|Tuesday, July 1st, 2014|
12:33 am - London and Ireland Trip, October 9: Cliffs of Moher and Galway
Breakfast at in the fine dining room at Ballyseede was very nice; I had eggs Benedict, and Lori had an omelet.|
This is the other dog of Ballyseede, a gentle Irish wolfhound (shown with a small child for scale). He (the dog, not the child) is named Mr. Kenny, after Enda Kenny, the current Taoiseach (prime minister of Ireland).
Some more pictures of Ballyseede and its gardens under less gloomy skies:
Our path this day took us northward along the coast to Galway. We took the car ferry across the Shannon river. The passenger door was obstructed enough that Lori had to sit inside for the whole ride, but I was able to get out and feel the wind and take in the scenery. It turns out that Lori didn’t miss that much in scenery:
I did get a chance to see the nearby Guinness plant:
Towns were few and far between on the coast of County Clare when we started thinking about lunch. I tried to use my Roadfood instincts, but we chose the Quilty Tavern more for location than from an instinct for quality.
It was one of our worst meals in Ireland. I ordered the seafood chowder because we were on the coast, and it was unpleasant, with a flavor that was strongly fishy and almost rancid. My ham and cheese sandwich was also a perfunctory assembly of cheap ingredients. Lori ordered the Quilty Club on the theory that the name of the town meant they took a particular pride in the sandwich - but although her sandwich was better than my food, this was not a sandwich that merited any pride. And the service that we received was so neglectful that it would have needed to improve a few notches to qualify as negligent. I was very glad that I had enough small currency to cover the bill I calculated and leave, because waiting for a bill and credit card processing might have taken another eon.
But note that Lori’s sandwich was served on fine china, and my tureen of soup came on a doily-lined plate. And the pub was a Victorian beauty with lots of polished old wood. Once again the beauty of the pub seems to have no connection to the quality of the food and service.
Quilty does not have the cliffs that mark the coast to the north and south.
We had other cliffs in plan, though - our scenic destination of the day was the Cliffs of Moher. They are one of the famous sights of Ireland, but also famous in the movies for roles like the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride.
Unfortunately, we arrived in late afternoon and the western sun made it hard to take good pictures - but we try not to be the type of tourists who insist that geography be rearranged to suit our schedule; it is both rude and ineffective.
Lori had visited the cliffs on a previous trip in 2001, but since her trip they have built a visitor’s centre. It’s quite a nice visitor’s center, actually, with some good exhibits on the history and geology and a dizzying movie from the perspective of a bird in flight - but the cliffs are far more of a stirring sight.
I was surprised to learn that O’Brien Tower was built as recently as 1805.
I don’t actually have something to say about each of these pictures. You can interpret a lack of text as “yet another picture of the cliffs."
I saw a coin-operated telescope that still had some time on it (actually, I didn’t realize that it was coin-operated until it shut off), and I decided to experiment with taking a picture through the telescope with my iPhone. I think the results are more “interesting” than “awesome”, but it’s kind of nifty.
This warning sign makes me laugh. I would have bought a t-shirt featuring this graphic if they had had it in my size. (The other sign we saw: every few yards we saw signs for suicide hotlines. We were told later that Ireland is having a big problem with suicide, so much so that 15% of deaths of young people are due to suicide.)
I walked a bit south of the visitor’s centre, and tried to get a picture that captured the scale of the cliffs. This is my best attempt. That’s O’Brien Tower again, and it is a modest tower but still probably three stories high or so. And this is not a perspective trick; the tower is on the cliffs it appears to be on. The cliffs are really much higher than the tower.
So I’ve shown all these pictures from the top of the cliffs, and they are imitations of the photos of the Cliffs that you see in guidebooks and and websites. But what do you see if you look east from the cliffs, towards the land? You see a stone fence and cows, just a dozen yards from the cliffs’ edge.
We drove through the very small town of Doolin because Lori had stayed there years before, but did little more than take pictures of the ocean under cloudy skies.
We got to Marless House, our B&B near Galway, a bit after dark after some navigation difficulty; the streets were complicated enough that I was able to pay attention to either the roads or the GPS, but not easily both.
For dinner, we went to Lohan’s in downtown Salthill at the recommendation of Mary, the innkeeper.
I ordered a Galway Hooker and it was a very nice beer. Lori won the alcoholic beverages of the evening, though, with a Kopparberg Fruit Cider.
The crab and salmon cakes were quite nice, with a very crisp exterior.
Lori had the chicken rolled with bacon and stuffing, possibly a little complicated but very savory and tasty.
My bacon and cabbage came with a light mustard sauce that made it much lighter than I expected.
The only thing I didn’t enjoy so much was our apple tart. It was very beautiful, but it had the cakelike crust that we’d encountered with most pies and tarts in the British Isles.
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|Saturday, June 28th, 2014|
12:22 am - London and Ireland Trip, October 8: Killarney National Park and Ballyseede Castle
This was Rockcrest House, our B&B in Kenmare.|
After leaving the B&B, we stopped in Kenmare for a bit of shopping and a visit to the KenmareLace and Design Centre, upstairs from the little town museum. Kenmare had been a great center for lacemaking, because in the 19th century Poor Clare nuns taught poor local girls to make lace as a way of making a little money. They had some fabulously intricate pieces on display, and a docent on hand who told us about the women who made them. We bought a marvelous delicate lace brooch for my mother, because she has tatted lace herself, and another for Lori just because it was beautiful. In a fit of optimism, Lori bought a kit that will enable her to make a small piece of the same lace. So far, she hasn’t started.
They didn’t allow pictures, but I recommend going to http://www.kenmarelace.ie and gawking at the pictures there.
I was finished before Lori was, so I took a few pictures of Kenmare.
This small round bridge is called Cromwell Bridge. The obvious conclusion is that it’s named for Oliver Cromwell, who brutally rampaged across Ireland during his time as Lord Protector of England. But the name was in used for a hundred years before he came along.
We drove off towards Killarney National Park, along the inland edge of the Ring of Kerry scenic route. Once again the roads were narrow and twisty, with steep drop-offs and no shoulders. Once or twice we went through a short tunnel that was barely wider than the car.
Another panorama from the Ring of Kerry:
One of the most famous sights in Killarney National Park is called Ladies’ View, so named because Queen Victoria’s handmaidens were delighted by the view on a visit here. Lori was pretty delighted with it too.
A panorama from Ladies’ View.
Just down the hill from Ladies’ View was this medieval ruin:
Our planned stop in Killarney National Park was Muckross House, for another tour of a fine estate. But first, we ate lunch at the Garden Restaurant at Muckross. This is not any sort of obscure local eatery; this is clearly impersonal food for tourists. But it was very tasty. Lori had the chicken and vegetables, I had the shepherd’s pie, and we shared a dessert of plum sponge.
Lori was keen on taking a jaunting car ride ever since we had read about it in tour books. (Tourist level: so very touristy.) Finding a jaunting car ride was easy; the process appears to be to stand near Muckross House and not aggressively reject the possibility of a ride. Using this process, we ended up on a ride to Torc Falls drawn by an old codger with a habit of repeating everything twice. “Three hundred sixty-five windows in the house,” he’d say. “Three hundred sixty-five windows.” But he carries some history of his own there - he’s been driving a jaunting car for decades, and his son is now driving a jaunting car of his own.
Muckross House was a grand house. Multiple gorgeous rooms were decorated in a variety of period styles. I think some furnishings we saw dated back to the 17th century, but I am not sure of this. The detail I remember most is that the family had hardly any social contact with the (non-noble) locals; their only social life came when they visited England or someone from England visited them. It seems a dismal lonely lifestyle - especially for the children. This was a theme we heard repeated in every grand house or castle we toured.
No pictures because they didn’t allow pictures, but we have some lovely pictures of the gardens.
On the other side of the parking lot from Muckross House is Muckross Traditional Farms, a collection of farms still being run as they were in 1930 or so, when horses provided most of the power and carrying water was a major part of daily life. I was particularly eager to tour these farms because I had read they are staffed by old farmers who can talk about the way things were back then. Unfortunately, we learned when we got there that during October, they are only open on weekends.
We stopped by Ross Castle on our way out of Killarney National Park, but the last tour was over.
We have a great many pictures of Ross Castle and Lough Leane under gloomy grey skies. These are some of our favorites:
Our destination that night was Ballyseede Castle. There’s a story in how we found Ballyseede. We were both eager to spend the night in a castle in our Ireland stay, and we mentioned that to a travel agent we were trying to work with. She immediately recommended Ballyseede, because it was so affordable. Now, I tend to be very thrifty or even stingy. But my castle stays are rare enough that I don’t want to choose a castle just because it’s cheap. But we could not persuade this travel agent that we had other priorities in our castle selection. That and chronic non-responsiveness led us to abandon that travel agent and arrange our trip entirely on our own. But we had her recommendation and other recommendations that Ballyseede was a good value in a castle stay, so we decided to spend one night there.
Our room was pretty, but bland compared the enthusiastic luxury of Lawcus Farm.
We ate in Ballyseede’s pub instead of the restaurant because I was having an attack of thrift. The woodwork in the pub was beautiful.
My steak and Guinness pie was excellent, with a very crisp puff pastry crust.
Lori had a nice but not particularly Irish pasta with tomato and spinach sauce and a very rich Bailey’s coffee.
One of the special features of the pub is the dog Einstein, who spends much of his time there. Einstein has a special trick: he has several stones that he considers his. He will carry them in his mouth, drop them at your feet, and implore you to toss them for him to fetch.
As we were finishing our meal, we overheard the manager offering a tour of the castle to another couple, and we inserted ourselves into the tour. He told some ghost stories, for which Lori will give a more sympathetic retelling than I. My clearest memory is that of Hilda, the last family resident of the Castle; as with the residents of Muckross House, she did not socialize with the locals, so the highlight of her day was when the postman arrived. The story is that she’s sometimes seen in her window, waiting for the postman to arrive.
Lori: The tour of Ballyseede gave information on the history of the castle, its present uses, and the ghost stories surrounding it. My memories have dimmed, but I’ll do my best.
The castle’s date of origin is uncertain. The history we heard dates back to 1584, when the land was granted to Robert Blennerhassett, after the defeat of the previous owners, the Fitzgeralds, the Earls of Desmond. The rent for the castle was to be a single red rose from the garden, to be presented on Midsummer’s Day each year. The descendants of Robert Blennerhassett occupied the castle until 1966. Hilda was the last of the family to live there, and it’s said her spirit makes itself known on March 24 each year, which was her birthday. It is also said, as Ralph commented above, that her spirit can be seen in the window of her bedroom, looking for the mailman or visitors who rarely came. There are some watermarks under said window that are said to spell out “R I P.” It may be a bit of wishful thinking to say that - we could see where they get the idea, but the letters (such as they are) are far from sharp and clear.
There is also a romantic tale that a woman in white roams the halls at night, carrying the single red rose used to pay rent. We didn’t see her, but she makes a great story.
The castle now does weddings in a banquet hall in the oldest part of the castle, and it is in this room the ghost stories were told. A woman on Trip Advisor claimed she could’t sleep because the stories were so scary. The stories were pretty tame…I’d hate to think of what happened to her after she saw “The Sixth Sense,” a ghost movie that had me looking over my shoulder for at least three weeks.
