9 Days in Taiwan 2/2: City Scenes & Foodie Dreams

Taiwan part 2: In addition to beautiful natural scenery and a wide variety of temples, I meandered around some of the more famous urban settings such as the “old streets”, night markets, subway stations, urban parks, and street art. Winding through every Taiwanese experience is the food, unique and delicious. I often forget to eat while out doing tourist activities, but here the food IS the tourist activity, so come hungry!


City Scenes

Taipei

Shifen Old Street 十分老街
I went here as part of a day tour which also included the Geo-park, the waterfall, and the other famous old street, Jiufen. Old streets are very heavily curated quaint “old timey” feeling places that are actually tourist traps, but they’re fun tourist traps, with good food and excellent instagram photo-ops, so very worth going to. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying inauthentic-yet-fun attractions.

Shifen is famous for it’s train-tracks and the lanterns. It’s one of the only places you can send off a flying lantern, and probably the only place you can do it while standing on working railroad tracks. It’s a very small place, you won’t spend a day there, but it’s fun to walk around and see the small shops, specialty local foods, and of course, the lanterns.

Jiufen Old Street 九份老街
My views this day were severely inhibited by a very dense fog. This is advertised as the place that inspired the art of Spirited Away, but my guide told me that Miyazaki said he’s never been here. When I followed up later, what I found was this interview he gave (sorry, it is NOT in English) where he says he bases the scenes of his movies on his own surroundings in Japan, not in Taiwan.

20190111_141403

Jiufen does bear a striking resemblance to the city scenes in Spirited Away, but it is purely coincidence. I actually find it very sad that the Taiwanese tourism industry is promoting this untruth to attract visitors because Jiufen is amazing in it’s own right both because it is beautiful, and because of all the amazing food. People who go only because of it’s nonexistent connection to the movie come away disappointed instead of just enjoying Jiufen for what it is.

If you’re in Taipei, it’s certainly worth the visit. We took a city bus to the top of the road and walked back down to the tour bus parking lot. It’s about 200 stairs and only one way, so you won’t see different sites walking both up and down. I have a lot more to say about Jiufen in the “Foodie Dreams” section of this post below.

Taichung

Xinshe Castle 新社莊園古堡
This is a fantasy resort designed to look like a European fairy tale. It’s a little piece of Europe for those who can’t visit. When you think about it, it’s not that different from a Western country having an Oriental garden with little Tang Dynasty style buildings and pagoda gazebos. Sometimes you forget that other people are watching us while we’re watching them. I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own, but I was invited along with an ESL teacher who was also on holiday from Korea that I met in my hostel. She used to live in Taiwan and spoke quite highly of the garden and grounds. She was most excited about the swarms of fish in the pond that practically shove one another out of the water to get at the fish pellets tourists drop for them.

Most tourists go there to take pictures. Asian cultures really enjoy posing in photos, so much that there are often lines to stand next to famous landmarks or views. People will respect the line, but if you only want a photo of the view with no people it can be a real challenge. Since it was winter, there weren’t too many people in the park and I got a lot of photos, but I still had to wait strategically to get the best views free from posers.

Houli Forest Park 后里森林園區-天上掉下了一顆種子
After Xinshe we went to a flower garden which was less flowers and more interesting visuals including a really immersive video of pollen and a giant globe light show. I’m still not sure we went to the “right” place, because while everything on the internet says “go to the Houli Flower Farm”, what they actually mean (and show pictures of) is the Zhongshe Flower Market, which is in Houli, and probably very pretty, but reported as very small.

I on the other hand ended up in the Houli Forest Park which doesn’t turn up if you search in English (you can copy paste my Chinese above, or use the link). We had to park a ways out and there were shuttle buses into the park. If you take transit to the Houli Station, it’s less than 1km to walk from the station to the park.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Houli Forest Park is gigantic with displays of flowers and garden styles from around the world. It’s got a bit of United Nations through plants thing going on. There weren’t too many flowers because it was winter, but the garden displays were still fun and interesting. After dark, the large sphere puts on a lights and music show that is visually hypnotizing.

20190113_183841_000-ANIMATION

Kaohsiung

Dome of Light 光之穹頂 at Formosa Boulevard Station 美麗島站
This is the world’s largest public art installation made from individual pieces of colored glass. It also just happens to be in a subway station in Kaohsiung. There’s no reason not to see this stunning work of art if you are in the city.

Pier2 Art Center 駁二藝術特區
I heard about the amazing street art of Pier2 and set aside a full afternoon to visit. I was pretty disappointed at first because, although I found what was clearly a very artsy area, it was much more artist work space than art on display. I enjoyed everything I saw, but I couldn’t understand where all the photos on Google Image search of Pier2 were hiding.

Only after a bubble tea break did I finally figure it out! All the signs point you to the right (if you’re facing the water). However, if you go left, away from all the “pier 2” signs and across the street and around the corner– there are all the warehouses filled with cute artist shops and restaurants!! Along with more murals, crazy street art, and giant art installations. The local street signs and maps of the area were very confusing, but it was worth it in the end.

Food

Before going to Taiwan, I asked people what they recommended I eat. I scoured the internet for recommendations of “must try” foods, and while I did find things that people ate, there wasn’t any kind of definitive “Taiwanese Food” list. Now that I’ve been, I realize that this is because you can go anywhere and eat anything and it’s going to be awesome. There are just too many wonderful variations and local/seasonal limited editions that it’s impossible to compose a full list, but if you are looking for some definitive items: bubble tea (boba), pineapple cake, beef noodles, pork rice, and dumplings. Here’s what I ate, and I can recommend all of it, but if you can’t find it, don’t worry because you can’t miss out on delicious dishes as long as you eat at any non-franchise place.

Taipei

Theif Chen Tea House 大盜陳茶飲 (the name is only in Chinese on Google Maps)
On the day I got my SIM card, I was just wandering around the neighborhood, and happened to spot a sign in the window for smoked oolong rose milk tea. Milk tea and boba (bubble tea) are absolute must haves in Taiwan, and there are lots of chances. The flavors are the fun part. This was made with smoked oolong and rose syrup and it was entirely dreamy! Smoky and dark, floral and sweet, creamy and cold.

20190110_120228

Lin’s Wagashi Confectionery 滋養製菓
Just down the street I spotted a confectionery shop with  fresh strawberry red bean rice cake. A traditional mochi style rice cake with sweet red bean paste, a combination I already love, with the added bonus of a fresh ripe strawberry. Heaven!

20190110_122012

Food Stalls near Taipei Station: not on a map
There are things like semi-permanent food trucks, but not all the way to “night market” status. Walk up, buy some food, walk away, zero seating. My Google Maps history says I got out at exit M5 and headed toward my hostel (We Come Hostel), so somewhere in that area there are amazing dumplings. I got pork and cabbage, good alone but awesome with the spicy sauce ($1.25), and the winner of savory food that day was the pork bun. I thought it was a little plain at first because my first bite was bun and juices, but the meat filling was amazing, tender, and a little lemongrass flavored (.50¢).

20190110_204803

Literally any convenience store:
It’s not only local food stands and tea houses that have food adventures. I got a ginger Twix at the corner store. It’s basically a Twix with a gingersnap core. I do enjoy trying local variants of global brands. If you pop in for a bottle of water, take a look around and see if there’s something unique on the shelves.

20190110_205521

Shifen Old Street
While reading about the Shifen Old Street, I discovered a recommended local delicacy of chicken wings stuffed with fried rice. There is one small shop which takes the bones out of chicken wings and stuffs them with fried rice. It’s absurd and delicious. Walk all the way up (it’s not far) and look for this cart.

Jiufen Old Street
This is a foodie bonanza. Other than the night markets, this was the greatest concentration of interesting foods in one place. I didn’t even have time to sample most of it because I couldn’t eat enough! Of what I did get to try, the winners were pineapple cake and peanut ice cream. Pineapple cake is another super famous Taiwan treat. I did not understand what the big deal about the pineapple cake was until I ate some. I had an idea of western style pineapple upside-down cake, which is a bit like a fruitcake and not a thing I’m very into. The Taiwanese pineapple cake is nothing like this. It looks like a very plain beige square, but holds a taste explosion. The middle is a perfect pineapple compote and the outside is a crumbly rich butter cookie.

The peanut ice cream (above) is actually pineapple and taro ice cream with shavings from a huge block of candied peanut wrapped burrito style. It’s a wonderful mix of sweet, salty, fruit, and creamy. I also tried an award winning nougat cookie. The coffee flavor was rich and well balanced with sweet, salty, and bitter. I understand why it won awards. The most interesting was a kind of thin pork jerky (paper thin) spiced with cinnamon and wrapped in seaweed. I would have never thought, but nori and cinnamon go well together. I mostly ate samples because a lot of the goodies were only sold in large gift boxes, but I’m glad I got to try so many things! Taiwan food is epic!

At the Underground Mall at Taipei Station
Somehow I was still hungry after all that food in Jiufen, so I got some beef noodles and onion pancake for dinner when we got back. The beef noodles are another famous item, and you can find them just about anywhere. It’s nothing different from what you’d expect, beef broth, noodles, beef and spices… it’s just… yummy.

20190111_174244

Taichung

Yizhong Street Night Market 一中街夜市
I chose a less famous and more local night market at the advice of my hostel, and ate so much food! I had fried squid for dinner and candied fruit for dessert. This type of candied fruit was something I first had in China and love love love. I was only sad they didn’t have the tart haw fruit version, but strawberries are a good substitute. While exploring, I kept seeing signs for black sugar bubble tea, turns out “black sugar” is basically molasses. The tapioca pearls are cooked in the molasses mixture and then mixed into the milk tea. SO GOOD!

Across the street from No. 65, Zhongxing Street, Dongshi District Taichung City
While I was hanging out with another ESL teacher and her local buddy, he drove us to a small hole in the wall restaurant. Google Maps doesn’t have the place I went, but in street view, I can see it’s across from No.65. Look for the teal awning, not the red sign. It’s a Kejia restaurant (Kejia are a local minority people) and I ate so many delicious vegetables.

The Uptowner  雙城美式餐廳
The ESL teacher I met on my trip invited me out to brunch at a local American influenced place. I got these beautiful Florentine Bennys, perfectly poached eggs, and delicious sauces with spinach and tomato added. I know it seems strange to go to Taiwan to eat American, but remember I don’t get this kind of food in Korea.

20190114_135523

Miyahara Ice Cream  宮原眼科
While I was looking online for famous food spots in Taichung, the Miyahara Ice Cream factory came up. It’s a top of the line gourmet ice cream and chocolate place that is in the old remains of a Japanese ophthalmologist’s building. Today it has a magical atmosphere that reminds visitors of Hogwarts. The building alone is worth a visit, but since you’re there, be sure to eat the ice cream too. They do sell single cones and cups out front (no seating), but if you come in, you can get one of the amazing 4 scoop sundaes as I decided to do in place of a normal dinner that night.

The 4 flavors I chose were 44% chocolate (light and creamy), 80% chocolate (dark and smokey), black tea and green tea. When they bring your ice cream to the table, they wheel out a toppings cart and you can choose 5. I went for cheesecake, pineapple cake, fruit candy, butterfly and bear cookies. While I was eating, the staff brought by a bonus raspberry flavor fluffy cheesecake dream to taste, so I ended up with 6 toppings. The ice cream was a bit gelato-like, very smooth, and dense, creamy not icy. The flavors were strong but balanced, and there was so much variety in my sundae I never got tired of combining different ice creams and toppings together. Taiwan really is foodie heaven!

Kaohsiung

Liuhe Night Market/Liuhe Tourist Night Market 六合夜市/六合觀光夜市
The night markets are the best place to get dinner if you’re willing to forgo seating (and it’s worth it to eat standing) At this one, I got baked scallop for an appetizer, Aboriginal style wild boar ribs for the main dish, and Chinese style candied sweet potato for dessert (also one of my favorites from China). It was so much fun to see all the foods on offer and to talk with the vendors. There’s less tourism in Kaohsiung, so they were more excited to have a visitor try their food.

Bonnie Sugar 駁二店 (at Pier2)
Another great example of serendipity. I was just feeling a little hungry after hours of walking and taking photos, so I popped into a cafe in the art area. I was rewarded with an amazing fresh fruit tart that the Parisians would be proud of and a carafe of fancy tea with fruit ice cubes. Too posh!

Near the FlyInn Hostel
Kaohsiung is much more industrial than either of the other two cities and there was very little to eat near my hostel, so I ended up with some strange food choices including whatever this chicken thing is and a random place where the old lady called her son out to help me because my dictionary won’t work on the menu. I really don’t know what it was… mystery dinner!

Just goes to show that no matter where you choose – the 5 star Yelp reviewed restaurant or the soup shop down the alley, you’re going to find Taiwan a gastronomic delight.


If you want to end your view of my Taiwan travel here on a high note, I certainly don’t blame you, but I continue to post stories of my physical/mental/emotional limitations during my travels because I want people with invisible limitations or chronic illnesses to know they aren’t alone and that your limits don’t have to stop you from seeing the world. 

Invisible Illness & Love of Travel

In Taipei, a day of temples and a full day tour wiped me out in the warm weather. Far from being “warm winter”, the unusually hot weather and high humidity (25c + 85% humidity is unseasonable) combined with hours of walking and hiking. By the third day I had to cancel additional sightseeing because the body said no. 

In Taichung, I met some fun people to spend the day with, another teacher who in lives Korea and her local friend. The local friend had a car and offered to drive us around and we had a lot of fun taking photos and being silly tourists together, but at some point I ran out of spoons and had no idea how to explain or adapt with these friendly strangers.

