Monday, June 24, 2013

Cliffs of Moher

We left the hostel at 6:30 in the morning to meet up with our tour to the Cliffs of Moher. We were placed on a bus with students learning English and caught in the middle of a plethora on languages. Within 5 minutes of driving, the girl in front of Cassie on the bus (we’ll call her Idiot) started looking for a non-existent toilet. Upon returning to her seat, she immediately vomited, making a mess and spattering the girls in front of her. The bus didn’t stop; she just wiped up the floor a bit and was given a plastic bag, which she continued to heave into occasionally. She never apologized, but just kept saying, “I feel so much better.” Lovely.

We arrived in Galway and discovered there isn’t a whole lot to do. We walked down the main street out to the Spanish Arch by the river where students meet up and drink at night and basically saw the town on the way. Galway is a little college town so now that the semester is over, there’s not too much happening.

Spanish Arch
Our next stop was a farm in the Burren. Even though this wasn’t the main destination, I think it was the highlight of the day. As we stepped off the bus, everyone was greeted by one of the friendly farmers with an enthusiastic “Hey” or “How’s it going?” Farmer John showed us all around the farm, I got pictures of happy cows and even got to feed an adorable little goat! And see a fairy tree! Supposedly, fairies live underneath it and if you tie something to the branches, you can leave your woes behind! I tied Cassie’s hair tie to a little branch in the middle and hoped for the best.

It's a flying goat!
We climbed up the hill and looked around. Everywhere we could see was farmland. There were all these randomly placed walls covering the mountain. During the potato famine, England needed to help, but didn’t want to give money or food for free. On the other hand, they didn’t want to pay Irish men to build roads and infrastructure that might develop the country. Instead, men were given soup in building pointless walls and roads to nowhere. Once we learned this, I began to see the walls everywhere! Not only on the farm, but as we were driving around as well.

Fairy Tree 
People tie things to the branches to leave their troubles behind.
I decided to add to the tree as well :) 
Can you spot the stone walls on the mountain side?
After climbing back down, we were offered fresh, homemade cakes and pies from Granny’s Kitchen and watched the farmers demonstrate hurling, a traditional Gaelic sport popular in the area.
The Cliffs of Moher (our final stop) was amazing! The views were breathtaking and it was actually hot out! The cliffs were breathtaking and the water below was a brilliant blue, sparkling in the sun. 
Cliffs of Moher
I got a little over-excited about all the cows. Cassie, who grew up on a farm, didn't understand.
While traveling, it’s easy to lose track of the days. Everything blends together in this one, magical adventure around Europe. Once again, we majorly miscounted and ended up spending an extra night in Dublin instead of going on to Galway.

After a long day of excursions, we returned to Jacob’s Inn exhausted and ready for a hot shower and sleep. When we swiped our keys to get to our room, it kept blinking red. Finally we asked reception for help and learned that we were supposed to have checked out that morning. Upon consulting my bookings list, I saw she was entirely correct. We had to choose between paying for a bus (all the buses had stopped running to Galway for the night) only to arrive late at our hostel and have to leave the next morning, or getting an extra night in Dublin (which would actually save money, at this point).

We opted to extend our stay and relax around Dublin for our last morning, going back to the Queen of Tarts for Sunday brunch and stopping by the Molly Malone statue before continuing on to Belfast.

I was freaking out walking here...I'm a little afraid of heights.


I didn’t really know what to expect with Ireland. From reading ancient myths & legends in the sixth grade, I had this image of wild forests, castles and little coastal villages. And, thanks to Cassie, I had watched P.S. I Love You and was expecting to find Irish accents, pubs with live music and beautiful scenery.

What we found was so much more than I ever could have expected. While Ireland is well known for it’s endlessly rainy days, we somehow managed to arrive during a “heat wave,” which essentially means normal California weather. We got to do a walking tour of all Dublin’s main sights, lay out in parks, stroll down the main outdoor shopping strip, and explore the Cliffs of Moher with clear, blue skies.

After arriving late in Dublin (around 11pm), we got dinner at a crappy little pizza shop with a 5 euro deal for a small pizza, “chips” (I swear, EVERYTHING comes with fries over here), and a coke. Once we were sufficiently stuffed we slept off our long day of travel and resolved to wake up early for a free walking tour through our hostel.