The guide did have some ghost photos. They aren’t available online, so you’ll have to take my word for it - they were creepy. One was a photo of several Irish ladies at a wedding a few years ago. They’d posed on the staircase with their arms around each other. What was creepy was that a skeletal hand showed up draped on one lady on the end’s shoulder…looks like the ghost wanted to join in the fun. The other was of the pet cemetery (yes, they have one for the castle dogs and horses). There was a ghostly image of a dog’s face in spectral blue that was certainly creepy. I have no idea how likely or unlikely it is that these were photoshopped.
I can say that I do believe in ghosts, I do think something’s probably there, and that we had no encounters of our own that night. We did enjoy Ballyseede, and would recommend it to anyone visiting Ireland who would like the castle experience for a modest price. The decor was lovely, and I enjoyed wandering around taking it all in.
For more information, here’s the castle website. http://ballyseedecastle.com/history.php
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12:19 am - Anniversary Weekend
We had a lovely anniversary weekend in Ohio last weekend.|
On Friday, we drove up to Cleveland in time for dinner with our Roadfood friend Jeff Sanders. We had dinner at Sokolowski's University Inn, with lots of chat and stories of our Ireland trip. We left to go to Jeni's in Chagrin Falls just before they closed. It was after midnight when we finally left Jeff to go to our hotel.
Saturday, June 20:
For brunch, we went to Slyman's Deli in Cleveland, where we split a wonderful piled-high corned beef sandwich.
We drove on to Lakeside, Ohio, on the banks of Lake Erie. Lakeside is a Chautauqua community, an offshoot of the original in Chautauqua, New York. The Chautauquas were Methodist summer camps founded on the principles of religion, education, arts, and recreation. Most of them have now closed, but Lakeside is one of the few still around. (My overall impression was that Lakeside was like a small resort town whose population has a disproportionately large fraction of PBS viewers.)
Lakeside charges an admission fee for the community, and uses those fees to pay for concerts and lectures and so forth. We had some trouble at the gate. We'd bought tickets as soon as they went on sale in April and had them held at Will Call, but apparently it was so early that their ticket-filing systems were not yet running smoothly. But the woman who dealt with my problem was very gracious and kind, and we eventually got a temporary pass to go to the central ticket office and get our tickets reprinted.
Lakeside was full of small-town charm. People were friendly and happy to talk, and the weather was beautiful.
We checked in at our B&B, then strolled around. We stopped at the little Lakeside Museum, where we ended up in a lengthy pleasant conversation with the curator, more about the history of the museum itself than the history of Lakeside.
We strolled down to the Lakeside Hotel, where there was a classic car show going on. The nice thing about classic cars is the clear joy folks have in a spotlessly maintained old car.
We ate dinner at the Lakeside Hotel. I had baked walleye, Lori had the roast beef, we shared a dessert of white cake with mascarpone and raspberry jam. The best thing we had was my pomegranate splash, a nonalcoholic cocktail.
In the evening, we saw Natalie MacMaster and her husband Donnell Leahy in concert. It was a great show; they're both very skilled fiddle players. The cutest moment of the show was when they brought out their two oldest children (aged 8 and 6) to play fiddle themselves, and then another two children (5 and 3) to all join in step dancing. (They have another two children even younger. By my math, she's spent about half the time since the oldest's conception pregnant.)
After the concert, we strolled down to the Patio restaurant to get ice cream before returning to our B&B.
Sunday, June 22:
We had a pretty good breakfast at the B&B, and enjoyed some time sitting on the porch chatting with the hosts.
We attended church services at Hoover Auditorium. The best part of the services was the gathering of children for their service - they got a very big parade of children singing together.
Lori then resumed shopping through Lakeside's cute little shops. She saw one painting of flowers that really caught her fancy.
We ate lunch at the Patio; I had the special of chicken and noodles served over mashed potatoes.
We played miniature golf, and I managed to get two holes-in-one.
We walked back to the art shop to consider the painting again, and we spotted a beautiful necklace showing the moon over a lake. I went in and bought it for Lori. The saleslady offered to gift wrap it for me, but I declined; a present should stay in the wrapping longer than it takes to wrap it.
We drove down to a different B&B for the night, the Victorian Tudor Inn in Belleveue, Ohio. It was a quirky Victorian place with a great many knickknacks, but the proprietor was very friendly and hospitable. (But the bathroom in our suite was enormous and extra lovely.) Lori feigned surprise that I had ordered the Romance Package, with roses and chocolates in the room, and a bottle of wine for us.
We ate supper with Jeff again at the Jolly Roger in Port Clinton. It was a feast of fried fish, not necessarily the romantic dinner that we'd originally planned. But it was good to see him on his drive back to Chicago.
After breakfast, we ambled across northern Ohio. We stopped for lunch at Miss Molly's Tea Room in Medina - it was an interesting cultural study, because although it offered fancy teas and scones, the lunch items that I ended up choosing were chicken divan and strawberry pretzel salad - dressed-up versions of items you might find at a Midwest potluck.
We arrived at Pat and Lisa's far in advance of the time we scheduled, so far that Lori insisted we drive around the neighborhood for a while to kill time.
We ate a long dinner with Pat and Lisa at Thyme Squared. It was splendid to chat at length with them.
Afterwards, Pat and Lisa indulged me by playing ROFL with us. I'd just acquired this party game a week ago and hadn't had a chance to play. Pat and Lisa vastly outscored the two of us, but I look forward to playing again.
It rained hard as we were in the restaurant with Pat and Lisa, but we managed to avoid the rain as we drove home until we were near Pittsburgh. We were glad that the rain had waited until then instead of hitting us in Lakeside.
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|Sunday, June 15th, 2014|
3:38 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 7: Ring of Beara
Our plan for Monday had been to drive the Ring of Kerry, whose scenic beauty makes it famous and very popular with tourists. But in two different events, our host at the B&B and another diner at the Lime Tree recommended we drive the Ring of Beara (around the Beara peninsula) instead; “It’s less touristy.” And my own superstitious quirks are such that I would not ignore such a double recommendation. So we drove the Ring of Beara.|
It was a pretty drive under louring grey skies. But here’s the thing: “It’s less touristy” is apparently code for “the roads are so narrow and twisty that a tour bus would end up looking at its own license plate.” There were many beautiful scenes that we couldn’t photograph, because we’d have had had to park in the middle of the road and worry about blind curves.
I really regretted the theft of Lori’s phone this day. I use one of our phones as a GPS; I would have used another phone to take time-lapse videos, as I did in the Midwest in 2012.
This is not the best rainbow we saw in Ireland, but it was one of the few we were able to photograph.
We stopped at Derreen Gardens, an old estate planted into a luxurious subtropical rainforest garden with many exotic plants in the late 1800s. We paid our 7€ at the honor box, and ended up regretting it. The paths were wild and wandering, and there was no portable map and few signs. So we did not feel we could walk a loop and reliably get back to our car. We encountered no other people except the sounds of a flute from the manor house, so it was a strange lonely place.
The name “King’s Oozy” sounds like something the king should see a doctor about.
More pictures from our circuit of Beara.
We had plans to visit a cheesemaker in Eyeries. We found the tiny town of Eyeries, but didn’t find the cheesemaker. The brightly painted houses of Eyeries were very typical of Irish small towns.
This tree of roadsigns in Castletownbere was also very typical.
We ate a bland lunch at Murphy’s Restaurant: stuffed ham and turkey roast for Ralph and ham, cheese, and tomato toastie for Lori.
A Beara landscape from our stop at Molly Gaffigan’s gift shop:
Our last stop on our circuit was at Bonane Heritage Park. I was interested in stopping, because the park had a prehistoric stone circle and we had not managed to visit Stonehenge. Lori was not so interested, because the scowling clouds that had been with us all day had now gathered into a dripping rain. If we had had two cell phones (and effective cell service), she might have stayed in the car, but since we did not, she wanted to stay together. It’s good that we did stay together; we spent much longer at the park than I had predicted, and she would have been very nervous if she had been alone.
The honor box asked for 4€, but we had spent all of our small cash for the honor box at Derreen Gardens. I regret this, because we enjoyed Bonane much more - particularly because Bonane had good signs and clear routes.
Near the parking lot was a reconstructed crannog. I had never heard of a crannog before; a crannog is a dwelling on an artificial island in a lake, with a path of stepping stones under the water providing access for people who knew the secret.
At the top of the hill was a ring fort. In the famine times, it had been used to try to grow potatoes, despite deep superstition prohibiting farming such sites. That gave me a new appreciation for the depths of the Famine, because this was such a high remote site that cultivating it would be a big challenge.
A panorama from the center of the ring fort:
The Dromagorteen stone circle at Bonane is much less impressive than Stonehenge, but but it still requires a monumental amount of labor to lug dishwasher-sized rocks to the top of this hill. And the astronomical calculations and delicate adjustments must have required both labor and care.
Near the stone circle was a fulachta fiadh, a pre-pottery cooking pit in which hot stones were dropped into a pool to heat water. My impression is that the actual cooking pit was much smaller, but the raised ring comes from the piles of used cooking stones.
Lori suggested a selfie to confirm that we were viewing archaeological sights in the steady rain. Here we are, soggy and bedraggled but having a good time.
I quite enjoyed Bonane Heritage Park; I wish we had had more time to spend there.
That evening, we went to Foley’s, the other pub in Kenmare, to seek dinner and Irish music.
The brown bread was as good as ever.
We shared the crab and salmon cakes for an appetizer; they were tasty, but very homogenous; the opposite of the big lumps of crab found in some Baltimore crab cakes.
I had the stuffed pork chop, which was nicely prepared.
Lori’s steak and Guinness pie was quite tasty, but the presentation of serving it on top of the mound of colcannon was a little odd.
Our dessert was a sticky toffee pudding that was only okay.
The music in the back bar that night was Dan O’Sullivan playing rousing Irish-music-for-tourists. We had a great time listening to him. We bought one of his CDs, and we stayed listening until the bar closed. But all the listeners were tourists, and the songs were tourist songs; it was like a performance at an Irish bar in the US transplanted to Ireland.
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|Thursday, June 5th, 2014|
11:54 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 6: Fungie, Dingle, and Kenmare
Sunday’s view from our bedroom window was much greyer than Saturday’s.|
Even with the soggy day, Lori was very keen to take a boat tour out into Dingle Bay.
There was time before the boat ride for another trip to Murphy’s Ice Cream. We’ve forgotten the flavors, but it was excellent ice cream, worth eating two days in a row. (Side note: the Murphy’s website made me laugh with this bit: "WORST FLAVOUR WE EVER MADE: Smoked Salmon Ice Cream (horrible)”)
This T-shirt says “Póg mo Cone”, which is much funnier if you’re familiar with the Irish phrase “póg mo thóin”. Of course, the western part of the peninsula (including Dingle) is a Gaeltacht, where Irish is still spoken predominantly, so this joke would be well understood locally.
Our boat for the tour of the bay.
The biggest reason for a boat tour in Dingle is Fungie the dolphin. Fungie is a very unusual dolphin: he lives in Dingle Bay year-round, where most bottlenosed dolphins migratory. He seems to be solitary, where most bottlenosed dolphins stay in groups. And he’s made Dingle Bay his home since 1984, although the typical lifespan for his species is 20-25 years. Fungie is also distinctive because he is very friendly with boats; the local boat tours offer that if you don’t see Fungie, you don’t pay for the tour.