Trying to explain a few of my limitations and the accommodations I’ve made for myself (not expecting anyone to do for me, just the way I’ve come to manage my issues) I got a lot of push back from the girl who invited me along. Don’t get me wrong, it was 90% a good day but it was so hard to get her to understand why I was in pain and tired at the end and why I wasn’t going to be up for more the following day. She’s 13 years younger than me and basically said everything in the “you don’t look sick” playbook. I love meeting people and making new friends, I know I had more fun and more experiences with them than I would have alone, I just hate that I have to push myself beyond my limits just to be the slowest one in a group.

In Kaohsiung, going to Maolin and Foguang Shan on the same day was a lot. I got on the road at 7am, hiked all over a mountain for several hours, navigated the bus system on my own when Google turned out be a liar, hiked more at a mountain monastery (so. many. stairs.) and navigated back to town without relying on Google which is frankly crap about Taiwan public transit info. It was a 13+ hr day, and about 5-6 hrs spent hiking the hills and stairs.

By the end, I was tired, and my feet hurt like hell, but my legs were fine. It’s not a matter of being weak or out of shape because the parts of my body complaining (feet, ankles, lower back, hands) aren’t the muscles used to climb. I slept hard and long, and while not fully recovered the next day, I mentally/emotionally felt better than I did after the tour group day in Taipei or the day in Taichung with the other teacher and her friend.

It seems I just handle the challenges better when I’m on my own time table rather than trying to keep up with others. Being on my own still isn’t 100% guaranteed to be “at my pace” because sometimes I still have to hurry to catch a bus or something, but it definitely has less negative impact on my well-being. It makes me a little sad to think I’m just going to have to turn down invitations hang out with fellow travelers on the move, I love meeting people, and I get lonely quite often, but knowing I can achieve my travel goals if I’m patient with myself is something that can help me out while I’m on the road. 


That was my reflection at the end of the Taiwan trip a year ago. I still think it’s very much true. Even just walking to dinner with friends from the office, I struggle to keep up. In Ireland, I could see that some terrains I pulled ahead and in others my travel companion did. I had one good “hiking” day in Korea last fall, but mostly because we all agreed to go super slow and stop often for photos and the weather was awesome. Here in Spain as I write this I can tell that some days I have more or less brain fog, or that my ankles or knees are more or less able to handle the stairs. It’s not fun, but I can handle my body and brain most of the time, even the bad times. The hardest part is the isolation I feel when I get left behind because other people can’t. I ask if you have a friend or relative who is fine one day, but can’t do anything the next, don’t make a fuss. If they are a little bit slow, just slow down, too, but don’t say anything about it. It means more than you can imagine to be included without being made to feel like a burden.

Doolin & The Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are another quintessential Irish bucket list. There are three, and you can take a boat out to any of them. If you are travelling via tour bus, then the most likely path is from Galway through Rossaveal, but we had a car and decided to go out of Doolin. Doolin itself is spoken of with a kind of reverential awe by those who visit regularly and now I know why. If you are lucky enough to plan your trip to the islands from Doolin instead of Galway, make sure you plan time for some trad music in the evening.


Inis Oírr

We chose to go to Inis Oírr (pronounced roughly “inis sheer”), the closest and smallest of the islands. It seemed like a nice way to see them without being overloaded with tour groups which all go to Inis Mann or Inis Mor. When I was planning the day, I looked at a map of all the things to do and see, mostly ruins but you know I am a sucker for ruins, and I figured I could just rent a bike and ride around to see it all.

It’s also possible to get into the carriage and ride around, but I like to go at my own pace, and the island was neither large nor described as very hilly, so a bike seemed great. I was looking forward to seeing the ruins of the O’Brien castle, the sunken graveyard, and the wrecked battleship. In addition, I was planning to hunt down some Aran knitted wool products because, well, they’re famous. So much I did not know…

20190805_121636
On the day of our ferry tickets, we made it to the parking lot and drove aimlessly looking for a spot for longer than planned. It was with some relief that we made it with a few minutes to spare, or so I thought. I was informed at the ticket office that our ferry had already left! Of course, like every ticketed event, they advised us to arrive 10-15 minutes early and the parking dilemma set us back from that goal, but we were still at least 5 minutes early. I couldn’t believe that they would just leave!

I began to protest and ask about refunds since they left before the scheduled time, and they agreed to put us on another boat. The longer I watched the docks, the more it became obvious that there was almost no order to the ferries at all. It seems like a few boats make the trip, and a few companies sell tickets, but they are not connected. Both going out and returning, we were just put on whatever boat was most convenient and the staff collected a variety of colorful tickets. I suspect that they then use those to collect their passenger fees from the ticket selling companies later. It’s confusing and disorienting and more than a little frustrating, but I guess it works.

It was such a lovely day with clear skies and bright sunshine that my companion wanted to sit on the deck instead of in the covered portion of the boat. There is something to be said for this, as one is much less likely to get seasick on deck, however, one is also much less likely to stay dry. We were hardly out of the harbor when the wind picked up and the waves began to splash in, covering the floor.

20190805_101103

I pulled my shoes up to try and keep dry as the water swirled around. We were not allowed to move once the boat was in motion due to the extreme bouncing, so I was stuck. Then the waves began to come over the side. Small splashes at first, but soon large drenching waves. It began to rain. Sudden hard sheeting buckets of rain combined with waves splashing us in all directions. I did not have any waterproof clothing on whatsoever because the day was so lovely when we were on land. By the time we arrived to the island 30+ minutes later, I was entirely soaked: socks, underwear, everything.

This extreme damper on my mood was not tempered by the fact that the rain had once more evaporated as we pulled into the island harbor and beautiful sunny blue skies prevailed. If anything, it made me even more grumpy. If I’d just sat inside on the boat, I’d have gone from sunny dry land to sunny dry land. Instead I got soaked to the bone with no change of clothes ahead for hours. I declined the carriage and the bike rental shop and immediately set off in the opposite direction of all the other ferry passengers, hoping to find a quiet and empty place to soothe my emotional distress and dry my wet socks.

20190805_105051
I did find a quiet section of beach with no humans around and I traded out my layers of clothing, alternately wearing and sun/wind drying. I managed to go from totally soaking to slightly damp over the course of about an hour. I listened to some music and watched the ocean. I let go of my expectations and my plans, and was finally able/willing to head back toward the cluster of buildings and see what there was to see nearby. I didn’t really have the time or energy to bike around to all the sights, so I just walked. I got to see some of the homes, quaint little cottages all divided by stone walls. I found a sweater shop. I learned a lot more about Aran Knit.

The Aran knitting patterns are unique, especially when combined with a rougher, less treated (more waterproof) type of wool. They were made by fishermen’s wives to stave off the rain, seawater, and cold winds that I had gotten only a tiny taste of on my boat ride over. (I got drenched on a “sunny” day, imagine what it was like for the fishermen?) The tradition is maybe 100-150 years old, and the sheep aren’t from the Aran islands (anymore, not enough sheep). There’s a strong mythology about the types of stitch and patterns in the knit, but it’s mostly from a single source, which always makes me skeptical.

Whether or not the patterns link to certain clans or whether the original ladies who knitted them ascribed the mythological meaning to bring health, wealth and such to the wearer we can’t be sure. What is sure is that the distinctive patterns are unique and in high demand. Such high demand that there’s now factories churning out machine made versions of the traditional fisherman’s wear. You can order them online, you can buy them in any city in Ireland. I doubt any casual observer will know the difference. The machine made sweaters are lovely and affordable. I didn’t want one.

20190805_121453
I perused the shop’s offerings, observing tags and occasionally asking questions. The hand knitted sweaters were truly lovely, but they started around 100€ each. I thought a lot about how often I’d wear a really thick wool sweater in my life. It would be great for the 20 minutes I’m outside each day in the depths of winter, but then it would be too hot to wear inside. Plus, I’m already quite fluffy, and bulky clothes are not flattering on my figure. I looked longingly at the scarves, because I love scarves, but I also have too many already and am trying to figure out which ones to leave behind on my next major move. Finally, I settled on a hat. It is hard to keep my head warm in the cold winter winds and they’re meant to be taken off inside, plus don’t take up so much room in the luggage.

I chose a hand knitted hat in a lovely moss green with several different classic Aran stitches. The gentleman at the counter and I chatted for a while about the changes in Ireland and on the island specifically in his lifetime. He told me when he was younger, everyone went down to the lighthouse to watch the football (soccer) game on the only television on the whole island, and now they had stuff like WiFi! His wife was part of the group of ladies that knitted the in house goods, but he wasn’t sure if she had knitted the hat I chose or one of the other ladies had. The wool itself was from the Connemara area because there just weren’t enough sheep on the Aran Islands themselves to support the knitting, it being more a fishing (and lately tourism) economy than a sheep based one.

I actually wore the hat a lot during the rest of my trip in Ireland and it was a welcome addition to a wardrobe that was packed for a more summery climate than I ended up with.

20190805_130433 (1)
With my souvenir goal achieved, I continued to explore and came across a small meadow behind some abandoned buildings. Down among the grass and weeds was a zoo of tiny life. Little black winged and red spotted moths, fuzzy bumble bees, stripey caterpillars, and beautiful butterflies. I had a wonderful time crawling around on the ground and taking pictures.

The line for the ferries back was almost as chaotic as the ferries out, but I had more faith that we wouldn’t be left behind. The weather was getting squally again, and the ships captains were having chats about the best way to get back. They started out asking all the people subject to seasickness to get into certain boats which were less likely to be as impacted by the waves and which would take the most direct route back to Doolin. Our reservations included a trip past the Cliffs of Moher and would be about twice as long as the direct route.

20190805_115219
Sadly, by the time we all bundled onto the boats, the captains had decreed the weather was too bad to go to the cliffs. I made sure to get a seat inside for the ride back, turned on my music and had a little nap. I have been known to get seasick when I’m below decks, but this ship was fairly wide and had big picture windows. It was not a real question of being wet and cold vs being a little nauseous.

Once more, I learned that no matter what the weather looks like on land, it is not related to the weather even 5 minutes out to sea and that whatever plans you make in Ireland that involve the ocean are subject to drastic change and cancellation without warning. I think the boat trips were worth it, and I’m glad I went to the island, even if it meant getting soaked, but if you only have a couple days in Ireland, maybe stick to mainland activities to avoid disappointment.

20190805_132847

Doolin Cave

When putting together the day plan, we had a few hours in the late afternoon free and the cave looked like a good “all weather” option. I booked the tickets for pretty much everything we did ahead of time online because summer is the high season in Ireland and popular sites sell out fast. Even though I wasn’t feeling great after my very wet morning, it seemed like a waste not to use the tickets that were already paid for, so we headed to the cave.

20190805_162628The cave is famous because it has the longest freestanding (or free hanging I suppose) stalactite in Europe. It is quite impressive. Tours go down in groups with hard hats and a guide. There’s a LOT of stairs, a fairly short walk, and a very dramatic presentation where you walk into the main cavern in the dark (flashlights pointed at the ground) so that when the lights come on, you get a stunning view of the star stalactite. Originally, there was meant to be a garden walk involved in this as well, but the rainy weather which had prevented us from seeing the Cliffs had caught up to the mainland and it was positively pouring down. On top of that, the cafe was closed by the time we came back up. I think the stalactite was stunning, but overall, I wish we’d been able to enjoy the other things at the location.

Doolin Music House

Whatever hardships the day threw at us, the evening plans made up for it all. I was able to change into dry clothes, which helped a lot, and our nighttime plans were for some trad music in a local house. I’d reached out to Christy and Sheila via email and arranged for a space in their house show. Trad (traditional) Irish music is a big draw both for locals and tourists in Ireland and while a lot of it is available in pubs, those can be loud and crowded – a challenge to anyone who’s feeling overwhelmed at the end of a long, hard, rainy day of touristing.

The idea of sitting in a nice quiet living room and listening to music and stories was far more appealing than the pub. Sheila welcomed us in and invited us to sit by the fire which was burning local peat and smelled amazing. Peat is harvested from the bogs of Ireland. It’s dead and decaying organic matter that’s been pressed into turf. It’s dug up in chunks and dried in the sun, then used for fuel. Ireland doesn’t have a lot of trees, which is why so much is build of stone and why the people burn peat for fire. Even with new gas and electric heating systems being installed around the island, a lot of folks still use peat in their fireplaces and stoves. I also had the chance to see some of the harvesting and drying in process when we drove through peat bogs later on.

20190805_184737
When we first came in, we entered Sheila’s painting studio where she creates and displays her artwork. In the living room, however, the walls are covered with charcoal sketches of some of Ireland’s most influential trad musicians of yore. Sheila brought us some wine and other guests filtered in. It was mostly people over 50, I may have been the youngest in the room, but they were lively and talkative (I think the Irish might be the only people who talk as much as the Americans). We were served a light meal of local salmon and local cheeses with fresh bread and we just ate and chatted for a while. It was very relaxing, like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

20190805_204614
When we had all finished eating, Kristy and James came out with a fiddle and an armload of flutes. James stuck to his fiddle the whole night and only very rarely spoke. Kristy was every inch the Irish story spinner and played a variety of flutes and even the spoons at one point. Between songs, Kristy would tell us all stories about the music and about growing up in Ireland. Although he never said his age directly, I gather he must at least be in his 70s if not older. He’s been performing professionally for more than 40 years, but the stories he told about his childhood experiences lead me to believe he’s been playing much much longer. 

I did not have the kind of memory capacity in my phone to record all those wonderful stories, but I was charmed by tales of the older way of life that had still been common when he was a boy. How all the men worked hard physical labor jobs, and almost no one had any money, but it barely mattered because they could go round to each others homes at night and play music and dance. He told us the history of the instruments and how the music grew up as something more to accompany dancers than as it’s own art. Dancers were the percussion and the main entertainment. A musician who couldn’t follow the dancer’s beat wouldn’t soon be invited to play again.

