses. We found it’s very expensive to drink in Ireland. A Stoli costs the equivalent of AU$12 a bottle, a glass of wine anywhere from AU$14 – $20. Ouch.

Marissa and I are nothing if not resourceful, and we had learnt in London that buying your own wine by the bottle didn’t hurt the wallet so much. Stocked up with a reasonable white wine, we decided to have a wee party in our room that night before heading out for some traditional Irish music and dancing at the Arlington across the river. The best laid plans etc., We started getting ready to go out about 6pm, but there must have been some sort of time warp in Dublin, because by the time we were ready to leave it was nearly 9.30pm. Oops. Missed the show. Oh well, we thought (hiccup) we’ll just wander over anyway and see what’s happening. Not a lot as it turned out. Oddly for a place that’s known for its inclement weather, they didn’t open their cloak rooms till 11.30pm. We didn’t fancy standing around like eejits with our coats for a couple of hours, so like the true party animals we have become in our dotage, we meandered back to our hotel.

The Paramount where we were staying is in the heart of Temple Bar – the nightlife capital of Dublin. It was an experience in itself walking back through the congested narrow cobbled streets. Crowds formed around buskers in tight passageways, and their music had to compete with various nightclubs pumping out music at maximum volume. We pushed through big packs of tarted up women on Hens nights and loud lads who seemed to have lost their volume control. Sadly, there are a great many beggars in Dublin and here we saw a young girl of 15 or so carrying a 6mth old baby working the crowd. “Can you spare some money for me and my baby?” she’d ask as she approached likely marks. We had seen several women in the city with toddlers or babies sitting on the sidewalk with a cup in front of them begging, so it wasn’t new, but remained very disturbing to see.

Eventually we made our way back to the Paramount and decided to call it a night. Oh yes, the town of Dublin was shaking in its foundations from the serious partying we’d brought to town. The thing was, Dublin didn’t seem to care that we wanted to sleep, and it stubbornly refused to co-operate. 3 stories up provided no insulation to the screams, shouts, sirens and beeping horns that shook the night. At around 2am I had the bizarre idea that I could hear a horse clip-clopping amongst all the cacophony. For a brief time I thought that it could be a dream and that sleep may have claimed me without my noticing. This hope was dashed when leaning out my window I saw that indeed there was a horse and carriage plodding loudly down the alleyway amongst the messy crowd. Go figure.

The less said about that sleepless night the better. As I’d managed to kip through a plane taking off, I’d thought that it was possible anywhere. I was wrong. Did I mention how fatigue had added 10-15 years to my face? On Sunday morning this was a conservative estimate. Let’s just say I could go and apply for a senior’s card without any raised eyebrows. It was in this state that we had to pack up and go get our rental car.  Thankfully, it was relatively easy to get out of Dublin and we headed south on the motorway towards county Wicklow for our first foray into rural Ireland.

As all freeways look the same, and I was driving, I decided to take us via the more scenic routes and quickly exited onto a smaller road. We travelled through those typical country lanes you’ve heard about where the canopy of branches form a dappled and inviting arch to drive through, where the hedges are so close to the side of the road that they brush the car as you drive by. Alarmingly in some spots the hedges brush both sides of the car – we had been warned about this Irish traffic foible, so took it as slowly and carefully as possible. In this way we meandered through the town and Bray on the coast and intended to continue on to Greystones. Arriving in Bray for the second time, we stopped for lunch and sat pondering the fact that we had managed to drive in a loop. Amazingly, we had a bench seat in the sun that overlooked the ocean, so we weren’t too concerned. To our surprise we saw a dolphin playing out amongst the slate-coloured waves, and decided we’d been returned here to see this very sight.

When we left Bray we were confident that we had checked our position and were headed south, so it wasn’t even slightly amusing when we saw “Welcome to Bray.” F*&K the dolphins!!! I’ve read this book! It’s a horror!! Amidst much teeth gnashing and frowns we re-consulted the map and decided that it lied. Despite fears that we would forever be trapped in Bray, like some kind of Irish groundhog day, we did manage to escape eventually. It was on to Greystones, Arklow and a town called Enniscorthy seemed a good spot to stop for the evening. At least we thought we’d stay in Enniscorthy as the Lonely Planet Guide suggested a few inviting B & B’s would welcome us. Firstly though, there was a pressing bladder issue to settle. It’s easy to find a loo in Ireland people told us, just wander in to any pub and use the amenities there. Obviously whoever told us that has not been to Ireland. If only it were that simple. Firstly, it was Sunday and the streets of Enniscorthy were eerily absent of people. Up and down roads we went and only one or two people walking the streets in this relatively large town. It was 4pm on a Sunday and not a single convenience store or service station was open. Meanwhile back at the bladder things were getting Urgent with a capital ‘U’.

Desperately driving faster (as though it would help to get nowhere more quickly), up and down the empty streets we drove. “There’s one!” Marissa screamed triumphantly, and indeed a small sign indicated “O’Shea’s Hotel.” Parking the car in the Irish way – wherever the hell it landed – we hurried across to the door of the pub and the sound of a mob within. My bladder suggested being shy wasn’t an option so I marched boldly in to a crowded room full of big, hairy, aggressive looking men. Marissa insists there was a token female amongst them, but am sure she had long hair confused with female gender. My marching abruptly turned to hesitant steps as I realized all eyes were on us and that the sound of laughter and talking had stopped. The only sound in the room was a match on the big screen TV. We’ve found the people in Ireland have been amazingly friendly, and yet, in this tiny little bar in the south-west backwaters there was hostility in their gazes. Marissa bumped in to my back as my steps faltered and the sound of the Deliverance movie began playing in my head. Oh yeah, I’ve seen this movie too, & I didn’t like the ending. Scanning the room frantically for any sign of a toilet we saw nothing but harsh glares. It was a little pub so it didn’t take too many strides to get the hell out of there.