We ended up seeing Fungie quite a bit, especially after the captain encouraged the five-year-old passenger to call “Fungie! Fungie!” repeatedly.
As we were out on the boat, the soft grey mist turned to wind and rain. Lori insisted we take a selfie to show the conditions we were in, though it’s nigh-impossible to look good under such conditions.
The mist was beautiful, but it’s hard to take really splendid photos of the mist - particularly on a boat rocking with the waves.
I’m fond of this picture - the lonely crenellated tower looks like something from a somber fairyland. I tried several times to get a closer picture, but none came out as good.
Lori was feeling very cold and wet when we returned to land, and rushed into a pub as soon as possible. She got little sympathy from the barmaid, but she did get an Irish coffee.
We returned to the Food Festival for a bit. We started with a little knot of outdoor food vendors - not clearly part of the Taste Trail, but still part of the festival.
Curry from Green Saffron - this was particularly nice because it was warm and we were chilled from the rain.
The lentil shortbread was not actually that good.
Reel Dingle Fish was back on the Taste Trail. The smoked haddock was really nice.
The Chart House is one of the nicer restaurants in Dingle. The goat cheese tartlet was probably the best, but the black pudding and apple chutney turnover was surprisingly good (according to the member of our duo who will sample black pudding).
Lori was very keen on the cheesecake sundae from the Little Cheese Shop.
Fenton’s was very proud of their mini burger, and the proprietor told us repeatedly how good it was as he was preparing it. Our verdict: not so much.
This red-headed busker won Lori’s heart (and tips) because he looked only eight years old.
Enjoy another scenery picture. This looks very Ireland to me.
We backtracked a bit to drive to Kenmare, another small Kerry town at the tip of the Kerry Bay between the Iveragh Peninsula (the peninsula with the tourist-popular Ring of Kerry) and the Beara Peninsula. This was the view from the window of our B&B in Kenmare.
At the recommendation of our host, we went to The Lime Tree, an upscale (and dimly lit) restaurant in a building that dates back to 1832.
We started with an appetizer of oak smoked salmon.
I ordered the Lamb Two Ways, with a mini shepherd’s pie and a small rack of locally sourced lamb. This was outstanding, probably the best lamb I’ve ever had.
Lori got the chicken with boxty. It was very tasty but apparently not photogenic.
For dessert, we shared a lovely bread and butter pudding.
The story of the building:
As we walked back to the B&B, we saw a sign on the door of a pub that said “Irish Music and Dance Tonight”. I’m quite certain of this, because I double-checked the sign later. So we figured this might be our chance to get a nice local pub session. We went in and found the bar area deserted. We asked a bartender about the dancing, and were told that it was in the back room.
So we went to the back room. There was indeed live music and dancing… but the instruments were an electronic keyboard and an electric guitar. And the choice of music didn’t fit our expectations of Irish music; the second song we heard was John Denver’s “Country Roads”. But there were people dancing; they were dancing two-steps and country western waltzes instead of jigs and reels.
On the one hand, this was definitely a local, non-tourist experience; the room was filled with locals, mostly elderly with a few younger folks. On the other hand, we found it hard to find a seat and even harder to find a conversation. We left after half an hour with only a pause to double-check that the sign did indeed say “Irish".
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|Sunday, June 1st, 2014|
8:14 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 5: Dingle Food Festival
This was the view from our bedroom window on Saturday morning. (I have commented that there is hardly any better symbol of indefatigable optimism than an Irish clothesline.)|
The teapot at breakfast came swaddled in this cute tea sweater.
Lori had the scrambled eggs with salmon.
I had the Irish fry; this was one of the better fries of the trip.
And then down to Dingle for the Dingle Food Festival.
I don’t remember the explanation of why there was a gypsy parade at the food festival.
The festival was one of the best food festivals we’ve encountered, because it had the Taste Trail. Seventy-five restaurants, shops, and food stalls were all selling small tastes of their various specialties for 2€ apiece. This meant that we were able to try a whole lot of places without becoming too horribly gorged. Even so, we did not managed to sample everything; we managed fourteen places on Saturday and about the same on Sunday. (There were also cooking demonstrations, workshops, music, and more, but the Taste Trail was the main thing for us.) It was touristy, certainly, but it felt to us as if it was catering to Irish tourists instead of international tourists. (Someone told us that this festival was a chance for the locals to relax a bit after the tourist season abated for the year.)
Crab Roll from Dingle Bay Hotel.
Mini burger and whiskey custard from Murphy’s Pub.
I’ve lost track of who supplied this cupcake for Lori:
Liam O’Neill Gallery offered “Traditional Dingle Mutton Pies with Derry Clarke from L’ecrivian restaurant, Dublin”. This might have been my first chance to dine on food prepared by a Michelin-star chef, but I didn’t like the mutton pie much.
Biscuit Cake from the Strand House
Murphy’s Ice Cream offered a lot of specialty flavors. All of them were good, but I remember particularly liking the Oats and the Cheddar Cheese flavors. Murphy’s was one of our favorite stops on the Taste Trail.
I’ve lost track of which flavors these were. My guesses (clockwise from top): butterscotch, oats, and Irish marmalade.
Tempted Strawberry Cider served in a frame shop. This didn’t live up to my mental image of strawberry cider, unfortunately.
Pizza from The Diner reflected an imperfect understanding of 50s diner culture.
I had never had periwinkles before. (Periwinkles are edible sea snails; these pictured are from Hannie’s.) Eating periwinkles involves probing the snail with a toothpick like a game of Operation in order to retrieve a crumb of meat the size and texture of a small pencil eraser. They weren’t horrible, but I discarded them as not worth the effort after less than half the serving.
The bacon and cabbage from MacCarty’s was outstanding. Far better than I expected from a rather ordinary bar.
Dick Mack’s is a haberdashery and bar. This combination might improve the process of shopping for men’s clothing. (They weren’t actually on the Taste Trail, I think.)
We took a break from the Taste Trail to see the beautiful Harry Clarke stained glass center at the Diseart Centre, a former convent. They didn’t allow pictures, of the windows; some pictures are available online at http://www.diseart.ie/visitor/harry3.html.
Foxy John’s (a hardware store plus bar; this sort of conversion is apparently a thing in Dingle) had samples of Annascaul Black Pudding, an award-winning artisan black pudding (and other breakfast meats). This was definitely qualitatively better than many of the other black puddings I had in Ireland, but it didn’t make me a black pudding lover.
Pumpkin soup from An Gallerai Beag.
Cones of chocolates from It Must Be Food.
I think this cupcake came from Deirdre’s Delights.
We hit Kennedy’s Butchers just as they (and the other shops on the Taste trail) were closing up for the day. The three sausages were excellent.
This meringue tea cake might have come from the Tree House Cafe. I’m not quite certain, though. I took notes of our destinations in one of the guides to the festival, and I’ve mislaid that guide. The guide is available online, but without our notes. I’ve managed to reconstruct most of our travels from a vague memory of our route, and the guide’s list of the foods served at each stop. The Tree House Cafe is next to Kennedy’s Butchers, which matches my remembered route - but the guide said that Tree House Cafe was serving something else, and I don’t see this meringue listed anywhere on the list. (Note from Lori: I bought that from the counter. It wasn’t a food festival thing, it was just a tea cake…and a LOT bigger than I thought it would be!)
After such a day of the Taste Trail, it was a bit tricky to figure out supper. We wanted something a bit more substantial; Lori in particular hadn’t eaten nearly as many tastes as I had. But we didn’t want much, and we felt that that a nice restaurant would be wasted on us. So we ended up returning to the Diner for garlic bread and pizza. This pizza was adequate, but I don’t think it would measure up in New York or New Haven.
We attended evening Mass at St. Mary’s. The service used a mixture of English and Gaelic, which made it very hard for me to follow.
Lori: I am a card-carrying Catholic. One of the beautiful things about Catholicism is the universality of the Mass. However, the occasional Gaelic mixed in with the English, and the thick accents of the Priest and congregation meant that I was often lost too, despite the fact that the responses are the same no matter where you go. We think some of it was simply that the accent gave everything a slightly different cadence and/or rhythm than what I’m accustomed to. Still, it was a beautiful little church made of stone, warm-toned wood, and stained glass, I enjoyed hearing parts of the Mass spoken and sung in Gaelic, and I was happy we went there for Mass.
After the Mass, we went seeking Irish music. Dingle is a famous town for Irish music, and we wanted to make the most of our opportunities while we were there. We never found Irish music that night, but we got one of the best stories of our trip. This photo may be as close to Irish music as we came that night - but the key to understanding this picture is to know that I do not play guitar.
What happened was this: as we were passing Bennett’s Hotel, Lori wanted to take a peek inside, because it was a venerable old establishment with a sumptuous entryway. When we poked our heads in, a guy at the bar enthusiastically beckoned us inside.
(I’ll call him Paddy, because he gave that as his name at least once.) It turned out that he and his (mostly silent) friend Jim had come from about thirty miles away looking for a session, and he had seen me and assumed from my appearance that I was a bluegrass player. Unfortunately, the closest I come to being a bluegrass musician is that my sister-in-law is an amateur fiddler. Paddy was not convinced despite our protestations, and it was at his insistence that we posed with his guitar.
We talked with Paddy and Jim briefly; I recall that Jim was a police officer, but I don’t recall any background about Paddy. They had no idea that the Dingle Food Festival was in town; they had just come to find a session the way they do once a month or so.
But Paddy’s attention soon drifted away from us to land upon Molly (definitely not her real name). Paddy started chatting with her with casual interest, but his conversation flourished wildly. Within ten minutes, he was introducing her to us as his girlfriend; within another ten minutes, he was asking to borrow Lori’s engagement ring so that he could propose to her. Molly did not seem to wholly reciprocate his infatuation; her responses were along the lines of “That’s not my real name; I’m not telling you my real name. I’m not going to marry you. I’m not even going to go to a different bar with you.” But Paddy was utterly undaunted and continued pouring out his adulations to his lady love. (This might have been creepy if she wasn’t enjoying it, but she was clearly having a fine time. After Paddy and Jim left, she told us her real name (which I’ve now forgotten) and told us that her cheeks were sore from laughing so hard.)
This is the picture Paddy insisted we take of the two lovebirds. It is one of our most memory-laden photos of the trip.
Paddy and Jim eventually unslung their guitars and started to start a session of their own, and were firmly told “no music here” by the bartender. They wandered off while we stayed to chat with Molly and her friend.
We walked a bit more looking for a pub with music, but the ones we found were full to bursting. We stood outside one pub listening to the music for a while, but it had been a day of a lot of standing and walking, and we went back to the B&B around ten.
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|Wednesday, May 28th, 2014|
11:20 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 4: Dingle and Slea Head
This was one of the most picture-heavy days of our trip.|
Friday morning, I had the bagel with bacon and egg because it had looked so good when Lori got it by accident, and Lori got the porridge on the first try.
We did our best to hustle to Dingle, a town of about 2000 people on a peninsula on the west coast of Ireland. We were carefully planning to be in Dingle for the weekend of the Dingle Food Festival, but I wanted to see the sights of the Dingle peninsula on Friday to leave us plenty of time for the festival on the weekend.
It rained in the morning but cleared up as we drove. We saw three rainbows on our route - but none with an opportunity to stop for a picture.
We noticed that the town of Castlemaine has a plaque proclaiming itself the origin of the Wild Colonial Boy (as commemorated in the song of that name).