Sheila and her friend came out to show a small demonstration of the dancing, so focused on the movement of the feet and the stillness of the body. The whole world has seen Riverdance by now, the famous show that came from this traditional dance style. It has been heavily adapted to appeal to a broader audience with more movement and flash, but the original style is very subtle and very challenging to master.

20190805_192737
We listened to music and stories totally captivated. It is one of my best memories of the entire trip. My Airbnb host, Marcella, lives just up the road, and of course has known Sheila for years and was stunned to find they were asking so “high” a price as 25€ per person for the experience. I found it to be totally reasonable for such a wonderful evening. No public show could have compared to the warmth and personal touches of being in their home, and yet they were impeccable hosts with regard to our comfort and keeping our wine glasses full. Plus, while they may just be the neighbors to Marcella, Kristy is a world renowned and award winning musician with a lifetime of amazing stories to share.

Every night is different because different musicians and dancers show up to accompany Kristy. Plus, although the night I was there, none of us were brave enough, Kristy did say he likes it to feel more like a group event than a performance, and anyone is welcome to sing, play or dance as they like.

The main website is very classy, and doesn’t properly give the impression of the impish charm that Christy exudes. I took a single video for my own memories and to share with you all, but if you want to see more, their Facebook Page has a much wider selection than the primary website.

The Dingle Peninsula

The joy of planning any vacation is discovering new things. Naturally, I had a list in Ireland of sites I knew I wanted to see, but there were whole swaths of countryside between the known destinations for me to fill in. Going from the Ring of Kerry directly to the Aran Islands was just too long a drive. When I looked at the map, the Dingle Peninsula came up as a must see for it’s beautiful coastline, charming local culture, and one special local resident named Fungie.


Fungie the Dingle Dolphin

I love dolphins. This makes me basic, but I don’t care. I struggle sometimes because they can be real jerks (BBC article, TW: rape), so I don’t go in for the “dolphins as spiritual healing animals” line, but like many intelligent wild animals, I find them fascinating. I was in Florida in middle school, and we went to local marine parks a lot. I wanted to be a marine biologist – or a dolphin trainer – but then we moved away from the sea and I learned about the horrible things that happen to dolphins in captivity.

20190804_082112

Since then, I have sought out responsible interactions with fascinating wild animal. Although some animal protection extremists say there’s no such thing, I go with “as responsible as possible”. My swim with the wild dolphins in New Zealand is a good example. The NZ government limits the number and type of boats that can legally interact with the dolphins and it reduces random tourists and boats from interfering with them while raising money and awareness for environmental preservation.

Fungie is an entirely unique case and there’s not really another dolphin like him in the world. He’s a solitary middle aged bachelor who lives in the Dingle Bay and likes hanging out with the humans. He was never a captive, never “trained”, isn’t fed by people or enticed to stay in any way other than through social interaction. And if he’s tired of people, he can swim out of the bay and the small boats can’t follow him into the unsheltered Wild Atlantic.

20190804_081843

I ran into people (Irish people, not just tourists) outside of Dingle who thought that he was a myth, or an exaggeration, or one of a long line of different dolphins that the town named Fungie to keep up the tourism, but Fungie is actually the subject of some scientific interest because he is so unique among dolphins. He’s a little bit like a “wolf child”. In the sad case where a human baby isn’t socialized with other humans before a certain age, they don’t learn language or basic social skills… ever. Fungie was separated from his pod at a relatively young age, just old enough to feed himself, but not fully socialized… think about Mowgli or Tarzan? He came into the Dingle Bay because it’s extremely sheltered and safe, plus lots of food (good fishing). He never got reconnected with his pod or any other, and now he tends to hide from pods passing through the area. Scientists who study him think that he can’t communicate well with other dolphins, sort of like having a speech impediment.

However, dolphins are very social, much like humans, and whatever his reasons for avoiding other dolphins, Fungie discovered he could get some degree of socialization from humans. I suspect it’s similar to the way that we interact with our pets. Fungie has lived in the Dingle bay for about 36 years, and they think he was about 4 when he moved in. For a long time, he was only known to the locals, but in more recent years, he has become a mainstay of Dingle tourism.

20190804_074037

I chose my tour boat because of the timing. Partly because I wanted to do two things that day, and partly because dolphins are most active early in the morning. This is the only boat that goes out in the early morning and it only holds 10 people, so book in advance. The good news is that this smaller boat inside the bay is unlikely to be impacted by the weather, unlike the larger boats, which as I will relate shortly, definitely are. Plus, the tiny boat means you get quite close to the water, and consequently, the dolphin.

There’s also the option to swim, but the Atlantic Ocean there only gets up to 15C/60F in the warmest month, and that’s still colder than most people who live south of the 60th parallel want to swim in without a wet-suit. The water I went in NZ was 13C and even with a short wet-suit, I just about stopped breathing when I went in. I didn’t have a wet-suit in Ireland, and I hadn’t figured out how to rent one in advance, so I was SOL. There was a family on the boat with us who decided to just go in in swimsuits. I think they were Swedish. The children turned blue, and Fungie never really got that close.

IMG_2165.JPG

The tour company kitted us out with outerwear, pants and jackets, that was super warm and waterproof. I am so glad they did, because however pleasantly cool the weather on land was, it was insanely cold out on the water, plus we got boat spray and rain. It was a gray, wet morning, I got some nice photos (as seen in the first part of the post) as we pulled out of the harbor, although the visibility was limited. I was a bit sad I couldn’t see the cliffs around the bay, but all was forgiven once Fungie showed up.

Our guide told us a bit about Fungie’s history and the studies I briefly outlined here, and then we set about trying to play with him. The guide said later in the day, there would be dozens of boats in the area all competing for his attention, so going in the early morning we got him all to ourselves. The best way to play with Fungie is to run the boat quickly, creating a wake, then pumping the breaks so the wake passes the boat. Fungie loves to race the boat and then body surf in the wave the boat creates. We did this over and over to the delight of everyone on board, and apparently Fungie as well.

When he was done with us, he just swam off. Even with our guide trying to lure him back, he was ready for a break. I point this out, because it’s really important that Fungie isn’t being exploited. He doesn’t want to live with other dolphins, and if humans stopped playing with him, he’d probably get really depressed (which happens to all social animals in isolation).

IMG_2169

We had a quick run out of the bay just to feel the difference in the weather, which is intense. It was wet, cold, and insanely fun. We bounced like a roller coaster and although I got splashed many times, the waterproof outerwear did a good job of keeping me warm and mostly dry. This is very important, because I the next day I ended up on a boat with no waterproof clothes and it was an entirely miserable experience. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats WITH warm waterproof clothes = fun. Crazy wet splashing raining Wild Atlantic boats in regular clothes = soaking wet underwear. Choose wisely.

As we came back toward the harbor the other tour boats were starting to gather. We spotted Fungie a few more times, but even just having a few other boats around made me really appreciate the time we got with him while we were the only boat on the water.

The Weather

I mentioned our morning was gray and rainy, with an extra side of nose numbingly cold on the water. This was August, by the way, the warmest month although not the driest (that’s June). The morning’s short excursion out of the bay and onto the ocean gave me my first taste of why it’s called the Wild Atlantic. Even doing the speed up/sudden break trick with Fungie in the bay was a smooth calm ride compared to the unsheltered open ocean.

I did not actually think the weather that day was bad. It did rain on us a bit, but it wasn’t anything like a storm. Nonetheless, shortly after we were back on land from our morning visit with Fungie, I got an email from my afternoon tour that the boat trip was cancelled due to bad weather. I have to say I was very surprised. I didn’t think a light rain was enough to warrant a cancellation, but this just goes to show how little I understood about the Wild Atlantic. Yes, I’m going to keep calling it that, because the Atlantic Ocean is big and has different temperaments on different coasts, but what goes on along the west coast of Ireland can only be understood in terms of elemental forces.

The afternoon tour was meant to be a visit to the Blasket Islands, an eco tour where we could see some of the wildlife and get to have a short walk on the island. It was meant to be the alternative to missing out on Skellig Michael. When the tour company cancelled, I asked around at some of the other boat operators to see if anyone would be going. Please remember, in my ignorance, the slightly overcast, intermittent light rain just didn’t seem like a weather obstacle, and I thought, surely a saner company would still be going. One company operating a smaller boat said they were planning to go, but were all booked up, and we could be on the alternate list in case anyone backed out. I left them my number and went to the tourism office around the corner to see what else I could do in Dingle that afternoon.

There were a few things, caves, churches, museums and I probably could have made a go of it, but in the end, I didn’t have to. The small boat company had a family of 4 drop out, so all of us who were waiting got to go after all. The upshot is that I got to go out on the Wild Atlantic on a day when all but one tour boat was docked for bad weather. Let me say again, “bad” meant a little windy, and a little rainy. Honestly, it got downright sunny and pleasant over lunch. The ocean is a crazy place.

Why did the small boat go when the big boats dared not? Smaller, lighter weight boats are more maneuverable, and also lower to the ocean surface, with less surface area. They’re less impacted by high waves and high winds. So, there I was, all bundled up in the waterproofs again, and holding on to a boat that was more inflatable life raft than seaworthy vessel for a 3 hour tour, and trying not to hum Gilligan’s Island under my breath.

Is there a way to be sure of a good boat ride? Sadly, no. Ireland just rains a lot. I honestly do not know how people out there made a living at fishing… well, I do… a lot of them died. Even in the “driest” months, the weather can turn ugly and it can last your whole vacation. We didn’t see nice weather for 4 more days. This is not to say it was all miserable. The sun comes out a lot between the raindrops. If you’re on land, it’s fine with an umbrella and some waterproof shoes/shoe-covers. Maybe a water proof jacket if you’re on the coast, because wind does make umbrellas useless. If you don’t mind a wild wet ride, it can be great fun, but if you are counting on a beautiful clear sunny day like the brochure photo either be prepared to hang out all summer or go somewhere that isn’t famous for rain.

The Blasket Islands

Once I got over the weather, it was pretty good. I think it would have been stunning in sunlight, but we got some nice up-close views of the cliffs, and some history about the pirates, which were really more like smugglers, but pirate sounds cooler. We passed by another Star Wars film site, where Luke leaps from rock to rock to harvest the green milk.

20190804_140042

The Blasket Islands are a little series of Islands that were occupied by a very small (100 or so people) population of very traditional Gaelic speaking Irish. I gather there was a lot of tension between them and the occupying British/Anglicized Irish, hence maybe some of the pirating. In the 1950s, the last 22 occupants were relocated to the mainland for safety reasons. In the high season, it is still possible to spend the night on one of the islands, but most people who want to visit, go for a single afternoon, much as I had hoped to do.

I was starting to understand why a 70 person ferry wasn’t going to navigate around a bunch of huge jagged rocks in high wind and waves, but I wasn’t sure why we weren’t allowed to land until I saw the dock. The dock that was a nearly vertical stone stairway up the cliff. I have to say, that if it had been a sunny day, I would have fought through it, and climbed, but I’m slightly glad I didn’t have to. I also very much understand why no one wanted to try and navigate that with rough currents and winds.

20190804_144217

After a couple hours on the rough seas, I was slightly beginning to regret my choice. For safety, the boat’s seats were basically saddles with backs. They were very stable, and I never once felt like I might fall off, but if you’ve ever ridden a horse at a trot or canter, you know that saddles aren’t super comfortable at speed. There’s a reason racehorse jockeys don’t sit. You aren’t actually supposed to sit, but rather put your weight in the stirrups and use your thighs to stay balanced and level. Otherwise, your internal organs bounce all around and  your sitting area gets very sore. The waves of the Wild Atlantic were not unlike a bouncing trot. At first, I could handle it, I planted my feet and bent my knees and kept myself pretty well stable. As my legs got tired, I had the choice of three positions: stand, which is bouncy and awkward and requires a lot of core strength, sitting, which is comfortable when the boat goes up, but painful when the boat meets the water, and the saddle squat which gives the most control over the bouncing but uses the most extra muscles.

We didn’t get to see the puffins, I don’t really blame them, but we did stop in a little sheltered beach to see the seals. I am very curious as to why there isn’t a nice easy dock on or near this beach, because it was obviously sheltered, and much flatter than the vertical cliff face the actual dock is built into, but I’m sure there’s a reason involving winter storms or wildlife preservation.

20190804_142311

The seals like to sun themselves on the beach, which was obviously not happening that day, so we drifted to a slow stop in the smooth glassy waters and I realized that the water around us was positively filled with seals. Children of the corn style.

IMG_2177

I’m a bit spoiled on wildlife after living in the Pacific Northwest. The average sail around the sound will result in several seal, porpoise, and even whale sighting. People on the ferry see orcas on the regular. My last visit to Seattle, we got to see some humpbacks breaching as well as a little pod of dolphins, and a seal pup hanging out on a little bit of driftwood waiting for mom to come back. On a single sail. Nothing I have seen compared to the colony of seals *watching us from the water.

In all the photos and videos and they just look like driftwood or waves or shadows. First I noticed one or two as they bobbed a bit higher out of the water to get a good look at the weirdos in the boat. Then, like one of those 3D pictures or an optical illusion suddenly changing from duck to rabbit, I realized the sea was full of these animals and they were all staring at our boat. I am super happy that seals are much more like chocolate Labradors than sharks. They were just curious, but in that super foggy weather it was a spooky moment.

20190804_142940

Despite the gray skies, near constant rain, kidney jostling waves, and view obscuring fog, I am still glad I went. There were moments that the ocean sparkled turquoise, which I didn’t think it could do without sunlight. There were times as the islands came toward us out of the fog and sea spray that it felt like magical lands emerging from the mist. And there were times when I was really glad that staring at the horizon works for seasickness. As stunning an experience as a ride on the roughest possible while still being safe seas was, I was very happy to return to dry land and dry clothes.