Racing back to the car we jumped in and with a squeal of tires raced away from the scene. The bladder issue had moved into the red zone. Forget ‘Urgent’ and think ‘Critical’. At this moment we spotted one of those horrible Dr. Who style Tardus structures that house a loo in the middle of a street. Fumbling Euros (can’t believe they charge  people to use facilities like this) we eventually came out able to talk and move normally, but still rather stunned with the recent events. What the hell had just happened in that pub? We weren’t so sure we wanted to stay here anymore. Consulting our Lonely Planet Guide again we found that one of the B & B’s listed was rated very, very highly, so we decided to risk a night in this odd little town despite our reservations. However, after locating the B & B we found that despite an empty car park at the front of the B & B, a sign in the window indicated that there were No Vacancies. Obviously, we weren’t meant to stay in this odd little town.

On we drove, becoming more and more weary now as the day stretched on and the miles accumulated. We passed many a B & B sign, but all were on busy roads and looked very ordinary, so we continued for a long time before we finally found a likely prospect. Driving up a long, steep driveway on the outskirts of Waterford, we eventually came to a very grand looking Manor House – “Sion Hill House”. Somewhat concerned about the  budget, we decided to pay whatever they hell they asked so that we could STOP and REST and recover from the previous two sleepless nights. It was here that the mystery surrounding our Enniscorthy experience was revealed.

Standing at the front door we turned and looked back over an utterly magnificent view. The river Suir sparkled far below and the lights of the town of Waterford began to twinkle in the dusk. Turning back to the door as it opened we hopefully asked if there was a room available for the night, and to our utter relief, we were told ‘Yes.” Introducing herself as Antoinette, our host showed us through a massive home packed to the ceiling with all kinds of odd things. Antique furniture lined the wide hallway, there was red carpet on the floor and chintzy wallpaper. Antoinette showed us to the rooms available and we immediately said we’d take it. In the top corner of the front of the house, the room had a double and a single bed, huge ensuite with bath and the best part was the large windows overlooking the city below at the front and the enormous garden sprawling in all directions away from the house.

Lugging our own bodyweight in luggage up two flights of stairs was fun, and after that Antoinette had suggested we come downstairs for a nice cup of tea. Can you say alleluia?!! Waiting in the ‘drawing room’ while our host prepared our tea, our eyes were nearly bugging out of our head. The room was jam-packed with unrelated items. Every available space was cluttered. Large lounges faded mustard velvet and ornate wooden arms backed up against a grand piano. Gazing malevolently from the side table next to me was a stuffed ferret in some kind of death-duel with a rearing cobra. Go figure! My eyes kept being drawn back to the ferret’s smile and it was so hard not to laugh! Next to that was a Waterford Crystal vase and some get-well cards that looked as though they may have been there since 1923.

Anyhow, it was Antoinette who solved some mystery for us. A thin, nervous woman, she twittered and fluttered and spoke quickly and, we were soon to learn, without taking breath (yes – her ability to talk without pause made me look like an amateur). “Well, it’s very fortunate you came just now, as if you’d arrived ½ an hour ago I wouldn’t have answered the door,” she said. “Actually, I probably would have, but I must admit to having a few tears, and what would you have thought of that if you’d just got to the doorstep and I opened it crying? But of course you’d understand, because it was such an important game for Waterford, and they haven’t won since 1946, and we just so hoped that they’d be triumphant today…….” And on she ran, confusing us until we realized there would be no opportunity to wait for her to pause so we could ask a question. When conversing with Antoinette, we learnt that if we needed to ask a question, we just had to talk over her.

It turns out that Waterford & Kilkenny had just competed against each other in the Irish Hurling Grand final. To my amazement, I learnt that this was a popular sport and that it had nothing to do with vomiting. Hurling (the sport) is a very, very big deal in Ireland. How I’ve lived my life without this knowledge is hard to understand, but there you have it. It explained a few things though. Firstly the whole Enniscorthy scary pub experience – we had inadvertently strolled between a large group of Hurling fans and the big screen TV showing their game. In retrospect we were lucky to come out of it alive!! It also explained the B & B with the ‘no vacancies’ sign, and the deserted town. It turns out there wasn’t some police-based festival on at all – which had been our personal interpretation of the blue and white flags flapping everywhere. Waterford team colours are blue and white. Sheesh. We would have avoided this place if we had realized we were entering a city reeling from a crushing sporting defeat. Good one!

In the end, we were really glad to have stayed there as we saw a wonderful side of the Irish spirit. Despite the annihilation the team had experienced, the crowds in downtown Waterford were in no way hostile or aggressive. We drove down to town for dinner and once again had conversations with random people while waiting for food etc., They all said the same thing, what a fantastic effort the team had made to even make it to the finals! The mood wasn’t somber or melancholy, nor was it irate. It was just the usual Irish laughter and carry on. We stayed two nights in Waterford – I began writing this email on the second evening of our stay (after our first botched attempt to visit the local attractions). The Waterford team members came home on this evening – and there was a grand welcome home parade along the waterfront to celebrate their return (victorious or otherwise).

Marissa and I had the best seats in town. We gazed down to an incredible spectacle below as hundreds of people in blue and white congregated along the riverfront. Music pumped out so loudly that we could hear it clearly from our vantage point more than a kilometre away (through double glazed windows!). Finally the team arrived in a blue and white double decker bus and the crowd went wild!!! Antoinette went down to the parade to be part of the action, while her husband George stayed behind and enthusiastically rang the house bell when the bus made its way through the crowd. There were some speeches (which we couldn’t hear) and more partying for about ½ hour before the crowd dispersed. Did I mention it was pouring with rain? If this was how they treated the losing side, what sort of a party were they holding in Kilkenny? The party was to continue for the week in Waterford, so we though Kilkenny would be our next logical destination!