The tour was perfect for our first day. It turns out, there are actually not that many “must-see” sights in Dublin. Even Cassie’s guidebook’s suggestions were mostly strolling, sauntering, and people watching in various areas around the city.

Veronica Guerin: Famous Investigative Journalist

We got to see Trinity College (home to the Book of Kells), Dublin Castle, the Wall of Fame (a wall with a giant U2 poster, surrounded by a few smaller posters), some gorgeous churches and City Hall. My absolute favorite building in Dublin is the Old Stone Church on St. Andrews Street. It’s an absolutely stunning gothic church, which fell into disrepair and has recently been purchased by a tourism office. Viking Tours renovated the church and now uses the building as its headquarters.

Throughout the tour we got a history of Dublin: Viking influence (as we were talking about it, a bus tour filled with loud tourists in Viking helmets passed by), the Gaelic language (which has three significantly different dialects. Although most people in Ireland don’t speak it fluently, learning Gaelic is compulsory in school.), and the revolution that led to the creation of Republic of Ireland (there is still a bullet hole left in City Hall as a reminder of the fight). Ireland has a long tradition of occupation. The legacy of the invaders can still be seen today in so many ways.

Can you spot the bullet hole? It's left over from the fight for Irish independence. 

After the tour ended, we realized we were pretty close to the Guinness Storehouse, so we got some lunch at the Wall of Fame café (wouldn’t recommend that particular location) and trekked over to Guinness! We learned all about hops and barley on our way up to the Gravity Lounge. The whole storehouse is actually shaped like a Guinness glass. The top (where the foam would be) is a circular bar, several stories up, overlooking all of Dublin. On our way up, we met some fellow hostellers from Jacobs Inn and all agreed to explore some pubs later that night.

I was also meeting up Tierenen, an old friend from Costa Rica that night. The guys from the hostel called up some other friends in Dublin too and by the end of the night we had a giant, international group dancing and drinking our way through the city.

Queen of Tarts cakes

Keeping up with the locals was difficult and I definitely paid for it the next morning. We ate to a very late breakfast at the Queen of Tarts—the cutest little bakery I’ve ever seen—and spent a while exploring the National Museum. Instead of heading on to other attractions, we both hesitantly admitted that all we wanted to do was go home and nap.

Stephen's Green
We woke up just in time to join a pub-crawl for the night and went out again for the night to once again explore Temple Bar and the many pubs and bars waiting for us with a welcome shot of baileys at each stop.

The next morning, it was Cassie’s turn to nurse a killer hangover. We like to take turns, apparently.
After breakfast at the Queen of Tarts, we went to the National Museum of history and archeology (which was free!) and I got to nerd out and explore all the history of Ireland. The Celtic art was simply amazing! While I was running around from artifact to artifact and lost in thoughts of what life in ancient Ireland had been, Cassie was sitting patiently waiting for my nerdiness to wind down.

Our main event of the day was touring the Jameson Distillery. Since it was already 2 in the afternoon, we figured it was a perfect time for some whiskey! In the distillery we got to see all the old machinery that whiskey making requires. This may be common knowledge, but I didn’t know that barrels are reused to make different alcohols. The Jameson barrels are shipped from wine producers who can no longer use them. The type of wine that used to be stored in the barrel adds to the whiskey’s flavor and color. After the whiskey barrels are done, they ship ‘em off to be used to produce other alcohol. Rum production actually uses the oldest barrels.

Jameson Distillery
At the end of the tour, everyone got a Jameson drink and 8 volunteers were selected to do a whiskey tasting. Obviously, I volunteered. Turns out, I really don’t like scotch. But I did get a lot of free Jameson! And a certificate to prove that I’m basically a whiskey expert. I left the distillery a very happy girl.

As we were in the middle of an Irish heat wave, we decided to get milkshakes before heading over to Stephen’s Green. It was a perfect park day, but not quite hot enough to go tanning in my opinion. The Irish seemed to have a different idea of “tanning weather.” It was clear that this was not normal spring weather by the amount of pasty Irish teens out getting their tan on. I guess in Ireland you have to get in as much vitamin D as possible on those rare sunny days.