Leaving Dingle that evening, the sun came out once more and I was treated to a beautiful roadside rainbow as I drove on to my next destination, Doolin and the Aran Isles.

20190804_182558.jpg

Ireland: The Ring of Kerry

If one is doing a road trip in Ireland, a couple of “must dos” are the Wild Atlantic Way, and the Ring of Kerry. The main point of the Ring of Kerry isn’t actually the many interesting stops along the way, but the beautiful views of the Atlantic Ocean from the road. However, since it is an extremely long drive, it’s nice to have places to stop and get out for a while. The main ring is the N70, which is a lovely wide (for Ireland) highway, but all the really good stuff is off the highway and down a series of narrow twisty side roads. Neither Valentia Island nor Skellig Ring are technically part of the Ring of Kerry, but it could be argued they are more interesting.


Car or Bus?

Driving in Ireland is not for the faint of heart, but if you are nervous, then you can also take a bus tour. The advantage of a bus tour is that you can spend the whole time looking out the window at the view. The disadvantage is that they only stop at a few very popular spots, and you have to contend with all the other tourists around your photos.

I personally enjoyed most of the drive, with the exception of a few moments of extremely heavy rain and one point where we managed to drive through a cloud. Low visibility on narrow steep roads is… challenging. Despite the white knuckle moments, I’m glad I drove myself because I got to pick and choose my own stops. There’s a nearly infinite list of things to see, and no way at all to do them in a single day drive of the Ring. The good news is, the Ring of Kerry is very affordable. I believe that some of the restoration houses and museums do charge a small fee to come inside, but as far as I know, all the outdoor attractions are free of charge.

ring of kerry map.jpg

This is the route I traveled according to my Google Maps history. We spent 10 hours on (and off) the Ring of Kerry, starting in Killorglin (a smaller town than Killarny, so the Airbnb was cheaper) and ending in Killarney (although we continued to drive on to Dingle that evening). For reference, most bus tours are 6-8 hours and start and end in Killarney, so you can imagine they move faster and see less.

The Challenge of Skellig Michael

Possibly the most popular place to visit on the peninsula is Skellig Michael. It is a phenomenally beautiful island with a wonderful wildlife preserve and interesting ruins of an old monastery. To preserve the environment, only a limited number of people are allowed to set foot on the island per day. If you are lucky enough to get a spot, the boats may be cancelled due to bad weather, even if the weather on land seems ok. They don’t call it the “wild” Atlantic for nothing.

Skelig Michael Steps, Credit: IrishFireside via FlikrEven before 2017, it was a popular attraction that required lots of booking ahead. Then the Last Jedi came out, and suddenly the whole world knew about Skellig Michael as the beautiful and remote island where Rey finds the reclusive Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker. Those sweeping staircases and round stone huts weren’t inventions for the film, those are the actual ruins. Thanks to the Creative Commons I have photos to show you.

Reservations for boats that simply sail next to the island must be made up to a year in advance in the high season and I spoke to one couple that had been waiting for a spot on a boat that allowed people to walk on the island for more than 3 years.

As amazing as it would be to have the chance to go explore this beautiful place, I think that it would be something I’d have to plan a whole trip around, choosing a time of year that is just off enough to have availability without having your chances of bad weather above 80%, and then also being willing to stay nearby for several days/a week because when your boat does get cancelled, you are still around for the “make up” tour.

Skellig hivesThere are so many beautiful small islands along the west coast of Ireland, and while none are the same as Skellig Michael, I think for most people, they are going to be just as enjoyable while being much more accessible and far less expensive. I myself visited the Blasket Islands (from Dingle), the Aran Islands (from Doolin), and a teeny little place called Inishbofin (from Galway). And if you just HAVE to have that Skywalker connection, the Blasket islands are actually in the film as well.

Finally, there is the Skellig Experience Center, which is on Valentia Island. I gather it is a warm, dry, indoor experience involving models, miniatures, and a video. I ended up skipping this as well because it was a recommended 45 minute visit, and we simply ran out of time for everything we hoped to do that day.

What I Actually Did on the Ring

Cahergall Stone Fort

Stone forts or ring forts are ubiquitous in Ireland. There are more than 45,000 ring forts, some of earth, some of stone. Many are on private land, so you can’t necessarily just drive up to them, but lots and lots are open to the public and managed by a park service. This is not to say they are easy to find, or that they have any parking facilities, but if you are intrepid, you can do it.

There’s a very small parking area along a very narrow road with a little sign pointing to a sheep trail through a meadow, and if you follow this trail, avoiding the sheep poo, you will come up to the stunning sight of this majestic stone monument crowning the highest hill in the area. It’s not roped off, and you can freely touch, climb, enter and explore which is great. Because we were not with a tour group, we only ran into one or two others while at the fort, and it was easy to take lots of beautiful, if somewhat gray, photos.

20190803_094217.jpg

I feel like the term “fort” is a bit misleading. I originally thought that these were military installments placed on high hills for visibility and ease of defense. It turns out that these “forts” were probably more like farmsteads where people and livestock lived full time. The double ring looks like a good way to keep the animals safe in the outer ring, and the humans in the inner ring, with a ragged stairway up to a walking path. The strong stone walls would protect from weather, predatory animals, and rival clans. The livestock could be let to roam and graze in the day / good weather, and then gathered in, like a barn or paddock, as needed. The double ring with livestock would mean the inner circle of humans would be much warmer than the surrounding countryside. 

20190803_095046 (1)

Many historians think that the size of the ring indicates the owner’s social standing, which makes sense if you consider that richer families would have more livestock and more (living) children. The one at Cahergall is about 70 ft / 25m across.  It also makes a lot more sense why there are 45,000 of them if you think of them as farms/homes rather than military forts.

20190803_094911

Cahergall is one of the more famous rings because it has recently been restored and is quite beautiful. Some people think that the restoration is “cheating”, but it’s 1400 years old and was made by dry stacking flat stones (no mortar of any kind). The restoration makes it safe to climb and gives a good idea of what it would have looked like.

20190803_100316.jpg

On our way back to the car, a farmer had come down to greet a tour bus with a young lamb in his arms. He wasn’t “charging” for the privilege of holding and petting this adorable soon-to-be-dinner, but everyone was giving him a Euro or two as a tip/thank you. We beat the tour bus by only a few minutes and figured that farmer would probably get 50 Euro or more from that bus alone for sheep petting… not a bad deal for him.

Valentia Tetrapod Trackway

There’s a trope in the story of evolution of the first “fish” crawling out of the sea and onto land. This is a very oversimplified version of how evolution works, but it’s a good story because it helps us visualize and understand the process. There was a period known as the Devonian between 350 and 370 million years ago where that process occurred and sea creatures gradually developed legs from fins and began to explore the food and safety options of damp land.

There are only 4 locations of earth where you can go and actually see the footprints of one of those animals and one of them is in Ireland along the Ring of Kerry.

20190803_104742

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as a kid and I even did a few amateur fossil  hunts. I was delighted to find stones with the imprint of life that was millions of years old, and growing up did not reduce that delight. I recall finding fossilized seashells in the desert of Saudi Arabia, and being completely awed. So, when I found out that this level of rare fossil was available for the viewing, I had to go.

We had variable weather on the day of this drive, and were mostly lucky that the rain came down while we were driving and let up when we parked, but this stop was the one big exception. The tracks, like everything outside a city in Ireland, are not super easy to find, but Google Maps helped and there are also plenty of websites with landmark based directions. There’s a decent parking lot, but it is a bit of a walk down to the water from there. On the day I went, there was a documentary film crew on site, and they thought we were crew too because they just couldn’t imagine any tourists crazy enough to come down in that weather.

20190803_105753

It was only a light drizzle when I started the walk, but turned into a serious downpour about half way down. I decided that since I was going to get just as wet walking back to the car as down to the shore, I might as well carry on. I got entirely soaked. Only my shoe covers kept my feet dry. Waterproof shoes or shoe covers are an absolute must in Ireland.

It’s a beautiful rocky shore, and the steps down are a little tricky in the rain, but not too bad. There are several informative signs with models of the tracks (so you know what to look for) and a bit of history about the site itself. 385 million years ago, Ireland was actually south of the Equator, and what is now a cold and rocky shore was a warm, silt laden river delta. In addition to the footprints, there are also fossilized ripples (below) made as the muddy silt dried in patterns and was covered over by layers of different soil. Both ripples and prints were compressed over millions of years as the landmass drifted north. Finally, the erosion of rain and sea revealed this layer of the strata.

20190803_110335.jpg

The footprints are accompanied by a tail drag, since tetrapods were still heavy and low to the ground with long, broad tails for swimming. I think without the informative signs showing me what to look for, I (not a paleontologist) might have missed it entirely. Once you get all the way down to the shore, you know where to look because one area is roped off. Since this isn’t a restorable relic, we can’t walk on it or touch it lest we erode it away completely.

20190803_110945.jpg

Before I went, I was thinking these footprints might be much larger because in my head, dinosaurs are huge. However, the Tetrapod was only about a meter long (3ft). For perspective, the average alligator is about 4x that size. The footprints are tiny little polka dots with a sidewinder looking divot between them (lower left quadrant of the photo above). They look not unlike a close up of a sewn edge with the thread removed. Once I got over the fact that I was soaking wet and that these were really small dinos, it was a very cool experience.

It’s not that you can’t see these kind of tracks in a museum, but there’s something… deep and connecting about seeing it where it happened, to know that this piece of rock was once thousands of miles away, and that your feet are there on the same ground that this ancient ancestor and key link in the evolution of life on land once walked.

Skellig Ring: St. Finian’s Bay & Skellig Chocolates

Skellig Ring is not part of the Ring of Kerry. It’s a little side loop down a peninsula and closer to the coast. While looking at the map, it seemed rather silly to go to Valentia and then backtrack to the official ring, so we kept hugging the coastline, which made for some lovely views.

I think we stopped at St. Finian’s because it was pretty and I needed a place to pull over and check the map. We were on our way to the Skellig Chocolate store and I was struggling to navigate the narrow roads, strange turn offs, and Google Maps all while driving a car on the “wrong” (to me) side of the road in the rain. It is a beautiful little beachfront, and I while it makes for a gloomy and picturesque photo op on the rainy afternoon I stopped there, I am sure it’s also stunning in nicer weather.

20190803_120413.jpg

As for the Chocolate store, it’s a cute little chocolate shop, and they have lovely tastings where you can sample all the flavors before you decide which ones you want to buy. It was good, but not spectacular. I think I’m spoiled on chocolates. I’ll generally avoid the slave labor chocolate companies like Hershey’s, but I can order my fair trade online easy enough, so chocolate shops aren’t usually on my travel itinerary.

Theo’s Chocolates in Seattle is a stop I always recommend because they roast their own beans and actually make the chocolate from scratch (unlike most shops which buy chocolate then remelt it to add flavors and shapes). Plus, I love their factory tour which makes me feel like oompa loompas are hiding just around the corner. I also spent more than a glorious day in Brussels making my way around all the famous, historical, and newly excellent chocolate shops, chatting with makers and sampling a variety of confections, some of which were “meh” and others sent me over the moon with chocolate joy.

Skellig Chocolates are certainly better tasting than Hershey or Nestle. I enjoyed the flavors, but I wasn’t over the moon. Also, although they are making some confections on site, there is no tour or museum where you can learn about chocolate making. If you happen to be passing by, and have time, great, but you can buy the same chocolates in most Ireland gift shops or at the airport if you really want to try it and don’t fancy stopping your driving tour of natural/historical wonders for this tourist money trap.

valentia map.jpg

If you want to see Valentia without driving the Skellig ring, I’d recommend taking the ferry (5 Euro/car one way) from Reenard Point and drive off the island via the bridge next to the Skellig Experience center, then follow R565 East back to the N70. I personally wish I’d been able to spend more time on Valentia to take in things like the Glanleam Gardens or the Fogher Cliffs, so even though I only wrote about the Tetrapod tracks, there’s a lot more to see there.

Staigue Fort

I like ruins. They are one of my favorite things to see. I like the stretching sense of history, and of being connected to other humans who lived and built things hundreds or thousands of years ago. I will almost never pass up the chance at a ruin. I wasn’t planning to see any stone rings after the Ring of Kerry, so I was happy to have an opportunity to compare two.

The Staigue Fort is considered one of (if not the) largest stone rings in Ireland. It is even larger than the Cahergall Fort, but it lacks the inner ring. It is older by about 300-500 years, and it hasn’t been restored as heavily, so it’s a little rougher around the edges. However, I did think that it was much easier to climb and walk on than Cahergall. The steps were wider and the path at the top was wide and smooth.

20190803_151403

Unlike Cahergall which was on high ground, the Staigue Fort is surrounded by higher hills. It was deeply foggy when I was there, and so the whole place had that kind of ancient, spooky, mysterious vibe. I got to climb to the top and walk around.

20190803_151554

I also learned what nettles look like for the first time from a local lady who was there showing her family around. I’m actually really glad I found out, because they sting if you grab them (or fall on them) so it’s nice to know what to avoid. I’ve read about nettles, stinging nettles, nettle tea and such in a wide variety of books, particularly by British authors, starting from childhood. I got so used to not knowing what they were, it never even occurred to me to look them up once Google was invented, and so now I know. Sadly, later on this trip, I was destined to find out how their sting feels… ow.

20190803_150348.jpg

There is a sign at the gate stating that there is a 1 Euro charge, but there is no one to collect it, only a collection box, which was jammed by two coins in the slot when we were there. The local lady who told me about the nettles, also said it wasn’t really necessary to pay, but we left a coin anyway because I like to support the care and maintenance of historical relics.