On our last morning at Sion Hill we strolled through the prize-winning gardens and came across George tending to a garden bed. He took us on a bit of a tour, giving us some wonderful tidbits on the history of the house and its occupants. At one point he said “Oh now then, you must have a look at our treasure before you go,” and proceeded to lead us through thick undergrowth to a large moss-covered statue. 2000 years old, it was a statue of St. Paul that had been erected there by the Knights Templar. Imagine having something like that in your garden, hidden behind the branches? Why keep it hidden away and unprotected? Theft. Apparently the head of the figurine could be sold for thousands to a museum, and many of the priceless sculptures in the area have been desecrated this way. Hidden he remains. Weren’t we lucky to see him then? 

********* To be continued********

Irish Adventures part 1

September 6, 2008

Greetings from Ireland!!

Hi all,

Am able to email at last!! Hooray!! Couldn’t connect in London – suspect the hotel was a black spot. Very excited to be in contact again now. Be warned though! As everyone knows I could talk underwater with stones in my mouth, and when writing I have no-one to stop me……so this will probably end up being a mini-novel! So……..where to start?? Well, the flight over was excellent. 14 ½ hours to Abu Dhabi, followed by a three hour wait and then another 7 ½ hours to Heathrow. Next time I want to have that much fun I’ll just stick bamboo under my fingernails while chewing razor blades. It may have been bearable with sleep, but the 10 minutes I grabbed did nothing to refresh my poor brain cells.

The timing of my brief foray into unconsciousness was pretty bizarre. Arrived in Abu Dhabi with sandpaper eyes and feeling head was disconnected. It was around midnight (Dhabi time) and the airport was totally packed. The halls leading to departure lounges where littered with people stretched out on the floor to try and catch some sleep. It was stand or lay on the floor for the three hours we were there. Boarding for London was a rather amusing debacle too. There was ONE x-ray machine operating, security was haphazard (random people simply walked past security at times) and the frazzled staff didn’t notice. When we eventually boarded we seemed to be taxiing down the runway for years…………so much so that I wondered if they were trying to drive us to the UK? About half way through that thought I fell into a deep sleep and when I woke we were in the air. I could still see the lights of the city below, so it couldn’t have been more than 10 mins, but boy did I get a fright when I looked out the window. Who would have thought I could sleep through take-off?

Marissa managed short sleeps throughout the journey, but not much more than me really. We had monitors on the headrest in front of us that were touch screens and the menu included interactive games, movies and TV shows. Marissa had the good fortune to be sitting in front of a person who was really into the games, and in his enthusiasm he was repeatedly and forcefully hitting the back of her headrest. As you can imagine, not so conducive to rest! Her polite request to cease and desist this activity was given through gritted teeth.

Anyhow, we survived and getting through customs etc., once there was a breeze. We met a lovely Australian family (Mum, Dad and two young kids) from Mackay on the shuttle bus and learnt that not only where they staying at our hotel, but also heading to Ireland to visit relatives. Serendipity! We’re meeting up with them in Northern Ireland in a week or so. Of course it was only 9.30am in the morning when we arrived at our hotel, and we were unable to get into our room until 3pm! Help!!! Two sleep deprived Aussies wandering the streets of London! I happened to look in the mirror at one point and now know how I will look in 10 or 15 years time……(Very glad Brett didn’t witness my transformation as it was truly scary).

Once in our room we became slightly hysterical with laughter, which is a very good thing, because otherwise we may have cried for some time. We should have heard the alarm bells when the receptionist passed us a big old-style key (appropriately dungeon-like as it turns out). The key was attached to a slab of grey plastic upon which our room number was hand written in white out. One key only per room the frosty receptionist informed us. Hmmm…. Thankfully the exterior of the Hotel was beautiful and it was in a wonderfully quiet location, a couple of minutes walk from Bayswater station, a few blocks from Kensington Gardens and close to lots of interesting shops. The room was decorated in tones reminiscent of the 60’s – burnt orange and brown. Turning on the bathroom light also activated the overhead fan that did nothing to remove steam and made a sound like rocks rattling around in a dryer. We had Styrofoam cups with tea and coffee satchels (no milk). We suspect the bathroom may have had a major mould problem because the edges of the bath were coated in putty that had been slapped on like half-melted ice-cream. The bath had a small drain and showering meant standing in ankle deep water. Oh joy!!!  We took a photo of the paper bath mat and Marissa has taken one home as a memento. Obviously this can only be brought out for very special guests!! Hee hee!! I could fill up the email with details about the place, but sure you get the picture. Haven’t stayed in such luxury since my backpacking days!! Oh, must just quickly mention the ‘continental breakfast’. The Bayswater Inn version involves 3 large baskets of stale bread you can help yourself to, butter and jam. Tea that has tea bags floating in it from 1964 and UHT milk in little containers. That’s it. No toast, cereal or anything else edible. No fresh milk, no smile from the staff, and dirty teaspoons. Yuk!! Enough said!

Despite the exhaustion, around 2pm I started to get my second wind, so once in the room Marissa decided to rest while I walked around Kensington Gardens with my camera. Back in 1987 I used to live in Kensington High St, and the gardens where just behind the flat I was living in. Brett and I also revisited back in 1995, so it was a nostalgic meander. The gardens are such a beautiful place to stroll. There are stunning flower beds that shine with colour and texture amongst the obligatory statues and fountains. The highlight for me was the wildlife though. Swans glide like mythical creatures on the lake and are dotted about the shore with their heads tucked towards their bodies in rest. Dogs of all kinds run through the hectares unfettered (though signs demand leashes, this was rarely seen). Then there are my favourite little critters, the squirrels!! A few people glanced my way when I saw the first few as I cried out loud with delight. How could you not? They are like a cross between a Meercat (sorry Jac, not sure how it’s spelt) and a possum. Those big fluffy tails and their quick nervous movements are such fun to watch. After sitting watching them for an hour or so I realized my face was sore from smiling! These guys weren’t shy either – I’m sure some of them were deliberately posing for my camera!! Glad that cameras are digital or I’d have run out of film.