The Dingle peninsula looks very much like my stereotype of Irish scenery. Some miscellaneous pictures from the eastern part of the Dingle peninsula, near Inch and Anascaul:
A panoramic view of green hills and hedgerows:
We got into Dingle about 1, and stopped for lunch at the first spot we saw, a family restaurant named Harrison’s. It was adequate but not delightful; Lori’s plaice and chips was a bit greasy, though my smoked haddock and chips had a nice smoke flavor.
We checked in at the Milestone Bed and Breakfast just east of town. (A pleasant place, but one of the tiniest bathrooms we’ve encountered. I had to turn sideways to get past the sink to the shower.) The Milestone B&B is so named because of the standing stone in the front yard, dating back to 2000-1400 BC.
Barbara, the innkeeper, gave us a photocopied hand-drawn map of the Slea Head Loop to guide our drive and an oral commentary on the various sights. It was helpful advice; for example, we passed by beehive huts from the 8th century, because Barbara said there was no explanation, just a chance to pay a few Euros to an old woman to see the ancient huts in her garden. (Again, it’s wacky to me that such old structures are just lying around.)
I did want to stop at Dunbeg Fort, because of its longer heritage. It’s a cliff fort (or something; archaeology has apparently not been clear about its purpose) that might date back as far as the fifth century BC. It too is very low-key; the “visitor’s centre” is the pub across the road. We didn’t see any signs or explanations, so we are left guessing with everyone else about the purpose of these ditches and walls.
More scenery pictures from near Dunbeg Fort:
In my collection of pictures, I find an occasion for another rant about the narrow Irish roads. I did not feel that this was wide enough for our car and the dog-walker, much less an oncoming car.
We stopped at a turnout at the western end of the peninsula to see the Blasket Islands. There was a piper playing there at the turnout at the far western edge of Ireland. We bought one of his CDs.
More views of the hillsides of the Dingle peninsula.
This island of the Blaskets is nicknamed the Sleeping Giant because of its silhouette.
The Blasket Islands are a group of three medium-small islands off the coast of the Dingle peninsula. A small community of subsistence farmers eked out a living there until the last few residents were moved off the island in the 1950s. We didn’t visit the Blaskets, but we did visit the Blasket Islands Centre on the mainland. It was a good museum of the people of the Blaskets, and it inspired us to buy two books of stories of the residents in the early nineteenth century. Things I particularly recall from the museum:
- There were no harbors on the islands, so the boats that were used were curraghts, large canvas-covered canoes. This made it a big challenge to get a cow to the mainland to be inseminated; there were pictures of the cow in the curraght upside down with all four legs tied together.
- What happened to the Blasket Islands community was an influx of money. Typically the eldest daughter of a family would go to Dingle and work as a domestic servant until she had put together a little money, and then go off to America. Then she would send money back to help another member of the family make the passage, and so forth until all the young people were gone. This evaporation of young people to better opportunities eventually made the community unsustainable, so there were only a handful of old folks when the government finally moved everyone to the mainland.
We would have had better light for photography earlier in the day. But the down side of being on the west coast on a fine sunny day is that the sun was very bright on the water.
We had time for one last stop before heading back to Dingle, so stopped at Gallarus Oratory. This is a small building built of carefully fitted stone without any mortar. It’s presumed that this was a Christian church from about the 8th century, but there’s no clear evidence.
Wikipedia claims that there’s a local legend that if you exit the oratory by climbing out of the window, your soul will be cleansed. But I fear that if I tried, the effect would be more like that of Winnie the Pooh climbing out of Rabbit’s burrow.
We got back to Dingle to attend a concert at St. James’ Church. We were again seeking music that met our stereotype of Irish music, and again we didn’t quite get that. It would be presumptuous for me to claim that this was not Irish music - it was performed by Irish performers and the words were in Gaelic. But the sound of the performers was more like what I would call “singer-songwriter” than “Irish”. And the pews we were sitting at were hard and uncomfortable, and we hadn’t eaten dinner. We decided not to return after intermission in order to get dinner before restaurants closed.
We had a nice meal at the Old Smokehouse. We started with crab au gratin:
I had the salmon en croute (made with local salmon). It was tasty and well prepared, but again I was growing tired of seafood.
Lori won dinner with her chicken with ham, ricotta, and apricot. Very tasty.
For dinner, we shared a very nice peach and strawberry crumble, accompanied by a pitcher of custard.
Dingle has a reputation as a great music town, so we went out to seek Irish music once more. At the Mighty Session bar, we found a duo playing with accordion and flute, and had a good time listening to them for an hour or so.
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|Monday, May 19th, 2014|
10:28 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 3: Kinsale
Is this not the prettiest porridge breakfast one could wish for? This was actually a second attempt; Lori had ordered the porridge, but received a bagel with bacon and egg instead.|
We took a walking tour of Kinsale in the morning, even though it was a wet, grey day. Barry the tour guide had large umbrellas available for the use of the tourists, which was a remarkable courtesy. Barry was a good tour guide and did a good job of explaining Kinsale’s history. Much of the wall that enclosed Kinsale in medieval times is still present, and the five historic gates still constrain traffic.
The medieval tax schedule is still posted in the old town hall (now a tiny but interesting museum).
We ate lunch at the Lemon Leaf Cafe, a bright little cafe tucked into the back of a gift shop. Lori got a lovely cup of tomato soup (just the thing for a rainy day) and a very nice ham and chesse sandwich with apple and raisin chutney. Again, in the US such a sandwich would probably be toasted in a way that melted the cheese, but here it was just served on toast.
I got my share of melted cheese, though, with a bacon and cheese rarebit that was simply fabulous. With great smoky bacon and sharp cheese, this was a meal worth a long journey for.
More harbor pictures:
We spent the afternoon with a bit more sightseeing and a bit of shopping. We bought cut crystal glassware at Kinsale Crystal. Cut crystal in Ireland has changed over the last few years. Waterford Crystal was the most famous Irish crystal company. But in 2009, Waterford went bankrupt and closed the factory in Waterford, and most of the production has since been moved to Eastern Europe. But a group of former employees now makes crystal under the name Sons of Waterford, and sends the blanks to small local shops like Kinsale Crystal to be cut and sold to tourists. (And these shops are very accommodating for tourists; they offered to ship our purchases directly to our home so that we didn’t have to worry about packing glass in our luggage.)
Lori spotted a beautiful rainbow shawl in Kilmaran Woolens, and I bought it for her as a Christmas present with the thinnest possible pretense that she did not know what I had purchased.
Because Kinsale is known as a town for gourmet dining, we looked for another gourmet restaurant for dinner, and ended up at Finn’s Table. This was an exceptional dinner, one of the best of our trip.
We ordered half a bottle of wine in the happy knowledge that we wouldn’t be driving anywhere. Julie Finn, one of the proprietors, cheerfully offered to decant it for us, even though it was only half a bottle.
I liked brown bread everywhere we went in Ireland, but I especially liked it here. The white herb roll was also excellent.
Lori began her meal with the tomato, ginger, and rosemary soup. Lori generally avoids spicy food, but the ginger and rosemary seasoned this very nicely.
Kinsale is a port town, so local fare means seafood. So for my appetizer, I ordered the grilled oysters with vodka, lime, cilantro sauce. These were really outstanding; the seawater taste of the oysters came through clearly, but the sauce transformed it and made it radiant. (When I praised the oysters to the proprietor, she tried to introduce me to the oysterman who had gathered them, but he had just left the restaurant.)
Lori had beautiful fragrant lamb chops.
My entree was the surf and turf with fondant potatoes. (The lobster came from local waters, and my beef and Lori’s lamb were raised by Julie’s husband’s parents.)
Lori’s dessert was a selection of caramel tart, house made ice cream, and chocolate mousse.
However, I won the better dessert with mine: lemon posset with blackberry sorbet and housemade shortbread. (A posset is a chilled milk dessert, similar to what I call “pudding” in my American dialect.) The flavors were radiant and sumptuous, and it was a splendid finale to the meal.
We had some chances to talk with Julie Finn at some length because we praised the food so highly. She said that she and her husband have only been in business in Kinsale for a year or two. We certainly think they’re off to a terrific start, and we wish them every success.
We wound up the night at Dalton’s Bar looking again for craic. The two women customers left shortly after we arrived, but we had some pleasant chitchat with the bartender.
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|Monday, May 12th, 2014|
11:45 pm - London and Ireland Trip, October 2: Rock of Cashel and Kinsale
Let me share some more pictures of Lawcus Farm, because we loved it so much:|
Another panorama; again you can click on this for a much larger image.
The base of this table was made from the stump of a five-century-old oak on the property. Mark spoke more than once about how he wanted the Oak to be part of the Lawcus Farm story.
Ralph and Mark in the entrance to our room:
And the two of us with Ann Marie.
When we said our goodbyes to Mark, he gathered us into his arms, bowed his head, and prayed over us that Lawcus Farm might confer some of its magic upon us and bless us in the rest of our travels and our return to the United States. I get misty-eyed every time I remember this. This is definitely a service that we have not received in any hotel.
For our first trip stop after Lawcus Farm, we went to Kells Priory. Once again, I am struck by how casual the treatments of monuments can be. Kells Priory dates back to 1193, but this historic ruin is left open to the public with no more guard than a revolving door to keep the sheep from straying out into the road. Well, and a large quantity of sheep droppings, which did diminish Lori’s enthusiasm.
As we were driving around, from time to time we would see a wordless sign with an icon of a camera. Image from Wikipedia:
We thought this meant a scenic view, though we were baffled by the fact that often there was no place near to park and enjoy the view. This picture was taken at one of those signs where we could find a convenient place to stop. It was only after we returned to the United States that we learned that this sign means “speed limit enforced by cameras”. So this is an Irish landscape that is not claimed by road signs to be particularly scenic - but it shows what it was like to drive through central Ireland.
We arrived at the Rock of Cashel around lunchtime. Before touring the Rock, we had lunch at Granny’s Kitchen, a cheerful little cafe nearly in the shadow of the hill. Vegetable soup, a bacon and cheese toastie (much better than the previous evening’s toastie), and a ploughman’s lunch plate of bread and cheese.
The Rock of Cashel is a cathedral and its related buildings atop a hill. It’s not a particularly high hill, but it stands alone and offers a dramatic view of the surrounding countryside. It’s been used as a religious site for centuries (“Only documented to the fourth century AD”, the guide said deprecatingly), and is reputed to be where St. Patrick converted the King of Munster to Christianity.
If we were able to arrange every detail to best suit ourselves, our visit to the Rock of Cashel would have come at a time when it was not undergoing restoration. We didn’t manage to get a good view of the whole castle.
We took lots of photos at the Rock of Cashel, and unfortunately most of them are not that good. The sky held a mixture of dark clouds and open patches, so every shot had to deal with both dark shadows and bright sunlight.
The vicar’s building has been restored to the way it was around 1500. This is a large replica of a seal that was carried by the vicars as a medieval equivalent of a company credit card; they could charge purchases to the abbey’s account by showing the seal. This system was ended after twenty years or so because it was abused.
The view of the countryside from the Rock of Cashel. At the right of this picture, there’s a chunk of tower that fell centuries ago and has not been moved.
This ninth-century sarcophagus shows Viking influence, but it is lost to history who occupied it.