The final bid to collect some coins is a small “waterfall” and “wishing well” which is really a cute little stream where coins can be thrown with a wish, so if you want to contribute in a more creative way than the collection box, you can always toss a coin in the water. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the famous “rainbow sheep” up close!

Kenmare Stone Circle

Stone circles are quite distinct from stone forts. The most famous stone circle in the world is, of course, Stone Henge in England, but there are thousands of stone circles around the British Isles and northern Europe (France, Germany, etc). Stone circles are much older than stone ring forts, and most date from around 5000 years ago. They show no signs of habitation (leftover bits of pottery, food, or tools) and that has led most archaeologists to believe they serve a religious or ceremonial purpose. Lots of the stone circles are also aligned with the sunrise or sunset on the equinox or solstice, which lends some credence to their use as annual calendars.

Some archaeologists think anything they don’t understand must be about religion, but there are other possibilities, one of which is that these were meeting places for nomadic or semi nomadic groups to come, exchange goods and stories, perhaps even find spouses. The solar link of the stones would make it easy for everyone to agree on the right meeting day. Maybe there was some liturgical aspect to this as well, but think about how many of our modern holidays that focus on commerce, gift exchange, and extended family visits started out as and still involve at least a little bit of a religious day. (*cough*Christmas*cough)

20190803_164047

Maybe if I went to a stone circle in the countryside on a dim gray misty day, it would feel more druidic or sacred, but the Kenmare Stone circle is in a town, and when we arrived, the town was also setting up for a fair and there were carnival tents and rides being built all around. I gave up trying to find real parking and just put the car down out of the way on the side of the road. There’s a small booth asking for a 2 Euro fee to view the stones, but like the other places, there is no attendant or enforcement, so donate or not as your conscience dictates.

I put the Kenmare circle on my list because stone circles are cool, and this one is considered quite large. It would have been silly to drive so close and not stop, but it was so strange to see this 4-5000 year old monument in such a cute suburban garden setting. The trees and lawn are well manicured, and there’s even an attempt at some flower beds nearby. Finally, there’s a wishing tree where people can write their wishes on paper and tie them to the tree branches.

20190803_164013.jpg

As an American, it can be strange to me to see things that are more than 400 years old. When I do see ancient things, it is almost always in the context of a heritage site or museum or such, but there’s just so much old stuff in northern Europe that it isn’t at all uncommon to see it integrated into modern day life. I was watching a British interior design show, and one of the houses was 800 years old. It wasn’t some special historical site or museum, it was one of many homes in the village that was still being lived in by totally average people. The designers were looking at the wooden beams in the walls and roof and talking about when those beams were put in place 800 years ago and still in people’s living rooms. That kind of thing blows my mind.

The Kenmare Stone Circle is just that kind of thing: it’s a millenia old site that has been built into a modern public garden. It’s wild to see the contrast, and it’s amazing to contemplate the stretch of human civilization between the people who buried these enormous boulders and the people who mow the lawn and plant the peonies today. What it isn’t, is a magical connection to my druid ancestors, real or imagined, and that’s ok. Not every stone circle has to be a mystical experience.

Torc Waterfall

I love waterfalls. I will make a day of waterfall hunting, or drive miles out of my way to visit a waterfall. I honestly have to say, I could have skipped this one. The national park is gorgeous, and the waterfall itself is quite beautiful, since Ireland rains enough to keep the rivers full. However, this might be the single most popular stop in the whole south-west of the island. The car park was enormous, filled with tour buses and private drivers like myself. I’d seen almost no one all day (except at the chocolate store) and suddenly it was like the mall at Christmas. We had to circle the parking lot several times waiting for a spot to open up, and when we did finally find a place, and embarked on the short 5 minute walk to the falls, I was accosted by the noise of the crowd.

20190803_180152.jpg
After a full day of quiet (often empty) Irish countryside and coast-way, it was a real shock. On top of that, it was our last stop of the day and we were tired, hungry, and in a hurry to get to our beds that were another 2+ hours away. I think on the whole, I would have been more satisfied to stop at one of the other viewpoints like Moll’s Gap or the Ladies View and skipped Torc. That, or spend more than one day on the ring so that Torc could be part of a greater exploration of the national park. There are several nice walking trails of different lengths and difficulty that would be a nice way to spend a day (or at least a half day), but sadly not a great way to end one. It should also be much more empty earlier in the day since all the tours end their day at the falls.

In Conclusion

The Ring of Kerry is a lot to do in a single day. If you are going to try to be crazy like me, carefully pick your stops in advance and plan rests since long periods of driving on those roads can be tiring. GPS and cell service gets spotty outside the towns, so load up your maps and make sure they’re available offline before you hit the road. Expect to have to turn around and ask directions, and know it will take you longer than Google says. Regardless of the expectations of speed limit, unless you are a very skilled/reckless driver, it is likely that the narrow curving roads will slow you down, and inevitably you will have to do some back up, drive around, wait for sheep.

Follow the advised direction (counterclockwise). I looked at the idea of going clockwise to avoid the tourists and I am SO GLAD I did not. There were several sections of the ring that would have been terrifying if not impossible to navigate going the “wrong” way. Everything is set up to make it easy for drivers following the route, and clever dicks online who advise you to go the other way are mad.

Take 2 or more days if you can. If I had it to do again, I’d still start from Killorglin, but I’d slow down, and stay in one of the small towns maybe 2/3 of the way through (Sneem or Kenmare) then spend the second day exploring the rest of the ring and the Killarney National Park. Live and learn.

Fall in Korea

During my first two years in Korea, I took almost every opportunity to go to a festival or event. In large part, it was because as an EPIK teacher, I had very short holidays, so I spent my weekends seeking fun. Now that I have great big holidays, I find I’m saving my money for those long trips abroad. Plus, it is a bit repetitive to go to the same festivals and events each year. This year, my favorite tour group, Enjoy Korea, changed up the line-up on their fall foliage trip, so instead of going to the DMZ and Seoraksan, we would visit a famous penis park, a coastal railway, and Seoraksan- a mountain that’s quite large enough to visit twice and see totally different sights. I decided to sign up, and as luck would have it, some other ladies I know from around the country also signed up so we got to hang out together. Although it was a lot of riding in buses, the weather was everything we could have asked for, and I had a lovely time.


Haesingdang Penis Park (해신당 공원)

It is a constant source of curiosity and amusement among the foreigners that in such a conservative country as Korea there are multiple overtly sexual and outright pornographic sculpture parks. I visited the famous Love Land on Jeju Island a few years ago, and so I was curious to see the similarities and differences with that very modern invention and what was ostensibly a more historical park at Haesingdang.

20191019_143947

The legend of Haesingdang has some inconsistencies, but basically there was a young maiden who’s fiancee (new husband? she’s supposed to be a virgin, though so they can’t have been married long) is a fisherman and through a series of unfortunate events he ends up leaving her on a large rock rather far from the shore (perhaps to harvest the edible seaweed?) while he takes the boat to fish, promising to return for her at the end of the day. However, a horrible storm arises and he is unable to fetch her and she drowns.  The next day, there are no fish to be had, nor any the day after that. The people believed that the spirit of the drowned maiden was ruining the fishing.

Here’s where it gets extra confusing. There’s a group of three statues up on the hill overlooking the ocean that are supposed to be a part of the legend. The are very… um… priapic. I’m unclear as to whether they were masturbating into the sea, or simply showing this poor virgin girl what a good dick looks like. Many versions of the myth also state that it was a man urinating into the ocean that caused the spirit to be appeased and the fish to return, and anyone who knows the function of a prostate knows you can’t urinate when you’re .. um.

20191019_152713.jpg

All the legends agree that it was the sight of a penis that made this virgin maiden relent and bring back the fish… I guess she was really horny? I don’t really know. Since then, the locals carved several wooden phalluses to put along the seashore and twice a year they have a religious festival to show big wooden penises to the maiden in the sea.

It’s really hard to get any hard data about this park or the statues in it. It’s likely that the myth and the rituals are hundreds of years old, but given the near total destruction of everything in that region during the Korean War, it is highly unlikely that those are genuine historical statues. More than likely they are modern reproductions and best guesses combined with truly modern art pieces like the golden penis on the stairs that was made in 2006, and a row of new statues that seems to be growing one penis a year down the path (the latest one was dated 2019).

Most of the museum looks like it was either made in the 70s or by someone aesthetically stuck there. The fishing village museum included a series of arrows leading nowhere past some large fake aquariums (plastic fish, no water) and a large diorama of a historical fishing village, plus some interactive video games and “fishing” toys.

There are plenty of photo ops where you can sit on a giant penis, or sit on a bench and look like a large erect penis and hanging balls are sprouting from between your legs. There’s a small temple dedicated to the maiden who drowned in the legend. And there’s about 50 or so wooden carvings of exaggerated penis shapes, or people with penises for heads, or penis totem poles. A star attraction is the 12 zodiac animals in penis pillars.

Aside from the overwhelming collection of dick, there is a stunning view of the sea from the top of the stairs which is in my opinion, one of the best parts of the whole park. You can actually see the rock from the legend in this photo. There’s a statue of the maiden on the rock you can see with binoculars.

20191019_143044

Normally conservative and reserved Koreans take these kind of parks as a place to cut loose. Although no one did anything inappropriate like public exposure, there’s plenty of lewd gestures and old ladies laughing while their husbands look a bit uncomfortable. It’s not all bad for the guys, though, they get to pose next to unrealistic dicks and dream.

Yonghwa Coastal Rail Bike (삼척 해양레일바이크)

Also known as Samcheok Costal Rail Bike, it’s the same thing because there is only one rail bike in all of Korea.

“the one and only coastal rail bike in Korea and it runs on 5.4km-long double tracks through beautiful rocks and special type of pine trees called Gomsol (Bear Pine)”

I love the coast. Sandy beaches, rocky shores, sweeping cliffs, I don’t care I love it all. So when I heard this trip was going to include a leisurely hour long rail bike up the coast, I was pretty stoked. Now, I won’t say that this wasn’t hilarious fun, but if you’re expecting an hour of beautiful ocean views you will be disappointed.

A rail bike is basically a little car that is mounted on rail tracks and powered by pedaling. Thankfully, these cars had real seats and we were not mounted on bicycle style seating. Myself and the other short person had a very hard time both sitting and reaching the pedals, but with 4 people working on it, and some motorized assistance, the trip is not especially exerting.

20191019_161448.jpg

The beach that we left from (Yonghwa) is quite pretty, but it is dominated by the rail bike station, and by the time we pedaled out of the building we only had a few moments of beach before we were leaving it behind. The beautiful view of the sweeping coastline is also partially obscured by those special pine trees and a fence. I had hopes that with the better part of an hour still to go, we would get more sea views, but the next part of the ride took us into a tunnel.

There was some distinctly Korean attempt to make the tunnels more interesting by adding colored lights and some neon underwater scenes, all set to strange 80s music in English. I think it would have been ok for a short tunnel, but it soon became droning and repetitive. My peaceful, sunny, seaside bike ride had turned into some hellscape of neon, concrete and bad club music. I didn’t even think about taking video at the time, so I’m borrowing my friend’s which is unforgivably shot vertical… sorry! I did at least replace the horrible 80s music with something less aggressive.

I know there’s probably no way we could have stayed outside in the mountainous terrain, but I feel like there is much more they could have done to make the tunnel more enjoyable. I was so relieved when it ended… only to have us go into a second tunnel! In the end, I’d say we spent at least 1/3 of the “coastal” ride underground.

Another 1/3 was spent outside with little to no view of the sea. We saw some cute pensions (a kind of Korean hotel), and a few resort attractions, and even a large sculpture of a battleship covered in some found art objects (I was moving to fast for a decent pic). The woods were randomly dotted with the leftover remains of the summer glamping (glam+camping) season, a few heavy machines, and a LOT of debris.

20191019_165024.jpg

I know we had like 3 typhoons in three weeks and the coast did get a bit messed up, but it really seemed like zero effort had been made to collect the rubbish. There was a brief stop at a little “rest area” after the tunnels and the beach there was pretty and clean, but we had only a few minutes to enjoy it before we were rushed back to the rail bikes and sent on our way.

20191019_164103-ANIMATION

Although you and your group pedal yourselves, there’s not any wiggle room to slow down to see nice things or speed up to get past boring things because it seemed like 50 cars were on the tracks at the same time and although we’d been told to keep 10m between cars, it was often closer to 2. On the plus side, when we passed a group coming the other way, it was a lot of fun because they were excited to see a large group of foreigners and we got lots of greetings, big smiles, and high fives in passing.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fun but silly way to spend an hour, and not a calm bike by the sea. As long as you go into it knowing what you’ll get, it’s worth it.

Seorak Mountain and the Fall Foliage

Also known as Seoraksan, san simply means “mountain”, Seorak is one of the premier places in Korea to take in the fall foliage. It’s pretty far north, and close enough to the sea that you can see the ocean from the peak on a clear day. Plus, it’s elevated. This means that the conditions for beautiful leaf colors are really promising. It’s a little like driving up to Connecticut for Americans.

I went once three years ago and had a gray drizzly day which made the leaf colors really pop, but made the sweeping views pretty much a misty, uh, mystery… I also struggled a lot with the ajuma and ajoshi (Korean’s of a certain age) who all showed up in their special hiking clothes and walking sticks and charged up the path like it was a race to the top. I personally wanted to meander and enjoy the trees, take some pictures, admire the little details. They wanted to walk. Quickly. I was elbowed so frequently that it made it almost impossible to enjoy anything, let alone obtain any sense of serenity. I was almost knocked off the mountain (down a steep ravine) and when I slipped and fell on some wet rocks, people just shoved past me instead of giving me room to stand up or heaven forbid, helping. I did not want a repeat of this experience this year.