We ended day one feeling very chuffed with ourselves for staying awake. The reward was 10hrs of delicious, deep, refreshing sleep and woohoo, look out London here we come! Over the next couple of days we went in to the city and did the red bus tour, visited all the usual tourist spots – Tower of London, Big (& little) Ben, Westminster Abbey, Harrods, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus & Trafalgar Square and climbed aboard the London Eye. Simon, a friend of Marissa’s from uni days met up with us one night and we went to Notting Hill for a pub dinner (fish and chips with pea mash of course). He recommended that we come back to Portobello Rd and visit the shops there which proved a fantastic ending to the UK leg of our adventure. There was one small glitch yesterday. After walking up and down Portobello Rd as well as our foray into the city earlier we were pretty tired. Once at Notting Hill station we heard that trains were delayed for 10 minutes. Consulting the map I decided that I knew where we were and we could walk home in less time. “Let’s walk,” I said to Marissa, “It’s only a couple of minutes away and I know how to get there.” You know where this is going right??

About an hour later we passed the same house for the third time and I was tempted to sit down on the pavement and have a wee tanty. Marissa amazed me by being amused by the whole thing despite how tired we were. It had been my role to find our way around, and despite a few minor mishaps (Right line, wrong direction on the subway type issues) that didn’t cause any hassles, I’d done pretty well. Until now. Throwing my hands up I told Marissa that she had to take over “I give up,” I declared. Well, didn’t she come to the rescue in fine form. Using an internal radar that seemed to have deserted me, she immediately found a pub and administered first aid to us both in the form of very large wine glasses, very full. Ensconced in deep leather lounges with a soothing ale half consumed, our predicament didn’t seem too bad. In fact we sat there laughing so hard that today I have sore tummy muscles!! Is that the best thing to happen or what??

So at last, I’ve nearly finished filling you in on the saga so far. Today we packed up and left the salubrious Bayswater Inn and set off for Ireland. On the not so brilliant side, once again I had very little sleep. Don’t tell Marissa I told you but she snores like a buzz saw!! On top of that, and totally not something she can control, she has a head cold and subsequently when she’s not snoring, she’s coughing. So operating on around 2hrs sleep I’d hoped to catch some zzz’s in the plane, but nobody on our 90 minute flight was able to rest due to a screaming toddler. I swear this kid had a scream so piercing they could probably hear it on the ground when we were at 30 000 ft.

While in the UK we had fantastic good luck with the weather. Only one ½ hour of rain, during which we sheltered in a pub and didn’t even realize that it had been pelting down until we left. Today was a different story though, a severe storm came in and our plane was delayed for an hour. Didn’t get to our hotel here in Dublin until 5.30pm, and as we left for Heathrow at 10am it’s been a long day.

For the record I LOVE IRISH PEOPLE!!!!! I hope the poms amongst you won’t be offended when I say this, but bloody hell we found Londoners’ to be a sour lot who were unfailingly rude, unfriendly, unsmiling and miserable. To be honest, both Marissa and I agree that the hostile natives of London came close to spoiling our enjoyment of the city. Ireland could not be more different. Customs at Heathrow barked at us as though we were criminals. Customs here smiled and said “Welcome to Ireland” and had a chat about looking up history before a cheery “Enjoy your stay.” We met our airport shuttle and one of the disembarking passengers asked if I was going to Dublin. When I said ‘Yes,” he said – “here have my day ticket and you won’t have to pay love. I don’t need it anymore.”  J. In the bus we could hardly hear each other speak because there was so much laughter and conversation, unlike our silent trips on public transport in London. Once we were deposited in Dublin we weren’t sure where to head, standing on a street corner probably looking pretty pathetic, a gentleman in the crowd stepped forward and said “Can I help you ladies? You look lost.” He then went on to give us accurate, easy to understand directions. The hotel staff smiled a welcome (rather than snarling a la Bayswater Inn) and the hotel is pure luxury! The room is spacious and clean (unlike the Bayswater), there are real bathmats and china cups rather than styrofoam. There are little shampoos and conditioners, tissues and shower caps. Ooooh, it’s like Christmas!!!

We went down to tea and found the restaurant and bar below us is utterly enchanting. Mosaic pillars and funky chandeliers are set amongst big comfortable leather chairs, the lighting is flatteringly soft (which I am personally very grateful for at this stage of my exhaustion) and the music is just right. The staff couldn’t be more helpful – in fact the manager came up and spoke to us at length about where we are headed and what we are up to. The food was so good I was nearly moaning out loud. Random people walked past our table and smiled and said hello. Within ½ an hour of sitting there we had invitations to join two groups of people. As I sit here typing away Marissa has taken off to a comedy club with a big group of laughing Irish we met in the bar earlier. My plans involve a long bath, a sleeping tablet and a bed in that order.

So – that’s all folks! The first week of our adventure is nearly over and what a ride it’s been so far!  We’ve kept our sense of humour through it all and made some really special memories. Can’t wait to get out and explore the streets of Dublin tomorrow and get to know these laughing Irish characters.