We found a little café right on the main shopping strip and got a table upstairs on the balcony, so we could people watch while eating dinner. As we headed back to the hostel, we heard lively folk music being played from a little pub bursting with people. We couldn’t pass it up, so we went in and found people of all ages enjoying a pint. The musician was like a jukebox! He knew every song and didn’t hesitate to take requests. There was a bachelor party going on with the groom-to-be all dolled up in a summer dress. Each member of the party had a little toy soldier and every time “Toy soldier!” was yelled, all the men jumped into the position of their soldier. As the night went on, it was yelled more and more and the positions got pretty sloppy at the end, but it was all good fun.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


We arrived in London just in the nick of time. The underground took us far outside of the city center, but we located our hostel with ease and arrived just after reception should have closed. Thankfully, the receptionist was running late, so we were checked in and shown to our room in no time. The hostel was several stories tall, cramped, and constantly smelled of stale beer. On the bright side, it was clean, safe, and the bathrooms always had upbeat music pumping from the speakers. We were staying in a little room with 4 triple bunk beds crammed into a tiny space. When everyone was up and about, it was impossible to get anywhere. Simply climbing out of bed in the morning (I had a top bunk on the 3rd level) was a display of acrobatic skill I never knew I possessed.

The next morning (Monday), we got up early and set out to explore. It was “Bank Holiday” in London. We never really found out what the significance was, but there were crowds gathering by the London Eye and loads of street performers, live music, and good food. We got some burgers (for the first time in Europe, I found a veggie burger!) and found a sunny spot on the lawn to relax and eat. We ended up taking turns people watching and falling asleep. It was almost strange to be back in an English-speaking country. Everything about London felt reminiscent of Home.

London Eye

Peter Pan statue in Hyde Park--throwback to Winning London anyone??
Also, there's a rare sighting of The Monster, which I've been failing to incorporate.

Princess Diana Memorial Fountain
While we were blessed with gorgeous weather for our first day, on Tuesday, it POURED. Constantly. We got a hop-on-hop-off bus pass for the day and just stayed on the whole route. The upper deck was partially covered, so we took the front row and tried to stay dry. This proved especially difficult, as the water wasn’t draining properly so as it poured, the rain kept on collecting and would periodically attack us on particularly harsh turns or stops. Eventually, we moved downstairs to the better-insulated part of the bus and waited to get off.

Along the way, we drove across the Tower Bridge, saw Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and the Sherlock Holmes Restaurant. After the tour, we went to the London Eye to make our 8:00 reservations. It was beautiful to see the views of London from above, but it was too cloudy for The Perfect Picture.

After the Eye, we hopped on a river tour and floated down the Thames while watching the sunset. Everyone else was getting off, but we figured we’d just stay on as long as we could and watch the lights come on over the river as the sky darkened. We started playing music and singing off-key to Macklemore and The Kooks. Eventually, we asked if we were returning to the London Eye and learned that we were actually about an hour out of London already. Luckily, we were able to get off at the next stop and catch the last ferry back. Our timing really had been perfect!

For dinner, we were determined to find good Indian food, so we followed the advice of Cassie’s London tour book and found ourselves in a swanky modern Indian restaurant. We tried curried lentils, olive & cheese naan, and kebabs. Everything was amazing, and the bill was even more so. To soften the blow, they brought us out delicious mint leaves covered in white chocolate. 

After a good meal, we were going to check out some English pubs, but we ended up in a sketchy neighborhood around midnight and decided to head back to the hostel before the metro shut down, rather than get stranded in an unknown area.

After so much stress from traveling, we decided to sleep in and have a rest day. We slept in till 3:30…a little later than we planned on. Although it was too late to get tea by the time we were showered and ready, we went back to the Sherlock Holmes Restaurant for an early dinner. I got a vegetarian pot pie (which was on my list for London), and Cassie got a classic order of fish & chips. We ended up successfully checking out some popular pubs in the area after dinner and learned a few things:
   1) Americans tend to flock together. By the end of the night, we hadn’t met any locals, but we did have a group of 6 Americans bar-hopping together.
   2)   Pubs close at 11 pm. If you want to stay out later, find a bar.
   3)   Bars also close early. After being used to the Italian nightlife (going out late, staying up till dawn), I was shocked by the stark contrast in England.