20161023_140752

I am spoiled by the PNW mountain hikes which are quiet and often very private. I love forest bathing in Japan, and the peaceful mountainside temples. There is a temple at Seoraksan, but it’s a bit tricky to find. On my first visit, I managed to get a ticket to ride the cable car up and from the crowded platform, I followed a small trail with signs I recognized from the Chinese characters up and around to a small temple. There was no one else around, and I finally got some of the peace and serenity I was looking for. I was very much looking forward to visiting that place again.

20161023_150117.jpg

This year, we had amazing weather. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was just warm enough not to need a jacket but not hot enough to make us sweat. Upon arrival, we charged straight for the cable car ticket office only to find that everything was sold out until 3pm. Our bus was leaving at 4, and we couldn’t reasonably expect to get up and get back unless we rushed, which was counterproductive to my reason for going -eg to relax and meditate in that beautiful temple. I suppose we could have tried to race up for the chance to see the clear weather view, but neither my friend nor I were particularly interested in stress or speed that day.

20191020_155218.jpg

I think that the park is gorgeous in any weather, but I’m glad I got to see it in the sun. I’d like the chance to hike it one day, but clearly the fall foliage isn’t the right time for me. It makes me think of the mountains I climbed in China, Tai Shan and Hua Shan. There were certainly other people climbing those days, and I was inevitably the slowest, but the Chinese were so much more relaxed about going around me, some liked to stop for a chat or a photo, but even those in a hurry didn’t run me down. It’s been a recurring issue for me in Korea that I feel like the frog in Frogger any time I’m anywhere crowded. I really don’t think it’s only crowds as other large cities, even mega cities like Beijing and Tokyo do not have these problems. It can make it a struggle to go to an event here knowing that being shoved around all day will definitely be part of it.

My goal for this trip was to try and find the part of the park that wasn’t going to make me play elbow dodge-em. We decided to stick to the less popular paths that wandered the foot of the mountains and just to enjoy ourselves and take a million photos. It was lovely. There were still a lot of people on the “boring” trails, but with only one or two hiking-gear clad racing groups it was easy to step aside and let them by. The rest of the people on our path seemed to share my idea that it was a lovely day for a stroll. Plus the walkways were smooth and wide, so there was plenty of space to go around / step aside and no risk of being knocked off a steep slope!

20191020_142717.jpg

I got to spend a long time with the giant Buddha and even go to the small temple beneath it which had not been open the first time I visited. It wasn’t quite the same as my mountain peak temple, but it was nice to soak in the beautiful chanting and just still my breath and mind for a while. There was a monk inside performing a ceremony. It seemed like visitors could donate to the temple to have a prayer recited for them. I hadn’t realized it while I was above ground, but the chanting we were hearing all around the statue wasn’t a recording. It was the monk below chanting live. If you’ve never had a chance to hear a Korean Buddhist chanting, here’s a sample:

Most of the colors were higher up the mountains, we could see them from where we were, but still declined to hike up. Instead, I scampered off the path after the lone red tree or orange branch and ended up with a lot of close up photos. The effect of the sunlight streaming through the colored leaves was so stunning that I really didn’t mind that being my primary subject.

We came upon a clearing near the river about the time we were ready for a break. I sat down on the rocks overlooking a beautiful little valley view and just enjoyed life for a while, the trees made a perfect picture frame for the mountains beyond. When I had a bit of energy back, we climbed a little down to into the river bed. My friend actually went out on a huge rock in the middle of the river for photos, but I settled with a rock that was a bit closer to shore.

20191020_115139

Next we explored the large (aka main) temple in the park. It had beautiful carvings of flowers on the buildings and bright blue ceramic tiles on the roofs. I think that my best overall landscape photo of the day came from a small grassy knoll just behind the temple compound. Bonus, I got to refill my water cup at the sacred mineral spring! Along the way, I also found several balanced rock towers left by previous tourists, any number of glittering spiderwebs, a few really beautiful spiders that hadn’t given up for the fall yet (they hibernate in the cold, I think because I never see them), and even a stray mushroom patch.

20191020_132029.jpg

We walked a short way past the main temple toward the base of another arduous uphill hike. We had no intention of going up, but we thought it might be nice to walk along and see what else was on ground level. I’m glad I did because we found the Legend of Ulsanbawi Rock. The hike we were avoiding would have taken us up to this famous rock, but we could see it pretty well from the ground that day.

20191020_135130.jpg

According to the legend, a looooong time ago, the gods ordered all of the rocks to gather together to create the 12,000 peaks of Geumgangsan. Also sometimes spelled “Kumgang”, this is the most famous mountain in North Korea. Obviously the myth predates the 38th parallel. However, it’s only about 50km (30 miles) north of Seoraksan. Ulsanbawi was a very large and heavy rock, travelling from Ulsan, about 350km (217 miles) from Kumgang. He had only got as far as Seoraksan when it became dark and he laid down to have a rest. The next day when he awoke, he learned that Kumgang was all finished being made, and he was no longer needed there. However, he was too ashamed and embarrassed to return home to Ulsan, so he curled up on Seoraksan and has remained there until this day.

20191020_134610

On the way back from our low ground view point of Ulsanbawi, we found yet another small temple, and passed a number of beautiful bridges criss-crossing the rivers. Lunch was only slightly challenging as we looked for a keto-option. I had hoped for the famous seafood pajeon for myself, but there was such a large back order at the restaurant, they said it would take over 30 minutes. I ate bibimbap instead, and it was still delicious sitting on the patio staring out at the mountains as a backdrop.

20191020_152909.jpg

We rushed to grab more last minute photos of the park entrance we had raced by on our arrival (hoping to get those cable car tickets), and made it back to our tour buses with about 1 minute to spare. It wasn’t an action packed adventure, but it was almost everything I could have hoped for. I was still a little sad about the cable car situation, but I saw so many other beautiful things, and I didn’t get run into by a speeding ajuma even once.

Finally Writing About Ireland

I have published something like 6 posts that are distinctly NOT about Ireland since I got back this past summer. Usually that would be because I was hard at work chronicling my adventures and polishing each post into a sparkly gem, but this time… it’s not. This post is going to be the start of the Ireland Chronicles, however, I’m going to take some time at the beginning to talk about a personal issue, so for those who are just here for the tourism, please feel free to skip down to the second segment. 


Why Aren’t You Writing About Ireland Yet?

It’s starting to feel like I can’t go traveling with anyone really important to me. I’ve now had two close relationships disintegrate after a trip, while the travels I take with friends who are less close have been great. I don’t define “relationship” as only romantic or sexual, by the way. I happen to think that any degree of association can be a relationship (work relationship, teacher-student relationship, my favorite barista relationship, etc). In this case I am talking about people with whom I felt a long term and deep emotionally intimate connection.

In reality, those close relationships were never actually healthy, and the constant close exposure of travelling together simply put them under a microscope until it was impossible to deny the core problems. As I learn about healthy relationships and boundaries, I find that it’s easy to spot the red flags in a new person, but almost impossible to drag myself out of denial with a person I’m significantly attached to. When you’re so used to something being a certain way, even if that way is awful, it just seems normal, and the abnormal situation of long international trip can cast it into sharp relief.

KUrN1Ee
In this case, I think I was most of the way out of the fog of denial before we actually embarked, but the plans had been made and the money spent, and I genuinely hoped that a nice, low stress holiday would reduce the big problems that I was still blaming on things like job and life stress. The only thing that could have made that more sarcastically apt is if we’d gone to Egypt instead of Ireland and I could really make some d’Nile jokes. I suppose I’ll have to settle for Blarney jokes instead.

I know in my heart of hearts that a single vacation cannot ruin or fix any relationship, it can only blow the truth up to billboard sized letters. However painful the experience was, I’m glad it happened because I think it’s better in the long run to identify unhealthy relationships so that we can either work to make them healthy or if that’s impossible to walk away. However, it makes it hard to write about a holiday when the memories are either good memories tainted by loss or just plain old bad memories. It’s like that movie, Inside Out, when Sadness touches all the memories and they turn blue and sad forever.

img_1063

When I wrote about the Philippines I did my best to simply leave out any and all references to the person I was with, treating it like a blank space in the narrative and jumping around the timeline to avoid describing the personal details of arguments and emotional clashes. I think it helped, too. The memories of that relationship are still painful, but now I can look at the experiences I had in the Philippines and remember the joy I took from them, happily recommend the island, and even think positively about going again someday.

I’m going to try to take the same approach with Ireland, yet at the same time, I don’t want to paint this in some kind of idyllic holiday life. Those who read this blog often know that I don’t like fake-positive online life, but I struggle to balance my need to be honest about the challenges I face with my desire to share only the best and most delightful experiences. I’ve been putting off writing about Ireland explicitly because I don’t want to think about the hurtful parts, and yet I think it’s vital to my gratitude practice and to my remembering self that I take the time to tease out the good parts and keep them alive.

So here’s the disclaimer: I’m cutting out all the personal negative experiences, I’ll only be including things that could happen to any traveler or group based on regular travel challenges. It could result in a choppy or unbalanced story, but that’s just how it has to be. My life is far from perfect, but I’m trying my best to be better.

Without any further ado… Irish Road Trip

20190805_121453.jpg

Renting a Car

I enjoy road trips when I’m getting out of a city. I love public transit and happily take buses and trains on most of my excursions, but I had some lovely experiences driving in the US, and later in Germany, France, New Zealand and Sweden. When I choose to get a car it’s because I want more freedom to go to places that are off the beaten track, way outside the city, or just generally hard to get to. Ireland is no exception.

When I was planning my trip, a friend of mine told me that he and his wife had done an Irish road trip about 20 years ago, before there was any kind of highway system at all. Although there is a large intercity highway system today, most of the things we wanted to see in the countryside were still on the old roads (more on that later).

In case you’re curious about renting a car, we used EuropeCar. I looked at a few local rental places, but it seems that there are a fair number of hidden fees with those places that can add up and be frustrating and expensive. By opting for a larger company, we got a real price quote up front and the process of picking up the car was much smoother. I was initially irritated that they were trying to up-sell us the “full coverage” insurance (quite expensive) at the pick up. I was extremely tired from running around Paris all day and a delayed flight into Dublin, so all I wanted was to get to our hotel. When we were standing there it felt like a scam sell, and I was very dubious.

The regular minimum insurance covers any scratches or dings that are less than a 2 Euro coin size (it’s a law) so the car companies can’t charge tourists for tiny chips, dings and scratches that occur in the normal course of driving. It also covers a minimum amount of liability in case you damage someone else’s car or property, or have to go to a hospital. There was a high deductible, but to me, it seemed worth it not to pay a few hundred more in insurance. However, since I wasn’t the one paying, we got the full coverage, and after I saw the driving conditions in the countryside, I was very glad that we did. To sum up, if you want to drive anywhere other than the cities and highways, get the extra insurance. If you want to stay in the cities and highways… ride the bus.

Driving in Ireland

The first thing to mention here is that driving in Ireland is done on the left side of the road, and that the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car… completely backwards from the US where I learned to drive. Lucky me, this wasn’t going to be my first time driving left as I’d had a chance to learn in New Zealand some three years previously. Nonetheless, I still spent a good portion of the first few days just reciting “left side, left side, left side” under my breath the whole time.

You also need to know how to use a roundabout, which is a complex system of yielding and merging that is supposed to be safer and more efficient than traffic lights. Basically, anyone already on the roundabout has right of way over anyone trying to join it. Interestingly, some of the busiest roundabouts at major highway interchanges also included traffic lights because otherwise no one would ever get on.

giphy.gif

The road signs are pretty good, written in both English and Irish, and the streets often have painted arrows to help you remember your lane, and also let you know which lane to be in if you want to turn or go straight. There were a few times that the signs an Google Maps did not agree and I got a bit tangled up, but it never took more than a few minutes to sort out.  Except Coleraine (pronounced call-rain) in Northern Ireland, which is a hellhole of one way roads and inaccessible streets. My Google travel history looks pretty linear everywhere else, but in Coleraine it looks like a Gordian knot. Don’t get sucked in, drive around.

coleraine driving map.png

There’s only one more very important note about driving in Ireland which is that outside the cities and arterial highways, the roads are typically only one car wide, but accommodate two way traffic. Even in the villages with two lane roads, there are so many cars parked along the roadside that traffic is reduced to a single lane’s width. In a lot of places, they are also lined closely with thick hedges, deep ditches, or stone walls meaning you have zero shoulder room. Two way traffic includes other normal sized cars, tour buses, farm equipment, and livestock.

20190802_175544

On the one hand, it can be a relief driving these roads because there’s no need to worry about left-side or right side. On the other hand, when you meet oncoming traffic, your knuckles immediately whiten on the steering wheel as you try to figure out how not to have a head on collision.

The good news is that the locals are very used to this. There are a fair number of turn outs on the most narrow roads, and often there is *just* enough room for two cars to pass on the single lane if we’re both willing to rub up against the shrubbery. Once I realized that the vast majority of other drivers were polite, careful, and familiar with the process, I did relax a little bit. As intimidating as these roads can be, it’s worth it to drive them because a lot of little hidden gems can only be accessed this way.

Public Transit in Cities

While we were in Dublin, we were actually able to simply walk everywhere we wanted to go by getting a room next to Trinity College. The main tourist district is quite tightly packed and walk-able, but if you want to go a little further or it’s just too rainy, there’s a great system of buses and trams. However, paying for these modes of transit are unnecessarily complicated. Fares change based on where and when you board and exit, so you can easily end up paying the maximum if you don’t know how to navigate the system.