Italian Adventures part 4

April 4, 2010

We’ve driven into a fairytale. As we got closer and closer to Lake Como the rain intensified and wisps of cloud floated by the window like thin fairy floss. The car heater doesn’t work so I was bundled under layers of coats and scarves watching the temperature read-out on the dash drop from 20 to 7 degrees.   The tops of mountains towering above us were completely obscured by cloud. The water of the lake appeared black and the many homes dotted along the shore seemed huddled together for warmth.

The terrain between Parma and Milan was industrial and the traffic was heavy. Approaching the tollbooths we were amazed to count 22 lanes – one way! Signs directed us towards Lake Como – in the opposite direction to where the bitch insisted we head. She’s sounding more and more like that malevolent computer, Hal , in that movie I can’t remember the name of.

The road narrowed to a cobbled lane along the side of the lake. We were both unconsciously holding our breaths when we had to pass cars coming in the opposite direction. At one point a truck drove aggressively towards us, Brett gave a little sound of horror and I just squeezed my eyes shut and waited for the screech. How we passed each other in that tiny space is still a mystery.

The bitch calmly suggested that we turn and submerge ourselves in the cold lake, but we have learnt to ignore her and either look for signs or ask for directions. In this case there were signs! Yay! We were thrilled to see the location of our hotel right on the lake, with several trattoria and restaurants within easy walking distance. 

With the weather being so dismal we decided to visit the spa that was advertised in the foyer of our hotel.  When we enquired about entry costs we were told that we had one complimentary visit each.  How good’s that? So we went off expecting a sauna and maybe a Jacuzzi………..and were completely blown away by what we found instead.

The entry gleamed with polished white tiles, low white lounges, and a bar complete with spirit bottles and wine to the left of the front doors. Behind the reception desk shone against immaculate glass shelving. We were shown to the change rooms and given a fluffy robe & cloth slippers to change into. Brett hadn’t wanted to go because he didn’t bring bathers – but I insisted, telling him his boxer-style undies would be fine. Still, we asked the smiling Jack who had greeted us if this was ok? He laughed and gave the following explanation, “The Swedes,  Germans & Austrians go nude and look down their noses at people who wear bathers. We ask that they put a robe on in-between the rooms so that they don’t shock anyone too much. We Italians & the English are a little bit shy, so we like to cover our equipment. We try not to stare at all the nude bits.  So, to answer your question – whatever you are comfortable with. OK?”

Well, we were a little bit disturbed at the image of nude bits sitting about, but bravely entered anyway. When we emerged from the change room an English man with two small children, about 6 and 7 years old who was being told that there was a no children policy at the spa, but that they would make an exception if the children promised to be very, very quite. We weren’t so thrilled with this news, but hoped they’d behave. Jack showed us to the glass elevator and we were whisked swiftly up to the first floor.  Next Jack showed us a floor-plan of the spa level, along with a suggested time frame and path to travel. We quickly realised that the reality of this spa was like no other we’d ever encountered.

14 ‘rooms’ are spread over this floor, and this is a rough idea of the suggested itinerary;

  1. Shower in the ‘rain room’. Here the water that flows from overhead is scented to perfectly replicate the smell of fresh rain. Pressing a button on the wall the cascade begins and lasts for about a minute or two.
  2.  Immerse yourself in ‘breeze’. Here a mist falls from the ceiling and it too is aromatherapy treated – and it smells of mint and outdoors. Again it lasts a couple of minutes
  3. Sauna #1. A ‘dry’ sauna that’s supposed to be enjoyed for 15 minutes. Again the senses were assaulted with delightful scents – dried herbs sat in bowls strategically placed around the room.
  4. Cold bath. The temperature is 9 degrees. The idea is that you heat yourself up, then immerse in the cold water for an exhilarating temperature shock. You might be surprised to know that on our second visit I actually DID this! It WAS very refreshing, and shockingly cold!
  5. Sauna #2. This one’s much hotter than the first. Supposed to be 20 minutes in here but there’s no way we could last that long.
  6. Ice bath. There’s a slushy-type machine that churns out ice. You’re supposed to rub it over your body straight after the sauna. Brrrr……..but it was actually really soothing to our overheated skin. Even for frog Tracey!
  7. Steam room. Within a few minutes of sitting in the steam room we were totally hidden by the steam and couldn’t see each other across the room. The roof is dotted with fibre-optic lights that change colour from yellow, blue, pink etc., and in the mist the glow is hypnotic and atmospheric.
  8. Scottish shower. A bucket is balanced above you and – yep you guessed it, pull a chain and stand under a heavy dump of ice-water. We both skipped this one!
  9. Jacuzzi. A big, swirling bath that’s deliciously hot! The seats are shaped so that you can lie down and are gently pummelled by the jets.
  10. Shower tunnel. Walking through a twisting corridor first a warm shower (scented of course), the hot jets burst out from the side, followed by a cold mist.
  11. Hot coals. Didn’t really get this one. Think it’s some reflexology thingy. You walk over uneven rocks while hot water sprays over your feet, then through a cold, shallow pool and again through more rocks & hot spray.
  12. Sauna #. A different, unidentifiable scent here. Again – exquisite
  13. Outdoor heated pool. You can stand under the waterfall and it’s like a firm massage over the shoulders.
  14. Normal showers.

 

Can you believe this place? We spent nearly 2 hours there the first day, randomly exploring the various rooms and laughing like school kids on Christmas morning. The best thing of all was that we had the place to ourselves. Going from room to room we saw the Dad and kids doing the same, but we didn’t share a room at any stage. It was like having our own private luxury spa!  While we were in the steam room we heard one of the kids scream, but assumed it was high spirits, or maybe his brother had put some ice on him or something? Coming out though I overhead the father ask the owner to take him to the hospital, something about “he was stuck fast, I had to use a lot of force to get him off.” Didn’t sound too good.