Lori enjoyed imagining what it would have been like to stand in the cathedral centuries ago.
We were told that in the 1920s, the graveyard was getting overcrowded, so they limited new burials to people who could demonstrate a family tradition of being buried there. Apparently there are still a few living people with the right to be buried there.
There are crosses on the site that are a millennium old, but this one is far more recent.
We stopped by the Cork airport, because when we'd called Hertz about our accident on Monday, they'd asked me to bring the accident report to a Hertz location within a week. But when we got to the Hertz stop in the airport (after a great many roundabouts and a few wrong turns), the young man on duty was utterly uninterested in taking our accident kit. We grumbled at the pointless detour.
Our stop that night was in Kinsale, a small fishing and tourism town on the south coast of Ireland. Once again the medieval heritage was apparent in the attempts to park; I got so discombobulated by the narrow streets and complicated traffic that I missed the turn into the parking lot of our B&B - and it took me almost half an hour to get back, even with the GPS.
Lori was enchanted by the selection of tea treats that the B&B provided. The only one I remember by name was the white chocolate orange scones.
Kinsale claims to be the gourmet capital of Ireland, so we tried to have more upscale meals while we were there. For dinner, we ate at Jim Edwards.
I had a seafood chowder. This was my first encounter with seafood chowder in Ireland - and I didn’t like it very much. It had a very strongly fishy taste.
Lori’s potato leek soup.
I had the hake entree, because I hadn’t heard of hake. Once again it turns out that despite my attempts to eat the local specialty even when it’s seafood, I am not that much of a seafood lover - and this had a strong fishy taste.
Lori is even less of a seafood lover than I am, but she had the baked salmon because it was a seafood town. Perhaps it’s just that we’re more familiar with salmon than hake, but we both liked hers much more than mine.
My dessert was an apple pie, and this was not a very good apple pie. Part of it, of course, was that British/Irish norms for pie are very different from American norms, so this came with a very thick crust. But even allowing for that, this was not worth finishing.
Lori liked her banoffee tart much more.
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|Friday, May 2nd, 2014|
12:40 am - London and Ireland Trip, October 1: Kilkenny
Breakfast at Lawcus Farm was a three-course affair. We started out with fruit and juice (and optional granola, which we declined.)|
Next was rich, tasty porridge. Instead of sweetening it with honey, Ann Marie suggested Orchard Syrup, an Irish syrup made from boiling down apples. It was tasty enough that we brought home a bottle as a souvenir.
As we were finishing our porridge, we noticed Robin the farmhand walk in with a bowl of eggs. These eggs were fried up and served to us only a few minutes after they were laid. At this point in the narration, I feel I’m supposed to rhapsodize about what a difference it makes to have such super-fresh eggs - but my palate is coarse enough that I did not notice a difference between this super-fresh egg and a nicely fried supermarket egg. Even so, it was well cooked and it tasted very nice.
We were told that the bacon might or might not have come from Lawcus Farm pigs; they serve more bacon than their own pigs provide, so they have to make up the difference with bacon from other farmers in the village. So there’s some question of whether the bacon is super-local or merely very local, but it was very tasty and savory. This was a great Irish fry.
Lori chose pancakes instead. As I look at this picture, I’m surprised to see sautéed mushrooms on the plate; I suspect Lori handed them to me.
While Lori got ready, I overheard Mark giving other guests a tour of Lawcus Farm, and I tagged along.
Mark said that everything in the place came from “picking” - pieces and scraps he’d picked up from other buildings. For example, the flagstones in the floor in the large dining room had come from another house, whose owner had had to take up the stones to bring the construction up to code. And the windows of our room (the upper floor on the left) had come from an old church that had been torn down.
A panorama of Lawcus Farm:
In the bar, Mark gave us each a shot of poitín, an Irish spirit (distilled from barley, potatoes, or whatnot) that occupies the same cultural niche and former historic illegal status as moonshine in the US.(For further reading: http://www.thejournal.ie/poitin-ireland-1175839-Nov2013/) Mark said that this was the good stuff; this is what the police would drink. I don’t remember much of the taste; it was potent and pretty smooth.
We set off to a Farm and Folk Museum that Mark had told us about in nearby Bennettsbridge. This museum is run by one man, Seamus Lawlor, in a barn or large shed behind his house.
This picture of monuments outside the museum is interesting to me for two reasons. The monuments for the evictions during the Great Famine and for the invasion by Oliver Cromwell suggest to me an anger about those cruelties that persists to the present day. And the monument in the middle begins “In proud and loving memory of James Lawlor who was founder, member, and chairman of the first Irish Transport and General Workers Union branch in Co Kilkenny in 1917”, and I suspect that James Lawlor was an ancestor of Seamus Lawlor who runs the museum.
In retrospect, I think we may have overestimated how strongly Mark was recommending the Farm and Folk Museum. Here’s the thing: there is a fine line between “museum” and “barn full of junk”, and this place only stayed on the “museum” side of that line because of a smattering of handwritten labels. (We have visited places that were on the wrong side of that line, particularly the Tower Museum in Colorado.)
But as we looked around, we saw a story of affection for the life of farmers of the 19th and 20th centuries. We read some nice tales and poems of threshing day, when a community’s threshing machine would visit one farmer’s fields and there would be a party of harvesting and gathering.
And there were clear signs that Seamus Lawlor still holds a grudge over the famine times. That was more interesting to me than the Famine itself; I know about the Famine, but I was not expecting it to be still aflame in the hearts of Irish.
We got a nice view of the bridge that gave Bennettsbridge its name:
From the museum, it was just around the corner to Nicholas Mosse pottery, a ceramic factory whose work has appeared in tourist stores. We watched people work, shopped for pottery, and got a little snack: local apple juice for me, Diet Coke with a local marketing campaign for Lori.
The drive back to Stoneyford gave us a moment when we weren’t using my phone as a GPS, so Lori had a chance to take a few pictures of the road. I may not have yet ranted about how narrow Ireland roads are. So many of the roads are about one and a half car widths… and the speed limits are high; the speed limit on a road like this might be 80 km/h (50 mph). Look for the car visible in one of the pictures to show just how narrow these roads are - and remember that these are two-way roads.
I’m particularly fond of this picture.
We ate lunch at Knockdrinna Farm Shop, an award-winning cheesemaker in Stoneyford
We had a couple of interesting juices:
We ordered a plate of their cheeses - but unfortunately, I don’t remember them. I know that there were two cow’s milk cheeses, two goat’s milk cheeses, and one sheep’s milk cheese.
For an entree, we shared a chicken and ham pie. It was tasty, but it had barely any ham.
From there we drove into Kilkenny to see the sights. We parked downtown and walked several blocks through soft rain to Kilkenny Castle.
Butter Slip is a narrow covered alley that got its name because that was where butter was sold in medieval times.
Kilkenny Castle was our first encounter with a Downton Abbey-like estate, with doughty walls and beautiful gardens. It was occupied until 1935, but then everything in the castle was auctioned off and it was left vacant. It was sold to the city in 1957 for 50 pounds.
There was work being done on the crest at the main entrance, which yielded an entertaining juxtaposition of old and new.
The east wall that would have been the original entrance when the castle was built in 1195 has been torn down centuries ago.
One little curiosity of the restored castle: they had a gizmo for enclosing your wet umbrella in a plastic bag for the protection of the antiquities.
Kilkenny Castle didn’t allow pictures of the interior. It was pretty (mostly in a turn-of-the-century style matching the last inhabitants) and fancy enough that we bought a book on the castle to get some pictures.
The River Nore as viewed from the castle.
A pub sign worth commemorating from our walk back into Kilkenny:
A few miscellaneous photos of Kilkenny city streets:
Lori’s aunt Helen had particularly recommended that we visit the Black Abbey in Kilkenny. We climbed up to the top of the hill, only to discover that the building we were heading to was not actually the Black Abbey - it was St. Canice Cathedral of the Church of Ireland. The round tower is one of the two round towers in Ireland that tourists are allowed to climb. I climbed up the stairs, but the door inside was closed.
We found the Black Abbey on our second try. I expected it to be more black. It turns out that it’s called the Black Abbey because it’s a Dominican abbey, and black is the traditional color of the Dominicans.
Another picture from our walk downhill. This was just a canal running through the town, but I think this is one of the prettiest pictures I got.
The Black Abbey was open to tourists, so were able to go in. The stained glass was particularly beautiful. As we were looking at the windows, a group of monks came in for evening vespers. We worried that we were intruding on their prayers and tried to leave quietly. As we left, one elderly monk caught our eye and gave us a blessing with a gesture and a smile. He did this with no break in the prayers he was singing. Lori said he just had this aura of kindness.
Another picture about the sometimes-difficult interactions between traditional medieval streets and modern cars. This particular street was one-way, at least - but cars of many different colors had left paint on the edges of this arch.
We ate dinner at a pub called Kyteler’s Inn, founded in 1324. Alice Kyteler, the mistress of the tavern, apparently outlived four husbands, but she was convicted for witchcraft (Kyteler’s material claims she was framed) and had to flee to England.
Dinner was pretty touristy and disappointing. I had a fairly sad ham toastie, Lori had some chewy Irish stew.
The reason that we came to Kyteler’s: Mark at Lawcus Farm had suggested it as a place for Irish music. It turned out that they did not actually have music on Tuesday nights; instead they had bodhran sessions. It was extremely touristy, but I gladly took the chance to try to learn a little bodhran. It may be fairly said that I was not any good at playing the bodhran; I was slower to pick up the techniques than most, and I felt I was continually trying to catch up. But I think that I was a very good sport about it, even when the leader was razzing me about my difficulties.
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|Monday, April 21st, 2014|
9:26 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 30: Brú na Bóinne, Driving on the Left, Lawcus Farm
On Monday, we got up and had one more Irish fry. |
As I was heading upstairs, someone accosted me in the stairway. In a French accent, he insisted upon telling me that my snoring was keeping him awake - but the word “snore” wasn’t handy for him, so he had to substitute honking onomatopoeia. I was totally taken aback, and had no idea how to respond. When I told Lori about it later, she said that someone had been pounding on the door in the middle of the night; she’d put it down to ghosts, but apparently it was a pushy Frenchman.
We got the rental car with very little incident. Hertz upgraded us to a larger car, a Volkswagen Golf. The travel guides we’d read had recommended getting the smallest rental car one could, so I asked for a smaller one. As usual with me and rental agencies, it took me a while to figure out that “We’ve upgraded you” is code for “we don’t have any cars of the size you wanted.” Once that was established, I stopped fussing and we went off in the Golf.
Driving on the left side of the road required all my attention.
Our first destination in the car was Brú na Bóinne, the site of a great many prehistoric sites.
We started with lunch in the cafe in the visitor’s center: a chicken, leek, and mushroom pie with rhubarb pie for me, and a ham and cheese quiche and a caramel shortbread for Lori. Both of these were very tasty. The cafe is certainly not the reason to visit Brú na Bóinne, but our meal was very good.
We only had time to visit one of the many sites at Brú na Bóinne, so we chose Newgrange. (The other two major sites are Howth and Dowth.) Our admission to Newgrange included a bus ride to the site. These pictures show the sort of weather and scenery we saw that day; cloudy and damp without actually raining much. But they also do show the verdant beauty for which Ireland is renowned.