The easiest way around this is to get a LEAP card. There’s a few ways to do this, but the simplest is to walk into nearly any convenience store and buy one. They cost about 5 Euro and are re-loadable. Fares are automatically calculated if you tap in AND tap out, plus you get a fare discount for using the card instead of cash. I wasn’t able to get the reloading app to work for me, but it’s very easy to reload at any number of grocery shops and convenience stores.

There is a tourist LEAP, but I’d shy away from that one because of the limitations. They are technically unlimited travel, but they only apply to city transit (and a few airport options). Generally, visitors to Ireland want to see the countryside or travel to more than one city, and the LEAP doesn’t cover that. The LEAP is good for most major cities (NOT Derry or Belfast as that is a different country), so I think the top-up card is the way to go.

Please note that the LUAS tram system is a bit unique. There is a post at the tram stop OUTSIDE the tram where you need to tap your LEAP card BOTH before you get on and AFTER you get off. If you don’t tap when you leave, you’ll be charged the maximum fare! I was a bit thrown off by the tapping posts being at the stops rather than inside the tram, but it did make boarding more efficient. I used this in Dublin.

download
I used buses in Galway. With a bus you need to tell the driver what stop you plan to get off BEFORE you tap your LEAP card. The driver will program your fare and then you can hold your card to the reader. It takes much longer than the tram, but the drivers are generally pretty nice about it. Just make sure you use Google Maps or similar to know the name of your stop before you board. Again, failure to do so means a much larger fee.

Traveling Outside the Cities: Public Bus and Tour Bus

If you do want to travel to another city, there are great and affordable inter-city bus options. I used CityLink. You get a slight discount for booking online. The drivers don’t generally require a printed ticket, so you can book online from your phone or hostel no problem. You can also buy tickets at the bus stations in each city.

Finally, another great way to see Ireland without a car is to join tour buses that leave from the major cities and head out to the countryside. I personally did this twice: once from Dublin to the Wicklow mountains, and once from Galway to Kylemore Abbey.

20190815_114817.jpg

I shopped around using Viator to compare deals and I found that a LOT of agencies overcharge or misrepresent their tours. Read the details carefully. One of my day trips from Galway was to go out to Inishbofin. I did find a “tour” but it was nothing more than the public bus (CityLink) and the public ferry. They wanted to charge three-four times the cost of those tickets and didn’t even offer a guide to help you find the bus/ferry!

Long story short, if you can use the public transit to get someplace, do it. If there is no public transit, then make sure you pick a reputable tour company with plenty of positive reviews for the tour you are interested in. You can find the links for the tours I went on here:  Kylemore Abbey with Galway Tour CompanyWicklow Mountains with Gray Line Dublin.

If you do choose to join one of these tours, please be aware that not all the buses offer all the amenities. WiFi, charging ports and the like are hit or miss, but the seats are comfy and the drivers are very entertaining. I would recommend bringing lots of snacks or even a pack lunch as the timing doesn’t always allow you to eat when you’re hungry or both eat and sight see. They also have deals with some random tiny towns that they stop in for lunch. There’s usually only one place to eat, so it can get crowded or expensive.

Planning the Route

We had decided on a basic road trip itinerary before arriving. I think it’s important on any time sensitive vacation to schedule a certain amount of things. I like to schedule where I’ll sleep, as well as breakfast and dinner (lunch can be on the fly unless there’s a special reason to schedule it). I like to schedule one or two things in a day and also leave myself room to change, rearrange, add or subtract. The schedule for Ireland was unusually tight because my travel companion had a very long bucket list and while I might go back one day, it’s unlikely they will, so I tried hard to accommodate them. Even with a tight schedule, I don’t like to buy tickets in advance unless they’re likely to sell out so that I have the freedom to change things around as needed.

calendar

Our schedule was also based on not doing more than about 4 hours of car time a day. It’s a holiday after all, there’s no point in spending all day driving. As a consequence, there were a couple places we visited just because we needed to stop. No regrets, though, even the small out of the way places were awesome. Our final road map looked like this:

ireland map

Finally, the end of the trip we spent in Dublin, so we returned the car and used the excellent buses or just walked from our very central hostel next to Trinity College.

After 16 crazy busy days, my travel companion returned home, and I had a much more slow paced week spent between Dublin and Galway where I relied on coach bus tours and public transit to enjoy myself.


EXPANDED 3 WEEK ITINERARY

For those who either want a sneak preview or need some ideas to plan your own Irish holiday. You could use this in all or part:
two week drive -day 1-14
one week drive: South = day 2-6+12&13 or North = 11-7 (backwards) + 12&13
one week Dublin/Gallway no-car experience – 12, 13, 15, 16/17 combo, 18, 19, 20/21 combo

Day 1:
arrived very late at Dublin airport, picked up car, stayed in a hotel near the airport

Day 2:
Irish National Stud
Leap Castle (haunted?)
Sol y Sombra Tapas, Killarney

Day 3:
Kerry Ring
(ancient stone forts, sheep, waterfalls, chocolate, and prehistoric fossils)

Day 4:
Fungie the Dingle Dolphin & the cliffs of Star Wars

Day 5:
Inis Oir (of the Aran Islands)
Doolin Cave
Traditional Music House

Day 6:
Lough Key: castle in a lake + treetop walk
Seaweed Baths @ Enniscrone

Day 7:
Belleek Pottery
Derry: Bog Murals, Guild Hall, Peace Bridge
Downhill Demesne

Day 8:
Giant’s Causeway
Carrick-a-Rede Bridge
Dunluce Castle

Day 9:
Bushmills Distillery Tour
The Dark Hedges
Glenarm Gardens
Glenariff Waterfall

Day 10: Game of Thrones Day
Belfast TEC: GoT Exhibit
Castle Ward (aka Winterfell)
Inch Abbey

Day 11:
Newgrange
return car to Dublin Airport
Pub Crawl in Temple Bar
This is the day we were supposed to go to Newgrange, but had a “zero damage” accident with a German family in the parking lot and ended up doing police and insurance reports instead, then had to leave to get the car back to Dublin on time.

Day 12:
Viking Splash Tour
Dublin Walking Tour
The walking tour was cancelled last minute, but we were so tired that neither of us actually minded and we spent the afternoon resting.

Day 13:
Trinity College Library & the Book of Kells
The Museum of Archaeology
The Museum of Natural History, aka “The Dead Zoo”

Day 14:
End of two week version, companion departed from Dublin airport
As the person doing the 3 week version, I took this day to rest and do laundry.

From this point, the schedule is FAR more relaxed… and I really needed it after so much fast paced adventuring. I also did the final week on public transit or tour groups.

Day 15:
Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough (GrayLine)

Day 16:
Bus to Galway
Honestly, you could do more, but I was enjoying the slow pace life.

Day 17:
Downtown Galway + unexpected Pride march

Day 18:
Kylemore Abbey (Galway Tour Group)

Day 19:
Inishbofin Island (public transit)

Day 20:
More downtown Galway… really good Irish food.

Day 21:
Bus back to Dublin airport and fly home.

Viking Country 4: The Happy Ending

I did not want to leave Sweden. Ever. Well, at least not until the snows came. I thought very hard about immigration until I looked at the winter weather temperatures and decided that I’m just going to have to build my summer home there instead. I’m kidding of course, I’ll never be wealthy enough for a summer home in Sweden or anywhere else, but it is now where my imaginary lottery winning self has built her summer home. The last days in Sweden were a gift on top of a gift, and even my one day in Norway turned out to be pretty magical despite all the odds. I will always be enchanted by this Nordic land and I hope that you’ve enjoyed the stories so far. It’s time to say goodbye to Scandinavia.


Trollhättan

I can’t lie, I partially chose Trollhättan as a place to stop on my way back to Gothenburg because of it’s name. It pretty much means what it sounds like it should. I didn’t want to do a bunch of driving on my way out of Sweden because it was important to turn the car in on time and get to my bus that would take me on to Oslo. I’d already scheduled a stay in Gothenburg at the front end of the trip, so during my planning phase I was trying to find someplace different that was still not too far. Trollhättan won.

Trollhattan Falls

One of the reasons it won was the name, but another was the promise of a large and beautiful waterfall. The waterfall… is a lie. Trollhättan Falls isn’t a natural waterfall at all. It’s a hydroelectric power plant and when the water is “on” it does create a lovely view of the water cascading over the dam, which is what all those beautiful photos I saw online were. Perhaps because Sweden was the end of such a very very long research and planning exercise, and Trollhättan was the end of my stay in Sweden, I simply took the internet at face value, and trekked on up to see the “falls” on my way to my Airbnb that night.

The signs to the “falls” are fine, but when I found myself in the parking lot of a power plant with no waterfalls in sight, I was sure I was in the wrong place. I was not. There was a river below, and the view was lovely, but no falls. I drove across the bridge and up to trail head. I thought perhaps that might be leading to a waterfall, but there wasn’t much information. A family pulled up after me and set onto the trail. As politely as possible, I approached them to see if they knew where we were and how to get to where I wanted. They didn’t really speak English, and I didn’t speak Swedish at all. In the end we settled on Spanish… The world is a curious place.

20180816_190050

He gave me directions back the way I’d come and I tried following a little narrow road that ran down towards the river. This took me to a viewing platform and fishing spot below the power plant that was also very pretty but lacked any waterfall. At this point I pulled up the photos that led me here and started looking for landmarks. It was only then that I realized the tall dry wall of the damn dam was where the water was actually gushing from in these pictures. Lucky me, I found the only waterfall with an “off” switch. At least Sweden is insanely beautiful, and the view of the river gorge was worth stopping for even without any falling water.

20180816_190331

I made it to my Airbnb, a beautiful house that was out in the exurbs. The couple that hosted me had two delightful young children and were kind enough to let me do laundry while I was there. When I asked for some tips on local things to see, the wife suggested Marstrand (another island in the huge pile of archipelago, more north than any ferry would have taken me from Gothenburg, but along the same coast), and to drive some of the local scenic highways. Both sounded good to me, so I set off in search of Marstrand.

20180817_143405.jpg

It was a beautiful island, for sure, and I saw much beautiful scenery on the way, but Marstrand was highly developed and mostly filled with boat slips and marinas. Some of the most beautiful little bits of fjord were visible from the road, but there was no safe place to stop and admire them. I stopped off in a busy parking lot to re-examine my options and decided to visit one island north, the island of Tjörn.

Tjörn 

I don’t know what made Tjörn sound good, but it was. It was like a driving re-visit of everything I’d loved about my first day in Sweden. I stopped frequently for beautiful ocean vista photo opportunities, and drove as far out onto the tiniest of the connected islands I could get to, then walked out to the very edge of the land.

20180817_153327

It was filled with more of the tiny, delicate flowers and signs of life and whenever I looked out at the sea I was filled with an awesome sense of contentment. I sat there in the sun until I felt ready to go and drove on in search of lunch. Google Maps drew me to the Sundsby Gårdscafé where I could get a delicious local lunch and have a nice hike in the woodland nearby.

20180817_154245

Lunch was an enormous slice of smoked salmon, which I will never get tired of eating, along with some new potatoes and a generous slice of bread and butter. I mention the bread and butter rather specifically, because toward the end of my meal when I was the last person left in the outdoor dining area, I was joined by an unexpected diner companion who wanted to share my bread.

20180817_180127

After I was completely stuffed, I walked off my meal in the woods. There were several paths of different difficulties and I opted for an easy walk that would lead me up to the 900 year old oak tree. The woods were a bit brown after the summer drought, but the recent rains had brought out the tiny forest animals in force and I got to see a little brown frog no bigger than my thumb and any number of slugs out for an evening constitutional. Driving back to my Airbnb, I felt like I had just had the most wonderful farewell ever.

20180817_183623

The next morning, I joined my hosts for breakfast. The husband was just home from a work trip in Australia and it was a big family meal with Swedish pancakes, which he was very surprised I’d eaten before. One of the few foods I knew about Sweden before I came! His were quite delicious, and I very much enjoyed being able to just chat with the family and share our experiences of our own countries and other’s we had visited. Meeting people is still one of the most amazing parts of travelling the world.

20180817_183844

Oslo & the Wood Burning Hot Tub

Norway was an odd experience for me. When I bought my plane tickets into Paris and out of Oslo, I thought I’d have my road trip in Norway. When I looked at the prices in Norway, I decided to do it in Sweden instead, but my plane out was still in Norway. I think if I’d known how much I’d love Sweden, I might have planned things differently, but when I was booking buses and rooms, I thought I’d like to at least look at Oslo if I was going to pass through.  I was wrong about that.

However much I looooved the road trip in Sweden, after 7 weeks of travel I was getting very worn out. Even amazingness takes energy. Olso being super expensive, I reserved an Airbnb out on a nearby fjord peninsula called Nesodden. It was much more affordable, there was an inexpensive ferry that ran until about 3am to Oslo, and the hostess advertised a wood burning hot tub as one of her amenities. Sitting out on the fjord in a rustic hot tub looking up at the night sky seemed like a pretty good deal.

20180819_115512

It was a little awkward getting to the house, and only slightly awkward getting in. My hostess was on her own vacation, but there was a lodger in a side cabin who was able to help me find the key box. The house was nice, but simple. The water in the tap was not drinkable, so there was a large fresh water bottle available. The decorations were cute and witchy, and the garden was pretty with some ripe strawberries waiting to be picked.20180819_115155

In my mind, I was going to take that ferry back out to Oslo the next day and do all the sightseeing, but when I actually woke up I realized that I had no desire to move at all. Not to mention, I had no idea of how to deal with the transit since I had zero Norwegian money on me, and the bus ticket app wouldn’t take my foreign credit card. The whole thing just seemed like too much to deal with, and I had enough groceries left over to keep me going so I just stayed.