We emerged from our first experience of the spa feeling absolutely amazing. What a perfect antidote to excesses of wine and stressful driving. The next day we returned for a massage and Jack (the owner as it turns out) told us what had happened the previous day with the child. Apparently they are family friends and have been coming to the associated hotel for 14 years, which was why Jack made the exception and allowed them to use the spa. Big mistake! Apparently the kids sat on a hot grate and his arse more or less melted onto it. When the Dad pulled him off a big chunk of skin stayed attached and he began to bleed profusely. Ouch! The story got worse for poor Jack. He drove the father and kids to the hospital and when they got there the staff told him to move the car as it was in the ambulance bay.

Jack popped outside to move the car, put it in reverse and smashed violently into another vehicle. Apparently the damage was astronomical to both cars. Jack’s face was drawn and haggard as he said “You wouldn’t think a fiat could crumple so much or do so much damage to another car. I cannot believe this has happened. Can you imagine my face when I had to go into the hospital and tell this man that I have just written off his rental car? This was not a good day. This was a very, very bad day.”

 You have to hand it to Jack though, it didn’t destroy his sense of humour. When we returned to the spa the next day and said “Hi Jack, are you having a better day today?” He responded, “No broken arses today. This is a big improvement on yesterday!”

In the interests of research we both had massages on our second visit as well as an hour or more indulging in the spa rooms. Boy could they learn a thing or two from Helga’s! Paper pants, no face hole, no foot or knee support. Zero draping and a massage that could best be described as ordinary. We had been planning to return to this ritual a few more times, but after that experience we decided not to have another massage, but we can’t get enough of the spa!

After that first blissful day at the spa we were amazed to emerge blinking into blazing sunshine! The mist and rain had completely dispersed and not a single cloud marred the postcard vision of snow-capped mountains and blue sky. The receptionist at our hotel confirmed that it had snowed that morning “It eez Aprila,” she said in her delightful accent. “Whata willa we-a be-a seena nexta? Penguinies in Augusta?”

The following day we had more warmth and sunshine and caught the ferry to Bellagio. We both noticed how our walking has slowed down, down, down as we strolled lazily amongst the cobbled streets and did some shopping. We spent a long time sitting in the sun at a lakeside trattoria, smiling vaguely at everything and nothing.

Yesterday we drove to the town of Como itself and did more strolling, this time through one of the biggest markets we’ve ever seen. Brett had a small problem with the seat of his cargo pants the day before and they are now offering unwelcome air-conditioning, so we were on the hunt for a replacement pair. We weren’t very optimistic considering the average size of Italian men…….but we were in luck! He’s proudly strutting around in his new pants today and claims that they’re the most comfortable pants he’s ever worn!

We were very proud to do be able to negotiate with the stall owner in Italian too! Flushed with success we wandered deeper into the streets of Como and found a little restaurant tucked away in a side street. Again we managed to order entirely in Italian – and even answered a question or two without looking or sounding too stupid. Am slowly getting over the frowns and blankness we encountered in Parma. Better yet – we’ve been frequent customers at the closest trattoria to our hotel and although they were initially frosty, they now greet us like family. After gorging on a hearty, hot minestrone there yesterday we were quite chuffed to hear an enthusiastic chorus of “Caio!” (pronounced Caoiooooo – bit different to down south, and sounds a bit like the call of a crow) from all the staff as we left.

We’ve also made a friend of one of the waiters at the hotel and last night he became very, very generous with the red wine. We paid for one glass each and this ended up being magical – it never emptied despite how much we drank out of it. A detoxifying visit to the spa is in order today. It’s also raining and 4 degrees today! Eeeek! So there won’t be any trips in our ice-box car. In fact, the spa has been a necessary daily ritual thanks to the generous drinks they pour here. On our first night Brett asked for a Cointreau and was mistakenly given a whisky – it was a full glass in a LARGE tumbler. Enough to knock a bull out. Lucky we’ve both developed a healthy tolerance to alcohol, and our stomachs are perpetually full of the most scrumptious food.

The rain continues to pelt down outside, so we may spend some extra time at the spa today. There’s a cafe in town with a roaring log fire, so we’ll be heading there once we’re sufficiently water-logged and refreshed.

Caiooooooooooooooooooooo…………………………………..

Italian Adventures part 3

March 30, 2010

Brett is doing so well with Italian driving. Like a true native he negotiates the autostrada’s at 140km, changes lanes abruptly without indicating and tailgates competently. The first few times I noticed our little car shaking with the strain of maintaining such a speed I was pretty concerned. I had a mental image of bits shaking loose as we flew along the pot-holed highways.  Despite this anxiety, each time we stopped I’d surreptitiously check for any damage, but she was always reassuringly intact, so that little compulsion has left me.

The speed limit on the major roads is usually 130km, and in many ways the Italians are considerate drivers and consequently don’t hug the fast lane. Observing the ‘when in Rome’ concept, Brett sits at 10km’s over the limit and quickly moves over to the right as soon as he has finished overtaking. It was obvious from our first few forays on the motorways that Italy is my spiritual home. Despite the pot-holes and general poor condition of the roads, at 140km an hour we rarely need to use the fast lane. The first few times a car flew past us we were shocked and amazed. “Oh my God! How fast do you think he was going?” we’d ask each other with wide-eyes. By the time we’d finished the sentence the car would be a speck in the distance. Our dialogue has been abbreviated to numbers now. “200?” Brett will guess, and I’ll agree or chip in with my own guess “210,” or “180.”

Thankfully, there’s pretty good signage on these major roads, but once off the big highways, there’s not much directional assistance. We’d been warned about this so we bought the Garmin GPS in the hope that it would safely guide us through this beautiful, but unknown territory. We had the option of giving her a male or female voice and chose the female as it sounded gentler, and so we began referring to the device as ‘she’. Well that’s all out the window now. She has a new name. “The bitch!!