Newgrange is a passage tomb built on a hill. It was originally built around 3200-3100 BC, about five hundred years before the construction of the Pyramids. It was covered by a hill for centuries, and then rediscovered in 1699. (The front wall of quartz is a reconstruction, though apparently an accurate one.)
From the entrance, a narrow hallway slopes upward to three little rooms at the end. At dawn of the winter solstice, the sun shines through the opening above the doorway and penetrates up to the inner chamber. Electric lights have been installed to show visitors what that dawn is like, or there’s a lottery to be among the lucky few who get to be inside the chamber that day. (I had inferred that it was only on a single day that the light penetrated. It’s actually about six days centered on the solstice. It’s still an impressive feat of astronomical calibration.)
The thing that really impresses me about Newgrange is just how much planning and coordination it required. It’s not just the labor required to move the stones in place (Wikipedia says the entrance stone weighs about 5 tons, and it came from a river valley tens of miles away to the top of this hill); it’s also the scope of the plan. I made rough calculations about how long it would take to build Newgrange from what the tour guide about the population of the British Isles at the time and typical lifespans of the time. I forget the number I came up with, but it was multiple generations, long enough that the builders who started the project could not possibly see its end. (Wikipedia cites estimates of five years or thirty years, both of which are much shorter than my rough estimate.)
I build software for a living. For my team, our product of six years ago is so old that we don’t try to support it. Ten or fifteen years ago is a significantly different era of computing; twenty years ago is so old that I can’t read any of my floppy discs from that time. Even at the level of coordination of our federal government (which coordinates far more people than lived in the British Isles at that time), I can’t think of projects that take more than a few years without immediate benefit.
I can imagine how you would figure out how to align the passage to catch the rays of dawn on the solstice, but carrying out that plan over generations seems well-nigh unfathomable to me. I do know of other multi-generational projects, such as medieval cathedrals, but this takes on an extra level of bogglement because of the lack of written language. I can only dimly imagine generations of scholars memorizing and reciting the lore of just where the stones should go to carry out this process, and it staggers me.
How long would it take to carve these stones when your only tools are rocks and antlers?
The site was reused centuries later for other structures whose meaning is equally uncertain to us.
A panorama of Newgrange (you can click through for a larger version):
As we drove away from Brú na Bóinne towards Kilkenny, the roads were very narrow. And though I was doing okay with remembering to drive on the left, I didn’t yet have an accurate sense of how the car was arranged around me. The point of this ominous foreshadowing: before I had driven a full hour in Ireland, I swerved to avoid an oncoming car and sideswiped a parked van. We parked and got out to assess the damage. We found the owner of the van, a guy working on a house nearby. We could not have asked for nicer treatment; he looked at the long mark on the van and said, “looks like you’ve improved it.” (The van was mud-splattered and worn, but although I might agree that we didn’t do any significant harm, I could not claim to have improved it with a straight face.) He assured us that he wouldn’t contact Hertz about the accident, and he advised us to get a replacement for the cracked side mirror, install it ourselves, and say nothing to Hertz. (We didn’t follow his advice; we used the accident-recording kit in the glove compartment.)
This shook my driving confidence for the rest of the trip.
Our destination that night was Lawcus Farm Guesthouse in Stoneyford, a small town of about five hundred people near Kilkenny. I had asked Lori to arrange a stay at a Farm B&B, and we had an impression of a place where we would hear chickens and be invited to help feed the pigs. Lawcus Farm was not at all what we had expected, and it was utterly splendid.
We knocked on the door near sunset, and Ann Marie welcomed us inside. She told us that she’d upgraded us to a deluxe room. This time we understood the code and didn’t argue with the upgrade. And what an amazing room it was! It was huge, spacious, and gorgeous.
Ann Marie’s husband Mark gave us a photocopy of a hand-drawn map of local sites. He gave us a recommendation for dinner: he said that Stoney Kebabish does good food, but they have no dining space. So the thing to do according to Mark is to order food there and have them deliver it to Malvard’s pub down the street. We followed Mark’s guidance and discovered that we were not the only Lawcus Farm guests to do so that night.
We spent the whole evening in conversation at Malvard’s. This was close to the craic we were seeking for our Ireland trip. (Craic is an Irish word for convivial conversation and banter - but see the Wikipedia article for discussion of whether it’s a real word.) But: our conversation was with the bartender and the other guests of Lawcus. There were no locals in the bar at first, and when locals did come in, their conversations didn’t merge with ours.
We definitely over-ordered at Stoney Kebabish, and got far more food than we could eat. I ordered the chicken goujon kebab, because I’d seen “goujon” on menus everywhere. The dictionary definition of goujon is a type of catfish, but based on this sandwich, I think that chicken goujons are more or less the same as chicken fingers. This was a tasty wrap in a soft bread, sized about the size of my forearm.
We had seen curry chips on a travel documentary, so I was eager to try them the first time I saw them on a menu. These are potato chips topped with curry sauce.
Lori chose the fish and chips, and both the fish and the chips were better than other examples we’d had on this trip.
For dessert we had a sweet naan with a creamy filling. I took no photo and I’ve forgotten the details, but it was our first encounter with a sweet naan.
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|Tuesday, April 8th, 2014|
9:57 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 29: Dublin, Trinity College, National Museum of Archaeology
Lori very kindly wrote up this day. What follows is from her except for the occasional comment from me.|
We woke to another beautiful day. We were spoiled by all the great weather we had on this trip. It was generally sunny and mild, and it didn’t rain nearly as much as we’d expected.
We got up and dressed pretty quickly, as the first stop of the day would be to attend Mass. We ended up ordering the same two-course breakfast: porridge with honey (and cinnamon) followed by smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Kilronan House’s breakfast food was fine each morning, but it wasn’t especially memorable. I remember more that the dining area was always a bit crowded, and service wasn’t bad, but it was a bit indifferent.
We went to St. Andrew’s for Mass. I blush to admit we chose it mostly because it wasn’t far from us and had a convenient Mass time for us. We really were fortunate, though. St. Andrew’s was a beautiful church built in 1834. There were many gorgeous statues and the whole church was simply lovely.
After Mass, there was some fellowship time over coffee, tea and scones. We enjoyed this, too and were glad to talk with the priest about some tourist details afterward.
He explained that the rings at the edge of each pew were for holding banners and pointed out the umbrella stands in each pew.
“Those were all hand-carved from Irish oak;” he said, “they’re 160 years old and don’t have a single creak among them.”
We also noticed a separate chapel to the right side of the church. This was a wedding chapel - there was a time when weddings were quiet affairs conducted in this lovely, small chapel. He also told us the last time they had such fine weather in Dublin in late September was in 1979 when Pope John Paul the 23rd visited! We really enjoyed our chat with him. I wish I could remember his name.
Next, we walked further toward Trinity College to see the College and most importantly the Long Room and the Book of Kells. We visited O’Brien’s, a chain deli/sub shop for lunch. Ralph had a chicken tikka sandwich that he found fairly bland. [Ralph: I think “Tikka” has more or less the same role in British and Irish cuisine that “Cajun” has in the US. Getting Cajun turkey breast in a sandwich shop does not imply any connection at all to the Louisiana bayou, and tikka chicken may have only the flimsiest connection to India.]
My club sandwich was pretty good, but not anything special.
[Ralph: we had no idea about the political situation in Ireland, but it was clear that there was vigorous political debate going on. We learned that there was an upcoming referendum on abolishing the Seanad, one of the two houses of the Irish parliament. This debate was particularly evident in the signs on light poles.
I have no informed opinion about whether the Seanad should have been abolished or not; all I really know is that there is no more effective way to get a Dublin cabbie to use the word “gobshites” than to mention the Seanad. But despite the anti-Seanad sentiment among the cabbies, the referendum did not actually pass.
Another sign of political passion: protest marches in the streets.
Our tour of Trinity was really entertaining. An engaging almost-graduated student began the tour with an impish grin. He told us his nametag said “Niall,” but his real name was Michael. In a shocking turn of events, Michael was out drinking the night before and had gotten up a bit late and forgot his academic robe and badge. He did say that if we didn’t enjoy ourselves, “Niall” was the name to be reported for being a bum guide. There was no need of this, though - Michael was funny and knowledgeable. [Ralph: it was interesting in itself that the tour guides wear academic gowns as part of their daily wear. (All students had to wear academic gowns until the 1970s or so.) I’ve only seen academic gowns worn for special occasions, so I had never seen an academic gown as worn and faded as Michael’s.]
He did a good job of giving the historical information, peppered with remarks on the various dorms. According to Michael, the Rubrics are disfavored residences; you have to go outside to get to the shower. He pointed out that from his own residence, he could enjoy a cup of tea in the morning while admiring the view of shivering underclassmen in line outside for the showers. We enjoyed his tour, and contributed to his next night of revelry as a thank you.
[Ralph: I forget the name of this building, but I remember Michael talking about the Italian architecture. He was quite apologetic about the fact that it was forbidden to visitors, and went into careful precise detail about which entrances it was forbidden to enter without probable detection.
Video of a fascinating “Sphere within Sphere” sculpture on the Trinity Campus: https://flic.kr/p/hWXwUg]
After the tour, we went on to the Book of Kells exhibit and the college’s original library, called the Long Room. The exhibit is wonderful, and includes many wall-sized pages from the book as it tells the story of the Book of Kells. You then go into a special viewing room and view two pages (in a glass case, of course) from the Book of Kells and two from another book of the same period. [Ralph: No pictures allowed, unfortunately.]
We then entered the breathtaking Long Room. It is simply one long, high-ceilinged room with balcony upon balcony of bookshelves and an amazing collection of books. Our guide for this room explained that the books are arranged by size, and a librarian finds and fetches any book you want to peruse.
In the center of the room, they have a great exhibit on the art and science of book preservation.
You also see the Harp of Brian Boru in a glass case in the middle of the library. Trinity College, The Book of Kells, and The Long Room really are worth seeing if you’re in Dublin.
We still had some time, so we made our way to National Museum of Ireland: Archaeology.
This museum has great exhibits of archeological finds in Ireland over the years. Two bog bodies are on display: Oldcroghan Man and Clonycavan Man. Both have well-detailed exhibits that help you to understand what you’re seeing and the time period the body was from. Fascinating, though the tiniest bit creepy. We also visited the stunning Hall of Treasures, where we saw famous pieces like the Tara Broach and the Chalice of Armagh, and many other dazzling examples of Celtic craftsmanship and art. [Ralph: I expected the Tara Broach to be beautiful, but I was surprised by how big and deadly it is. It would be totally reasonable to prohibit bringing this on a plane.]
The tiny, intricate panels of knotwork on the Chalice of Armagh really fascinated me. I just marveled imagining the work and art it took to create them.
We wished we had more time for this and other museums, but our time in Dublin was short (maybe too short), and we arrived about 45 minutes before their closing time.
We had some time on our hands between the museum’s closing and our evening event, so we went shopping in the Kilkenny shop. The Kilkenny shops pride themselves on offering high-end Irish crafts and artwork, along with some higher-end tourist merchandise. As we were looking around, we suddenly heard a woman screaming “you’re hurting me!” She was being subdued by security. She had been stealing things, and when confronted by security she pulled a pair of scissors out of her bag and got violent. Store security and the Garda (police) handled it, and no people were hurt, though she did smash some china and/or glassware. It was an unsettling experience for shoppers and staff alike. We did buy some crystal there, and enjoyed looking at the many beautiful things they sold.