Friday, June 7, 2013


Paris was a mix of confusion, miscommunication, beautiful sights, cold (but sometimes sunny) weather, and plenty of good company.

We first arrived around 1pm and were starving. Food was our absolute first priority. We left our bags in luggage storage and raced off to the Opera House to find a cute rooftop café for lunch. The metro station turned out to be a maze of misleading signs and arrows all seeming to point in opposing directions.

Once we finally made it out of the metro station, it was raining and we couldn’t find the café so we settled for starbucks, where we ordered familiar drinks and took full advantage of the wifi available. The starbucks was incredible: chandeliers, gilded mirrors, marble columns. It completely blew my mind. Without a doubt, it was the most extravagant starbucks I’ve ever seen. We found a little table in the back and settled in.

I was trying to meet up with my cousins, Christen and Tom, so I checked facebook to see if they were in Paris yet. Next, I had to check in to let the airbnb host know we wouldn’t arrive until that evening (I estimated around 7pm). Traveling is such an amazing experience, but I often forget the amount of planning and organization you need to have a good trip.

For some unknown reason, my phone wasn't working so I asked the barista to type in the address for me (I am entirely hopeless when it comes to French pronunciation/spelling--nothing is phonetic!) and sent if off to Christen via facebook. They were able to come out and meet us to do a bit of exploring together.

The Louvre with the cousins

Lover's bridge
We all started walking, passing sweet shops with colorful macaroon displays, clothing boutiques, and a multitude of souvenir shops. The first big sight was the Louvre. Pictures were taken in various arrangements and groupings, before we headed on to the Musee d’Orsay…arriving just minutes after the last ticket had been sold for the day. No problem, we still had tomorrow morning.

Macaroons! The chocolate ones are to die for.
Next stop, Moulin Rouge! With Tom in the lead (no one else had a shred of directional instinct), we headed off to find the Moulin Rouge. All the way, Cassie and I were singing show toons and exactly encompassing the stereotype of The Loud Americans. Once again, the transportation was not on our side. Although we pressed the “next stop” button, the bus driver thought it would be fun to skip a few stops and drop us off somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, leaving us to walk back in to town. Cassie, with her poor blistering feet and mysteriously swollen ankle, hobbled along in our wake.

Moulin Rouge

Cassie ate snails!

After discovering the Moulin Rouge we found a near-by restaurant and enjoyed a beautiful dinner in France, where the non-vegetarians tried escargot. Time had completely escaped us, and we left the restaurant sometime after 10, only then realizing that we had no idea if or when the luggage storage closed for the night. We raced off as quickly as we could (with Cassie’s injuries and the chaotic public transportation system) and got to the station to find the luggage storage completely locked up and inaccessible. With no other options, we headed over to find our airbnb host, now 4 hours later than I had estimated. We found him, sitting alone in his closed-up little café, reading a book and patiently waiting for us to arrive.

The view from our balcony

Because I had made reservations while studying in Florence, he had assumed we were “confused Italians” (which is apparently a stereotype). He was instead confronted with tired, lost Americans. The little room was advertised for its balcony, with a view of the Eiffel tower. The room was tiny and freezing, with one sunken bed in the middle and no spare blankets. We didn’t have extra clothes, towels, or even toothbrushes. But the one really amazing thing was the view. We got there just in time to watch the last light show at 1 am out on our little private balcony, before going to sleep.
We woke up bright and early, put on our shoes and socks from the day before, and headed out looking near homeless.

The neighborhood was well out of the city center, very residential. On our way to the metro, we found a little bakery with absolutely the most perfectly crafted, flakey, buttery croissants I have ever tasted.
We actually arrived at the Musee d’Orsay early (which doesn’t happen often for us) to meet Tom and Christen. I was almost beginning to think we had this Paris transportation thing down! We spent a few hours exploring the museum. There were many beautiful van goughs, Renoirs, and ___, along with ancient statues, vintage furniture, and more traditional paintings.