On the way to our wonderful farm stay in Umbria we had a few tense moments when she’d announce   “Poor satellite connection. Connection lost.” However, she came through at the last minute and we found our way.  On our forays to Assisi and Siena this happened frequently and we tried several time-honoured techniques to encourage her to work again, e.g. turning her on and off, shaking her, removing the memory card or entering a new address.  Sometimes one of these methods would work, but more often than not she would remain stubbornly silent.

We noticed that the hillier the terrain the less likely she is able to guide us. Yesterday we set out with much excitement to visit the famous ‘Cinque terre’. The Cinque Terre consists of 5 coastal towns linked by a walk along the mountainous coastline. There is only one town that’s accessible by car, and the rest are purely pedestrian, adding to the quiet ambience of the villages. Many clients & friends have suggested that it is a ‘must do’ when visiting this part of Italy.

The day didn’t look too promising. It was overcast and rain began to fall as we rattled along the autostrada, quietly trading numbers. “160,” “200” etc., etc., At the end of the toll road there was a little hitch as the GPS remained silent despite several alternative paths. “What does the bitch say?” Brett asked. “She’s sulking,”  I responded. So we continued straight ahead…………..into 3 hours of hell.

The road was narrow and twisting. Higher and higher we rose until our ears popped from the pressure. There were no signs and nowhere to turn around. The first hour we marveled at the mist shrouding the countryside below us and the sheer drops on either side of the car. The bitch tried to kill us several times by insisting that we turn right over a vertical cliff or directly into a granite wall. If it’s possible for a GPS to get pissed she was obviously verging on alcoholic poisoning. Occasionally I’d look down and the image of the car would be spinning around on the spot while she calmly announced, ‘recalculating.’ This would usually end with ‘searching for satellites. Connection lost.’

We were trapped in what surely must be the hairpin capital of the world. We both had raging headaches from bracing ourselves against the turns. Brett had to cope with steering with his left hand while I was trying to read microscopic writing on the only map we had. It’s common in these situations for a couple to verbally rip each other to shreds. You know the scene “why didn’t you turn right back there when I said you should?” “If we had of bought a better map back in Rome we’d have some back up,’ or some such. We were lucky I guess because we didn’t turn on each other. We turned on the bitch. “Come ON you Goddamn mongrel *&^!” I regularly screamed at her. “We need help you useless piece of &*^&,” and so on.

At this point I should note that we DID try cajoling and requesting the same things in a calm and persuasive voice. The bitch responded by giving us false hope and then trying to lure us to our death with commands like “turn left onto unpaved road and continue for 500km’s”. I kid you not.

We found Cinque Terre after 3 hours of hell. Pale and shaking we emerged from the car as the sun suddenly broke through the oppressive clouds. It was a Hollywood moment if ever there was one. We almost fell to our knees and praised the lord alleluia! We’d found land at last!

Ironically we may not have completed the walk if we’d arrived on time as the weather was foul. Due to our little detour we got there just as the weather turned and there was nothing but brilliant blue above us. The walk was exhausting, exhilarating, and despite our shaky start to the day a wee bit hilarious. We caught a train from Monterosso,where we’d parked,  to Riomaggiore and began the hike. The walk was easy, the sun shone and we laughed at how quickly we’d traversed the first leg of the trip and smugly acknowledged how fit we must be.

Things changed fairly quickly. The easy path rapidly gave way to a steep goat-track. Rocks randomly placed at dangerous intervals provided the steps. One false & stride and there would be a long, painful fall to the foaming water below. We passed many a panting German or Italian stalled on rocks or bending over, hands on knees. What made it hilarious was the universal language of matrimonial discord. You don’t have to know what words are being exchanged to get the gist of many of the arguments we witnessed along the path. Accusations were flung along with wild gestures. Fiery eyes spat angrily at each other. Cheeks glowed red and uncomfortable. On we trod….. chuckling and gasping simultaneously….

At some point the Italians who constructed the path must have decided to double the size of the steps and they became knee-height. Up and up we went, passing groups who panted out questions when they recognized someone who spoke their language. Again you didn’t need to be multi-lingual to know what they were asking….“How much further do we climb?” “Does it get better soon?” “Does the path improve?” It was written all over the tired, flushed faces. We passed one poor girl who looked on the verge of tears. She ripped her backpack off in disgust and flung herself down upon a rock, putting her head in her hands, moaning. There were few spots to stop anyway, and wherever the path widened there would be scattered, wheezing bodies sprawled any which way, eyes closed against the bright sun. We continued on with trembling legs, stopping regularly to breathe and take in the stunning coastline. Did I mention how staggering the views are? I’ve posted some shots on flikr – all taken from the path as we walked. To call it spectacular is such an understatement. Only thing was the path was busy and in points extremely narrow, so there was little opportunity to enjoy it.

Through some miracle we kept our good humour, but despite our determination to do the whole trek we got stuck in Vernazza. Upon arrival in the Corniglia a sign announced in English “Congratulations, you’ve just climbed 382 steps!” My arse. More like 3 bloody thousand! With throbbing, shaky legs and sunburned faces we stumbled into a trattoria and found sustenance. Several hearty wines and a couple of courses later we had the energy to continue. It got much harder after that! Suddenly those strained faces didn’t seem so amusing.  In fact we didn’t really see the expressions on our fellow hiker’s faces from that point on as looking up would take too much energy.  Once we stumbled into Vernazza it seemed much more prudent to catch the train back to Monterosso. We still felt wonderfully triumphant to have made it that far with smiles intact and not too many blisters. A very, very special day.