After a few hours of lounging around, I decided to investigate the hot tub. It was a bit warm to use it in the afternoon, but I knew by evening, it would be perfect. The instructions on using the hot tub warned that it would take a couple hours to heat the water, so I wanted to be sure and start earlier rather than later. Then I discovered the hot tub was empty.20180819_114126

I wandered all around looking for any sign of how it was meant to be filled. I found the draining mechanism, but nothing that looked like an “in” flow. In the end, I had to go back to the neighboring lodger for help, but she didn’t really know either. We decided to just use the garden hose. Sure the water isn’t drinkable, but it’s safe for skin. In any case, before I could fill it, I had to clean the whole thing. Despite the cover, it was coated with a film of dirt, dried leaves, and random dead insects.

Once it was clean(er), I plugged up the drain and began to fill it. The water was… very brown. I had used the hose to clean it, but only a splash at a time, and I had assumed the brown-ness of the puddles was because of the dirt in the hot tub being washed away. Maybe some of it was, but the water in the garden hose was actually pumped up from some local lake and was not filtered!! The hot tub looked intensely like it was filled with tea.20180819_170729

I debated while the tub filled and decided that I swim in the ocean and in lakes without hesitation, so why should a lake-water filled hot tub be any different. It took a long time to fill the whole thing, and I prepared to start the fire up before it was all the way full, but then I couldn’t find the wood! There was a sign inside the house that gave directions about firewood being “on the other side of the house” but since the sign itself was on a door in the middle of the living space separating the kitchen from the bedrooms, I had no idea what “other side” meant. I found a little wood near the hot tub, it looked like the remains of the last bag used, but not enough to heat all that water, and so one more time, I went to the neighbor for help.

The wood turned out to be near her house, and was on “the other side” from the hot tub side. The oven in the hot tub would not hold much wood at one time, and the wood burned very fast. I had to return again and again to reload it, and one time the fire was reduced to a few smoldering coals because I waited too long between visits. I’m not sure where the 2 hour estimate my hostess left comes from, perhaps if one spent the whole time constantly feeding the fire to it’s maximum? It took me a bit longer.20180819_170707

I spent just about my whole day managing this hot tub experience, and as the sun began to set, it was finally ready! While I was soaking in the blissfully warm water and enjoying the last of the sunset, a timid little deer came into the yard after some of the fallen fruit, but she ran off before I could take a picture.

Once I was settled in, it was a very lovely experience. The smell of the wood-smoke mixing with the air of the sea and the fresh clean forest smells from the woods behind the house. I got in and out several times as I became too warm. The house was secluded from the road and the neighbors and I had to get on a plane the next day, so I didn’t bother with a swimsuit, although I did keep a borrowed robe nearby just in case. It felt wickedly decadent to soak naked in the outdoors and I enjoyed dipping in and out for several hours until the sky was black and the stars were out.

20180819_210117

The next day, on my ferry ride back into Oslo to catch my plane out, a beautiful rainbow appeared from the fluffy clouds to see me off.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Scandinavian peninsula is one of those places I’ll want to return someday and get to know a little better. I’m grateful that this ending of my long, and often fraught summer holiday travels were so beautifully magical.

20180820_172705

Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

20180813_124643.jpg

I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

20180813_191529

I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

20180813_220702

The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

20180813_123831.jpg

Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

20180813_162645.jpg

When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

20180813_210619.jpg

I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

20180814_120154

I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

20180814_152127

When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

20180814_182738

My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

20180814_183216

They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

20180814_192754

According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

20180815_114937

I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

20180815_114134.jpg

If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

20180724_13072520180724_130504-effects

Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

20180724_134608

This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

20180724_134511

The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

20180724_134420

Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

20180724_150502

I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

20180724_132739

Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

20180724_155318

This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

20180724_155926

As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

20180724_155506

In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

20180724_155808

Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

20180724_160825

As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

20180724_162631

The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

20180724_163544

You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

20180724_164216

Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

20180724_165233

Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

20180724_183721

After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.

 

 

 

 

Antwerp: Architecture, Beer & Sewers

I will admit that the main reason I was interested in going to Antwerp is because it featured in one episode of the animated version of The Tick (a ridiculous super-hero parody from my early college years). In his nigh-invulnerable state, The Tick smashes up Antwerp while chasing some bad guy and his side-kick (not to mention the Belgian police) laments the loss of such amazing, unique, and historical architecture. It stuck with me, and when I realized that Antwerp was a viable day trip from Brussels, I decided I had to go. When I started searching around for what else I could do in Antwerp besides look at amazing, unique and historical architecture, I discovered a Sewer Tour. Who does that? Me! To the underground!!


Amazing, Unique and Historic Architecture

The architecture in Antwerp is truly stunning but so much of it is hidden by advertising and construction. Plus the streets are so narrow it’s hard to get a full view of the remarkable buildings. Just the train station alone is a stunning work of art.20180712_125014

Given the challenges I was facing with transit and my desire to see more architecture, I decided to take a leisurely walk to my tour starting point. I got to see the market square and famous statue that I’d first seen depicted at the Mini EU.20180712_142303The statue is that of a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo throwing a giant hand into the distance. The story goes that long ago a giant named Druon Antigoon was charging a toll to those who wished to cross the river. When people couldn’t pay, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the water. Brabo rescued the people by cutting off Antigoon’s hand in turn. Now it’s the most famous statue in the whole city. Europe: Where the history lives!

20180712_142704

I also passed by an enormous cathedral which is another famous Antwerpian landmark, however, unlike every other cathedral I’ve ever been too, this one charged an entry fee of  6€. I don’t know what makes this place cooler than Notre Dame (free to enter), but I also didn’t pay to find out.

Not to mention some of the fun and interesting street art, like this sidewalk these nappers and a life size tiger that was part of the zoo’s promotional materials.

 

20180712_14254820180712_141823

It was a longish walk and I stopped for coffee and a rest on the way. I got in trouble for sitting at the wrong cafe patio. Not big trouble just “you can’t sit here because you bought that coffee from the stand with the same name as us”. If I’d known, I would have bought coffee from them, but really who knew two cafe’s on the same block with the same name didn’t share seating? It reminded me of the waffle shop in Brussels that wouldn’t let patrons use their seating if they ordered from the counter inside instead of from the waitstaff outside. Belgians are really picky about where you sit, but once you have ordered something from the correct place/person then you can sit there as long as you like.

20180712_185935

Finally I made it to the sewer tour, but I was a little early. It took me a while to find a public place to sit and wait. There were plenty of restaurants, but I only had 15-20 minutes. You’d think I could find a bench or something, but I think Belgians hate free chairs the way that Dutch hate free water. In the end I sat on a bench that was half occupied by a street busker with an accordion. Not ideal, but I really needed the rest before another long walking tour since the heat was swelling my feet quite badly.

In the Sewers

20180712_151755

The underground tour was great. They decked us out with boots and coveralls to protect our clothes, gave us sturdy packs to cover our own handbags/etc, and kitted us out with tour tablets that had videos for each stop explaining the history in Dutch with English (and other) subtitles. The guide was dressed more comfortably, but also probably changed at the end of his work day. He spoke English well but as I was the only English speaker on the tour I often had to remind him to translate for me, which he was totally willing to do, he just had to be reminded.

It was basically a tour of Antwerp from below. Very different from other city underground tours, De Riuens are what became canals in other cities like Amsterdam, but in Antwerp Napoleon covered them over because the smell was too awful. The sewage itself runs in pipes alongside the passages, but we still waded through brackish runoff water with compost and rat droppings in it. Good call on the galoshes and coveralls.20180712_153504

 

The tour took us around the main part of downtown Antwerp, and every so often we stopped to watch a video on our tour tablets. It was a great way to get informed about the history and to put into perspective what was going on above us, but it was also a bit difficult to watch the screen AND look around. The Dutch tourists could listen and let their eyes wander, but I had to read subtitles if I wanted the information. Only after the videos were done would the guide then add a few tidbits or answer any questions.

Along the way, between video stops, he would also pause briefly to point out interesting little bits of sewer trivia. My only complaint is that it was a bit fast for my tastes. Not walking too fast, that was almost impossible to do since we had to walk carefully, but not enough stops for photo-ops! I was the only one trying to take photos and look at details.

This is the fungus that grows like fine white hair in the rat poo.

20180712_162212

That is the rare spider that doesn’t live anywhere else in Belgium because the environment in the sewers here is so unique. (the photo is only spiderwebs because the spiders were very very small). These are the rats (couldn’t get a photo of them because they ran away too fast).

20180712_154213

Over there is the part where the church was built it so it looks nicer because they had more money than the civil government.

20180712_162527

This is the part where they built air vents that look like chimneys from the topside because workers were dying from bad air down here.

20180712_153635

Here’s where the locks were lowered so the tunnels could be flooded at high tide rinsing them clean. That’s why the walls sparkle sometimes from the salt water residue/salt crystals.

20180712_160504

Over there is the water overflow so the human waste can stay in the smaller tubes when it rains and the water can gush out the top leaving the heavier materials (human waste) behind. Also here are the wet wipes that don’t dissolve when flushed but accumulate as a kind of really gross felt. Don’t flush wet wipes.

20180712_154651

That’s a secret passage the Jesuits used for who-knows-what in the past but for smuggling provisions and people during the Great War even though they were often arrested by the Germans.

20180712_155827

Over there a stalactite it starting it’s life and in a few hundred years may really amount to something. Those black clouds that churn up with every step we take in the gray opaque water, grateful for having loaner boots, that’s compost. Here is where we used to let the cows out. Here’s where hundreds of thousands died from disease related to unclean water. Here’s how beer saved the water because breweries wanted clear beer.20180712_160139

 

Yeah… Antwerp (and probably a bunch of places) had horrible water quality that caused rampant disease and death, but nobody did anything about it until it was about BEER (or more likely about beer money). Brewers who were fed up with shitty (literally, ew) water messing up their product demanded that the city do something about it. Beer saved clean water.

20180712_161645

Since it was another underground tour, I thought it would be cooler but it turned out to be humid and hot. I felt like I was melting inside my coveralls. Unlike other underground tours where the streets of previous versions of the city were gradually built up around (looking at you Seattle) the De Ruien’s tunnels were never streets. They were canals where everyone dumped all waste until it smelled so bad it had to be covered. It took hundreds of years to go from open sewer canals to a healthy system that keeps the city, the river, and the drinking water clean today.

20180712_162610

Despite the crazy humidity, compost water, and rat droppings, it was an incredible and unique experience that I’m glad to have had.

Antwerp Beer And Street Life

Once the tour was over, I didn’t really need to worry about getting anywhere on time, so I decided to meander slowly back to the train station by a slightly different route to see more stuff. I walked down to the river to see the castle but it was sadly closed for construction.

20180712_165130

On one of my frequent “it’s too hot” breaks, I sat down to try the local beer, De Koninck, and get a plate of fries which is a huge snack or small meal depending on the size of your appetite. I don’t know beer language well, you can see from the pic it’s not pale even though it’s called blonde. The flavor is pleasantly nutty, and not at all bitter or sour. After that I had to try a coconut beer because some guys at the next table ordered it and I was intrigued. That was one of the best beer decisions of my life, right there. Like a piña colada and a delicious beer had a love child. 

There was a lot of busking in Antwerp. In the other cities I’ve encountered begging in droves, but here it was hordes of buskers. A new one every block, sometimes 2-3 in the same block. I especially loved a lady dressed as an oxidized statue who came to life whenever she heard a coin in her bucket. I thought she was a statue when I first saw her, and only when I paused to take a photo did I realize she was a person. She played with some little girls and blew kisses at people who gave her coins before winding down to her starting pose.

I also paused to listen to a young man sing Hallelujah soulfully, but there were more performers than I could have ever imagined outside an actual festival.

The Down Side of Street Life

The unpleasantly unique street life in Antwerp was the randos. I got approached twice by random dudes. While I was walking. Who does that? I mean, that’s not how you have a conversation. It’s weird and creepy. I was walking and suddenly there is a guy walking next to me trying to chat me up.  Ew gross go away. I don’t know if they were building up to a scam or trying to get a date or what… I can’t actually imagine doing that to another human, and I talk to strangers all the time. I have never engaged anyone who is already walking unless a) we are in a tour together, or b) I’m in a great deal of distress and need help pronto.

20180712_135906

These dudes were just chatting me up. I tried to tell them ‘no thanks’ as politely as I could but it took several tries, and what do you do when you’re already walking and they come up and walk with you? How do you walk away? I’m already walking! Dudes, don’t do this shit! It’s bad enough when you come up or of nowhere at a pub or when we’re sitting at a bus stop or park (also hella awkward btw), but to start walking with me made me feel hunted. It’s not “being friendly”. As a person who talks to strangers constantly, as a person who does randomly have conversations with dudes as well as women, I won’t talk to you if you give off creeper vibes and that shit is creepy AF.

Ending on a Positive Note

Once out of range of the creepy dudes, my walk back to the station was much nicer than my walk from the station had been. By that time in the evening ¾ of the shops were closed and all the people were sitting in restaurants instead of crowding the sidewalks. I could see a little bit more of the buildings without feeling like I was going to be run down by pedestrians in a hurry.

20180712_131517

The architecture and street performance isn’t even the end of it, since there’s plenty of beautiful mural art on the sides of the more modern and less interesting buildings.

Lastly, returning to the station cooled off and full of delicious beer and frites, I took a little more time to enjoy the Antwerp train station in all it’s architectural glory. The station is truly a work of art. I wasn’t even sad about missing out on the castle and cathedral after seeing more of that station.img_20180712_224539_138

 


If you want to watch the cartoon that first brought my attention to Antwerp, YouTube has your answer.  “The Tick vs Europe”