Sometime in the after noon, we all said our farewells and Cassie and I left for the Eiffel Tower. Our plan (which always seem to be significantly different than reality) was to get a baguette, brie, and wine and have a picnic in front of the Eiffel Tower. The little shops were either closed or did not have what we were looking for, so after wondering for quite some time, we just decided to walk around the tower, before going to a café. Along our way, we saw a huge protest in motion. I had noticed people all day wearing T-shirts or carrying flags with families on them (much like the stick figure families, often displayed on the rear windows of mini vans). Now there was a whole parade of them that seemed to go on endlessly, all dressed in pink and blue. There was pumping music, making it feel much like a gay-pride parade. Given recent politics in France, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to learn that it was, in fact, and anti-gay marriage parade. Still, it made us sad.

We ended up filling up on French wine and fancy cheese (and LOTS of bread) for lunch. We tried blue cheese, goat’s cheese, feta, and some kind of cheese with mold in it. Our favorite was the goat’s cheese. Turns out, moldy cheese just isn’t our thing.

Finally, it was time to head to London! We picked up our luggage, bought our Chunnel tickets (after much struggle and more money than planned), and boarded our train! We had bought a chocolate macaroon to split for the train, which was amazing. A perfect end to our adventures in France.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Nice, France: A Very Happy Accident

Our luck has finally turned. After I wrote my last post, everything started turning around. Nice was gorgeous! We arrived in the evening at 9:10, just as the city was coming to life. As we made our way to our hostel, we passed cute little French bakeries and boutiques.

In Italy, when I hear Ciao Bella, I am instantly annoyed. But when I got an Oh la la as I walked by, I couldn’t help but giggle like a school girl. The south of France was already magical and our night was only just beginning. We checked in at Hôtel Paradis and found that it was fully booked. Everyone was in town for the Grand Prix, and we had somehow managed to get in a last-minute booking just that morning. I’m telling you, this was our good karma finally kicking in!

Our room was on the top floor and had a tiny window with a beautiful view. As I first looked out at the city, I was the square below filled with lights and people and there was a couple, smoking and enjoying the view out on the balcony across the way.
Nice at night! <3
After two very long days of traveling, it was about time we had a night out. And what better time than Friday night, in the south of France during the Grand Prix? We made our way down the main strip and saw a massive fountain at the far end. The night was lit with a near-full moon and a beautiful instillation with the seven chakras represented with sky-high statues of different meditations, all lighting up the night sky with the rotating colors of the seven chakras.

As we wondered around the main square, searching for the bar that the receptionist had recommended, we heard British accents and noticed we had a couple of fellow travelers following close behind. When they finally came up and talked to us, we all got a table upstairs at this crowded American bar (I know, I know…but it was hoppin!). The server was ridiculously flamboyant and kept harassing the Britts (even sitting in James’ lap) and making fun of us for being too loud. We started off with a round of drinks and ended with a giant fishbowl long island, brought out with decadent garnish and a sparkler!

Chakra installation in Nice (we couldn't get the whole thing in the picture, but there were 7 figures that all lit up in different colors).
We had agreed before going out to be back by 1 am so we could get up at 5 to watch the sunrise before catching the 7:30 train to Paris. Everything went as planned and was even better than we could have hoped for. After drinks, we all headed down to the beach, where a large crowd had gathered. We walked along the ocean and watched the city lights reflect off the sea as we listened to the quiet French conversations in the distance.

In the morning, we packed up and headed out to watch the sunrise over the beach and take in a last view of the Nice beachscape. As we first arrived at the beach, we saw the huge, yellow moon hanging low over the ocean. There was a half-eaten baguette and an empty bottle of wine on the beach left over from the night before. Pigeons and seagulls were scattered over the beach eating any available scraps of food. As the sun began to rise, the sky was filled with vibrant pink, purple and gold clouds just over the horizon. The moon slowly disappeared and the sky lightened as the street cleaners came out to wipe away the mess of the previous night.
Just before sunrise at the beach.
Everyone we encountered in Nice was pleasant. Even the street cleaners said “Avoir!” with a friendly smile and wave as they drove off.

As we sadly said our goodbyes to the ocean and headed back to the train station, we stopped at a little pastry shop, just opening, and ordered some corgette quiche for breakfast. Once again, our luck continued. We were early for our train, and are on our way to Paris!