The bitch failed us again on the return trip, but somehow we made it back to our (fairly ordinary) accommodation at Corte Benedetto, a farm-stay just out of the town of Lucca. The day before we explored the fortress local town of Lucca itself and found it to be fairly dark and ugly, but fascinating for its quientessential Italian heart.  Here we became caught in a huge crowd of Italians squeezing through narrow cobbled streets. The hum of the crowd made the words indistinguishable – it could have been any language in any crowd – the dull roar of mutlitudes. The thin lanes would suddenly disgorge us  into sun-filled piazza’s. Here the families would disperse to one of the many tables set with brightly checkered cloths and awnings.

Brett had his first Tuscan speciality – a bean soup that was hearty and delicious. Since moving on from there we’ve visited Pisa, Montecatini Terme and I’m writing this from Parma, not far from Milan  – the land of Parmesan cheese. In Pisa we encountered our first black man hawking. Commonly they thrust a handful of watches in your face or an armload of belts. Since then they’ve become a common sight, muttering Italian entreaties and then rapidly switching to English when they get no response from us “Good prices lady. Great value. You buy. You buy.” It’s sad to see, and makes strolling the streets a lot more uncomfortable.

There’s also been a marked deterioration in the haute couture. The dress is a lot more casual – we’ve even seen people in track-suit pants!  The shame! Despite being a put off by the many beggars – all black (Nigerian?) men, we still found Pisa staggering. It’s SO crooked! We didn’t climb it because it was a very long wait – they only allow 40 people in the tower at a time so you have to wait until 2 come out before 2 more are admitted. It’s a 30 minute climb to the top (or so the advertisement says) so by our calculations it may have taken a couple of hours of lining up before we traversed the wonky stairs.

Oddly, when I was taking the pictures I noticed that a few other buildings in the town looked wonky too. It was only after we left that we did some reading and found out that they most definitely are. The town is only 2m from sea level and the buildings are sitting on very unstable sand, so several of them are tilted – not as much as the tower, but still noticeable. One thing we hadn’t expected was how beautifully ornate the tower and surrounding buildings are. Some of the most delicate finishes and aesthetically pleasing  examples of architecture we’ve seen so far.

Next up was Montecatini Terme, and it was one of the highlights of our trips to date for a number of reasons. It’s a spa town with huge parkland in the centre, wide boulevards and a very relaxed, peaceful atmosphere. There were few people about as we explored and it added to the tranquility. We caught the funicular (small train that goes up and down the hill) up to the ‘alto’ (old town) and wandered amongst fabulously restored historic buildings. We only saw about 4 other people during our entire stroll and the view from here to the valley below was magnificent. While waiting for the funicular we sat at a trattoria and sipped a light local wine, slowly munched the complimentary nuts, sighing all the while with contentment.

Upon our return to the Hotel Torreta we were introduced to the owner ‘Dante’ who was the third person that day to compliment me on my Italian. “You must have Italian relatives then?” he questioned when I mentioned this was our first visit. Oh gee, shucks! I went red and all with delight! He was a rotund, smiling man who spoke with much passionate gesticulating and drama. We dined in the hotel for our evening meal and it was the very best food we’d had since arriving in Italy. I had fish that melted in the mouth, Brett had ‘cereal soup,’ pasta and scallopini that was equally delicious. Dante sent us a complimentary bottle of champagne and we asked him to join us.

It was almost midnight when we finally made our way to our room, tipsy as a result of Dante’s insistence that we tasted a dessert wine before retiring. It was a memorable night as we conquered the language barriers and shared thoughts on religion, politics and the meaning of life. We made plans to return to Montecatini Terme sometime in the next few years to spend more time with this kind man and stay at a local villa he owns.

This morning we spent some time walking through the massive park and then sampling some wickedly sinful pastries at a local oretaria. We were sad to leave, but needed to move on to save ourselves a long drive tomorrow. The bitch was particularly nasty today. After jangling along the autostrada for couple of hours in the early afternoon we arrived in the busy university town of Parma. It’s a big town of nearly 200 000 people, and suffers from horrendous traffic problems like many of these historic towns. The cobbled streets are not designed for cars, so there’s much congestion. The bitch frequently suggested we turn left against one way traffic or turn where no streets existed. Eventually we turned her off when it was obvious she was sending us in a continuous circle. Turn left, turn left, turn left………

We parked in a no-parking zone and got out of our car to be met with the local Polizia. I’d hoped to distract them by asking directions. Hmmmm……that didn’t work. They didn’t fine us though – just asked us to move on. At least I think that’s what they said?  It was a shock to try and communicate here in Parma and be met with complete confusion. So much for my superior language skills! When we finally found our hotel and got settled we desperately needed a fortifying wine. THIS I can request very, very well by now. Plenty of practice. Easy peasy. It flows off the tongue most impressively. Only this time my Italian was met with a frown and a shake of the head. Universal language for “What the (*&  are you saying?” Gibberish it would seem. We had to resort to sign language and showing the correct phrases in the book. Immediate deflation of the big head.

Well, Brett’s impatiently pacing up and down. It’s been at least an hour since our red wine ran out so it’s time to go out and suffer some more lingual humiliation. At least the rain has stopped now. Earlier we were caught in a café for some time while we listened to dramatic thunder and watched pedestrians scuttling for cover. Lucky we were trapped with a delicious cheese platter and a carafe of red. Aaaahhhh even these bleaker holiday moments have a silver lining.

Once again I’ve failed to mention half of what we’ve seen and done, but hope to have recorded some of the magic of our Italian experience. Thanks to the stress the bitch has caused us we’ve decided to go directly to Lake Como tomorrow rather than stop somewhere else along the way. So we are looking forward to the luxury of 4 DAYS in one glorious spot!

Am signing off now and will email this shortly. I’ll try and download some photo’s to flikr so you can check out a visual of our adventures so far. Until next time……Caio!