For the evening’s entertainment, we went to Food, Folk, and Fairies at the Brazen Head, which is one of the oldest pubs in Ireland, dating back to the Middle Ages. We had high hopes for this event, which would feature a storyteller, live music, and dinner. [Ralph: I really wanted to experience some Irish storytelling on this trip, but the only storytelling we found was this very tourist-oriented one.]
Our storyteller was wonderful. In the “first act,” she talked about the food history of Ireland, mostly about the potato. [Ralph: I particularly remember the detail that farmers would leave one thumbnail very long for peeling potatoes.] The “second act” featured fairy lore and a few stories of the fair folk. She was engaging, warm and humorous, and she had a lovely soprano singing voice. All in all, she was excellent, and our only complaint about her is we wanted to hear more!
[Ralph: a snippet of video from her storytelling: https://flic.kr/p/hWXaW5]
Unfortunately, the food was not that great. It definitely had the feel of food prepared en masse for a banquet. Also, it is a large event (there were at least two tour busses helping to fill the sixty-some chairs in the room), and service was a bit quick and indifferent. I had fish cakes for an appetizer, bacon and cabbage for a main dish, and apple pie for dessert. Ralph had the same appetizer and dessert, but tried the beef and Guinness for his main dish. None of our food was bad, it just wasn’t very good, and it felt a little mass-produced.
There was a pair of musicians to play during our dinner. They did an assortment of pub standards that are Irish, but probably have more of a life with American tourists these days. They were fine, but we got the impression they were a bit bored with this gig (understandable) and not giving it their all. In fact, we were pretty sure one of them was singing “blah, blah, blah” instead of the lyrics on “I’ll Tell My Ma.” Honestly, since the storytelling is pretty authentic, I think they should have traditional Irish music instead of the ballads. But, that’s just my opinion. The ballads are probably what a lot of their audience wants to hear.
After the event was done, we were wiped out. We hailed a cab and went back to our hotel. Another couple was chatting with the concierge and he was about to make them some Irish coffee, so he offered us some too. This probably killed two birds with one stone for him - he suggested we go into the sitting room, appeared shortly after with a tray of drinks for us, and then went back to his post at the desk. So, he made us happy with boozy coffees, and he handed the chatty couple off to us. We enjoyed talking with them while we sipped our coffees, then went up to bed.
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|Sunday, April 6th, 2014|
11:32 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 28: Dublin tour, Hurling
Saturday began with our first encounter with the full Irish breakfast. Clockwise from the top, there’s fried eggs, the British Isles sausage called ‘bangers’, sautéed mushrooms, Irish bacon, and white and black pudding, with tomato slices in the center. I wasn’t totally charmed by the Irish fry; the fried eggs were over-fried for my taste. The black pudding tasted very strongly of blood to me - in fact, it tasted more strongly of blood than a bleeding lip does. But the Irish bacon was very good - everywhere we went in Ireland, we had good bacon and good bread.|
We were delayed getting off because of a work issue that came up. I had planned our trip to be just after a big crunch at work, but the work schedule slipped a bit so that the big crunch happened while we were gone. My coworkers did a laudable job of shielding me from having to think about work while I was on vacation, but on this day an issue came up that really required my attention. I was able to do most of what I needed to do with a a work laptop that I had brought. I would have liked to do more, but the hotel’s WiFi kept dropping out in a way that prevented me from downloading what I needed. (Barely functional WiFi was the rule in our travels. Every hotel and B&B had WiFi, but it was rarely any good.) But I was able to send my co-workers enough information to guide them on the right path.
Very late in the morning, we sallied forth and got on a hop-on-hop-off bus tour. After learning about Kilmainhaim Jail, the Jameson’s Distillery, and the the Guinness brewery, we got off near the Ha'penny Bridge for sightseeing and lunch.
We stopped for lunch at a little restaurant called Bakehouse because it looked cute. We got a really tasty meal.
I ordered the Dublin Coddle because I've enjoyed it in the US and because it had “Dublin” in the name. What I’ve had in the US has been a thick creamy stew, but this was a much thinner soup with bacon and vegetables - but it was delicious and the brown bread that accompanied it was wonderful.
Lori got a ham and cheese sandwich, which was really good. But the star of her meal was the house made chips with cheese and onion. All the crisps we had in Ireland were extraordinarily tasty, as good as any potato chips I’ve had in the US - but we only had them a few times, so I don’t think we have a large enough sample to claim that there’s a general Irish excellence with potato crisps.
The bakery case was full of beautiful baked goods, but the lemon muffin and Bakewell tart we chose for dessert was not nearly as special as our entrees.
Bakehouse was just a few yards from the Ha’penny Bridge.
We got back on the bus tour. The Post Office is pocked with shrapnel from the fighting in 1916.
The Millennium Spire is widely referred to as “The Stiffy on the Liffey”.
The bus was moving very slowly, though, because the streets were packed with hurling fans heading towards the stadium. There were apparently eighty thousand fans crowding Dublin for this hurling match. The red shirts identify these fans as supporting Cork.
I had been interested in hurling even before we came to Ireland, but we weren’t interested enough to pay hundreds of euros to attend a sport we’d never seen. I decided that the hurling experience I wanted was to watch the game at a sports bar, where the game was showing on TV and fans would tell us when to cheer. But we also had plans for a Musical Pub Crawl later, so we were looking for a place near the starting pub for that. We did not quite achieve our goals; we found a pub where the match was showing on TV, but there weren’t fans watching; the guys in front of the TV were playing poker instead of watching. Without fans in the bar to provide a team to root for, we chose to root for County Clare on the flimsy basis that we were spending more time on our trip in Clare than in Cork.
Hurling is an awesome sport. My summary of the rules based on watching one game without explanation:
- Each player has a hurling stick called a hurley. If you think of a flat spoon about the size of a man’s forearm, you’ll be in the ballpark for what a hurley looks like.
- The ball is a leather-wrapped wooden ball about the size of a baseball.
- A player can take only a few steps while holding the ball; going farther than that involves bouncing it on the hurley while running full speed.
- There’s a goal at either end of the field. Getting the ball through the goal at a low enough level that the goalie could conceivably block it scores three points. Getting the ball between the uprights above the bar scores one point.
- That’s most of the rules; have at it, lads.
It was a very fast, dynamic game. The ball travels at up to 90mph, and the players were running up and down the field all the time. And it was a very exciting game - as balanced as you would expect from two teams who had tied the previous weekend. Clare took an early lead, but Cork managed to tie the game twice before Clare eked out a narrow victory at the end.
I really liked hurling, and I would watch it in the US if I had an opportunity.
We ate dinner in Gogarty’s, the pub where the pub crawl would start. Lori’s chicken and ale pie was not very good, with a very tough crust. My fish cakes were pretty good.
The Musical Pub Crawl is certainly an experience for tourists, but it tries to go a bit deeper with some explanation of what it’s like for real musicians playing in a session for themselves, instead of playing hoary standards for tourists. Plus drinking in pubs. It was that last bit that marred the experience on this night. The pubs were all full of hurling fans and unwilling to reserve a room for the Musical Pub Crawl, so the Pub Crawl visited only two pubs, and they were separated by a very long walk that made us fear that we might fall so far behind the rest of the group that we lost track of them. But we liked the explanations and examples of the music; the main thing I remember is that reels are in 4/4 time (counted as “cat-er-pill-ar, cat-er-pill-ar” for young musicians) and jigs are in 6/8 (counted as “rashers and sausages, rashers and sausages”).
Eight seconds of video from the Musical Pub Crawl: https://flic.kr/p/hWWwxD
We got a cab ride to our hotel after the last pub on the crawl, with a cabbie who waxed profusely about the hurling match and his own experiences with hurling and boxing in his time in the army. He was the one who told us how fast the ball travels, and pointed out that all the team members were amateurs - in fact, school teachers are favored for hurling because summer vacations give them extra time to practice.
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|Wednesday, March 26th, 2014|
10:35 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 27: Dublin
Our morning was spent in traveling to the airport and flying to Ireland. It was all uneventful, but we had to walk on and on through Heathrow.|
The driver of our cab ride into Dublin was a white-haired man who was wonderfully chatty. He told us a lot about Dublin. He mentioned that we would see lots of Eastern European women holding babies and begging for money, and told us that was a scam.
He also told us about the hurling finals happening this weekend. Our plans for Dublin had not included hurling, because the finals had been scheduled for the previous weekend. But that match had ended in a tie, so they were playing it again our weekend. We resolved to try to watch the game from a pub.
We checked into our B&B in the early afternoon, and then walked towards downtown to find food and tourism.
We walked through St. Stephen’s Green, a lovely park.
We ate lunch at the Bewley’s on Grafton Street. Bewley’s is a large coffee company, but the Grafton Street location has been a renowned Dublin cafe since 1927. It’s a very pretty place, with beautiful stained glass windows.
I had a roast beef sandwich, and Lori had a ham and cheese toastie. (A toastie is a sandwich served on toast - but not heated in a way that would melt the cheese within.) The sandwiches were good, but the housemade crisps were really excellent.
Dessert was a beautiful tasty sticky toffee pudding. It was a tough choice, though, because there were lots of pretty desserts available.
We wandered around the Grafton Street area looking at the fancy shops (and buying a short-term SIM for my phone).
The buskers were worth watching. These sand sculptures were amazing.
We also saw a curious group of living sculptures. Unfortunately, Flickr is no longer letting me embed our video of what happened when I put a Euro in their cup: https://flic.kr/p/hWWyvf
The tourist information centre was in a historic former church, so it was a very impressive tourist information centre:
An entertaining but misleading sign:
I was interested in finding some sort of Irish dance event while we were in Ireland, and I thought that Dublin would have better chances for it than smaller towns. We found the Museum of Irish Dance, which was advertising a show called Jig the Story of Irish Dance - but the museum was closed by the time we found it, and there was no show that night. I regret missing it - it sounds like an interesting show.
But we had a flyer for a dance show at the Arlington Hotel, so we ambled over there.
The room was clearly set up as a dance-audience space, with tables raised so that every seat had a view of the stage. The decor was fairly minimal, with Celtic designs painted in fluorescent paint; we feared that it might be really cheesy tourist junk.
It was certainly very tourist-focused, but the food and the entertainment was really excellent. This exemplifies the good side of being touristy; tourist-oriented can mean a curated experience showcasing the best of a place.
My appetizer included fresh salmon mousse rolled in smoked salmon.
Lori’s potato-leek soup was very good.
My entree was Irish stew, and it was really splendid. I have not generally cared for lamb, but the lamb in this stew had a gentle, sumptuous lamb flavor that was much better than any lamb I’ve had before.
Lori ordered the beef and Guinness casserole. When we ordered, the waitress took care to explain that ‘casserole’ meant something different in Ireland than in the USA; in Ireland, a casserole was a piece of meat braised and then finished on the grill. So this was more similar to a pot roast than a hot dish - but it too was very tasty with deep mellow flavors.
I made sure to have a Guinness, of course. I would like to say that I noticed the difference in taste between Guinness in Dublin and Guinness in the USA, but my palate is coarse and I did not identify a difference.
The desserts were tasty but not the best part of the meal.
The meal was followed by the music and dancing. The music came from a band called Púca. Lori says “they played everything that I would hope to hear at Mullaney’s [an Irish bar in Pittsburgh] on a good night. It was clearly Irish music for Americans, but they played very well and very energetically.” And the dancers were super skilled and super energetic.
I recorded snippets of video to try to capture the spirit of the music and dance, but Flickr is not cooperating with my embedding.
One of the last dances was a broom dance, which I had never heard of: https://flic.kr/p/hWXhxk
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|Monday, March 3rd, 2014|
7:10 pm - RPGs of my past
Two years ago, we packed up most of our books and took them to the attic. Now we have our library, and those books have come down from the attic. So this is a great time for me to get rid of old RPG books, of which I have a vast collection - and I'm having trouble deciding what to keep and what to pitch.|
I find myself looking for a general principle of what to keep and what to pitch, and I'm not sure there is one.
Some things are straightforward:
- I'm getting rid of most of my D&D books, except for the three basic books. I don't expect to ever play D&D again; it's not what I want in an RPG now. I'm happy to keep a few books as souvenirs of the campaign I ran in the early 2000s. But I have a lot of splatbooks that are just collections of feats, and I mostly didn't care about those even at the time. (I wonder who those were written for; they weren't very helpful to me when I was playing.)
- I'm keeping Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, because that's something I expect to be able to use in any game I play.
Other things are more uncertain. By and large these are things I played once (or wanted to play once upon a time), but don't expect to play in the future. My circumstances have changed; my roleplaying will probably be occasional at best, so for actual play I look for RPGs that are so streamlined that it's possible to play a complete story in a few hours.
Some games for which I have collections and no expectation of playing:
- Exalted. I loved the "mythic heroes" aspect of the game, but I never played. I even bought blank D10s with a plan of making dice rolling easier. I have several books.
- Over the Edge. I liked the surreal setting and the flexibility of the system, but I've never been improvisational enough to play that well. I have several books.
- Unknown Armies. Another fascinating setting of the occult underground, another game I would have trouble running or finding players for. I have a handful of books.
- Mage / Vampire / World of Darkness. I never actually played these when they were cool. But when I pick them up, I remember the friends who recommended them and why.
- Feng Shui. Fun action movie setting, system has good points and crippling flaws. But I actually ran one adventure with this and we had fun. I have several books.
- Buffy. I liked the way it tried to balance Heroes and White Hats, and I liked the show. I've got a few books, and I'll probably keep them.
- Castle Falkenstein. I liked the magical-steampunk setting, and I've even played in a Falkenstein LARP or two. I've got six books, which means a complete collection.
- Toon. I've had a few good games of Toon in decades past. It's a simple system, but not actually well-suited to modeling the cartoons that it claims to model. It works better as a less-complicated GURPS. I'll probably keep these.
- GURPS. I did a whole lot of demoing games for Steve Jackson Games in the late 90s, and as such I have a nearly complete set of sourcebooks for GURPS 3rd Edition. But GURPS 4th Edition is ten years old. (GURPS 4th is the system my friends are most likely to play, and I'm likely to keep my few GURPS 4th books.) The sourcebooks would be pretty easy to adapt to GURPS 4th; the rules didn't change that much, and the books are much more focused on history and scholarly treatments world detail than, say, D&D splatbooks. But the books tend to be dry as toast. Purging GURPS books is probably my biggest opportunity for regaining shelf space, but I was happy with my collection once and feel a twinge of angst when I think about getting rid of them.
(If you're interested in any of these, let me know. I'd be more inclined to part with a collection that I knew someone else wanted.)
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|Sunday, March 2nd, 2014|
5:27 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 26: Ladurée, Shakespeare's Globe
On our last full day in England, we decided to take the hop-on-hop-off bus tour that we had meant to take on the day we arrived. Perhaps we hadn’t planned well enough, but things just didn’t gel that well this day; it took us longer than we expected to get to the tour, longer than expected for the tour to begin, and longer than expected to get from place to place on the bus.|
We did get off at Buckingham Palace, but there was a long line and we were running late. We did not tour the palace, but only visited the gift shop.
After that, we decided to try another attempt to find a lovely tea. Since Fortnum & Mason had been such a disappointment, for this try we went to Harrod’s.
Harrod’s actually looked really nifty inside - I wish we had had more time to spend there.
A Harrod’s staff member recommended Ladurée, a French tearoom in a back corner of Harrod’s. (I do not know what the difference is between an English tearoom and a French tearoom.) It was an outstanding experience, and everything we had hoped a luxurious English tea would be.
Ladurée offered a selection of 17 different teas, which is much more variety than I am really qualified to handle. So we went with my usual fallback, which is to choose the specialty of the house: Thé Mélange Spécial Ladurée, "Delicate composition of black teas from China and Sri Lanka and rose petals, with aromas of orange, bergamot, blackcurrant, vanilla, cinnamon and caramel”.
Most of those subtleties were lost on me, but the tea was really excellent.
(We were asked not to take pictures in Ladurée, and I almost complied. But I did take surreptitious pictures of the things at our table.)
I didn’t take notes on what we chose for food with our tea, but I’m able to reconstruct our selection: the menu is online, and because the menu involved a choice of two items out of four in each of three categories, we ordered two teas with one of everything. From top to bottom, we had these:
Finger sandwiches: smoked salmon; ham; cheese; and vegetables. I dimly remember that one of these was especially good, but I can’t recall which.
Viennoiseries: plain croissant; chocolate pistachio croissant; chocolate croissant; and sugar brioche. These were all really light and delicate and so good.
Pastries: the pastries were so special that they deserve to be broken out into a special list:
Ispahan: I had never heard of ispahan before. The menu description is “Smooth rose flavoured macaron biscuit, rose petal cream, fresh raspberries and lychees”. It was very intensely rose flavored, and simply exquisite.
Tarte passion framboises: I don’t know French, but I could figure out what this one was. This was probably my personal favorite: the flavors were incredibly intense.
Elysées: "Success cocoa biscuit, crispy praline, thin crispy chocolate from Madagascar leaves, smooth chocolate cream, zabaglione chocolate mousse, chocolate and cocoa biscuit moistened cocoa syrup"
Plaisir sucré: "Hazelnut meringue sandwich cake with crushed Piedmont hazelnuts, crusty praline, thin milk chocolate leaves, Chantilly cream and milk chocolate filling”
There were too many flavors of macarons for us to sample them all, but they were so so good.
Tea at Ladurée was so wonderful that we couldn’t help but linger to enjoy everything. We then planned to take the tour bus over to Shakespeare’s Globe, but the tour bus was slow and it didn’t come very close to the Globe; we had to get out at St. Paul’s Cathedral and walk across the Thames. We ended up being too late to see the exhibition at the Globe that we had prepaid to see. (The exhibition tickets were good for a month; we gave them to the proprietor of our inn with the hope that he could find someone else who would use them.)
Shakespeare’s Globe is a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre that William Shakespeare performed in for much of his career. (With accommodations: electric lights, flush toilets, modern fire safety codes. But it has the only thatched roof built in London since the Great Fire of 1666.)
We chose to watch our play in the manner of Elizabethan gentry: we paid for seats instead of standing in the center with the groundlings. I even splurged to rent cushions for the benches, and I rented a blanket after realizing it was a chill evening.
We saw Macbeth. (Lori’s dream had been to attend a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because she had played Titania in college, but the performance schedule dictated Macbeth.) It was a really excellent performance, both as a historical recreation and as a modern staging. I’ve sometimes had trouble following all the action of Macbeth as it flips from scene to scene, but this production made things very clear to me.
Historicities I did not know about: It began with the whole cast drumming together, and it ended with the whole cast joining in a final dance.
The three witches were especially noteworthy: they started dressed as apparent villagers, but stripped down to undergarments in their first scene, and then progressed to seem even more wild and otherworldly later in the play. I think they might have been dancers as well as actresses - they used a lot of weird postures and movements. The only “witch makeup” they used was a powdery white makeup that was applied onstage at one point.
Billy Boyd (who was in the “Lord of the Rings” movies) played Banquo, and he was excellent. It made us smile that they worked in a chance for him to sing, and he really was scary as his own ghost. Another interesting note: the only “ghost” additions to his appearance were stage blood, and maybe a paler base makeup. He provided the scary vibe with his facial expressions and movements. All of the actors and actresses were excellent, Boyd stood out to us because, well, we did recognize his name.
The stagecraft was notable in its simplicity. The stage was lit with standard electric lighting, but there were no special lighting effects. They didn’t go out between scenes, and all this helped preserve the historical feel of the play. There were some striking effects, my favorite was at the end of Act I, when Macbeth becomes king. Unseen to most of the audience, the three witches climbed posts in the theater and scattered red rose petals on the stage. They managed to be both celebratory petals for the king, but against the simple, stark white walls of the set, they also resembled drops of blood. Well played, Globe Theater, well played.
I have to say, I expected the play at the Globe to be good, but it really was a notch above most theater I’ve seen in several ways, while keeping to a simplistic aesthetic. It was everything I’d hoped it would be and more…and it is the first time I’ve truly enjoyed “Macbeth.”
We were very hungry after the show, because our tea had been our only food since breakfast. Proximity led us to eat at the Swan at the Globe. My roast pork and Lori’s roast chicken were both delicious.
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|Friday, February 21st, 2014|
10:07 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 25: Cotswolds, Oxford, The Light Princess
On Wednesday, September 25, we took a day trip with London Walks to the Cotswolds and Oxford and it was lovely.|
Joining the trip was a little bit worrisome. We were moving slowly because of Lori’s hurting feet, and the Underground was packed so tightly with morning commuters that once or twice we had to wait for the next train because we couldn’t see a way to fit into the train in front of us. We arrived at the tour group late enough for the guide to chide us for being late, but not so late that we couldn’t dash to an ATM to get cash for the trip, nor so late that no others joined the tour, even after we returned from the ATM.
We took the train out to Oxford, then took a bus to the cute little town of Minster Lovell. Even the Old Swan pub (and boutique hotel) where the bus parked was ridiculously photogenic.
It’s actually something of a problem for these towns to be so charming. Because they have so much quaint-English-countryside charm, many of the houses are purchased as vacation homes by rich Londoners - and that means that the owners aren’t sending their kids to school or getting their cars fixed in town or otherwise participating in the local community. Minster Lovell, for example, no longer has a school of its own.
Of course, we weren’t really engaging with the community ourselves as tourists. We were going gaga over the fact that there are actually houses with real thatched roofs. It’s gotten very hard to find folks with the skills to do thatched roofs well, but it’s well-made and covered in chicken wire to keep out birds, a thatched roof can last for fifty years.
Some more random pictures of pretty houses:
We walked a block or two and looked at St. Kenelm’s Church. (I don’t remember the legend of St. Kenelm as the tour guide told it, but the Wikipedia article is fascinating reading, though Kenelm didn’t do much in life before being killed by his sister and her lover.) The church was originally founded in 1183, but it was rebuilt in the 15th century.
Just beyond the church was the ruins of Lovell Hall, which dates from the 15th century.
This was our first encounter with the fact that England (and Ireland) has so many ruins that they are not all restricted. Lovell Hall dates from the 15th century… but there are no fences or guards or guides, and the posted hours are “Any reasonable time”. I can’t think of anything half as old in the US that isn’t restricted.
We tend not to take many pictures of ourselves; we take more pictures of the things we see. But Lori’s mother oohs and aahs most about the pictures of us. So we’ve been trying to take more pictures that include us. So consider this our token proof that it was really us at Lovell Hall:
I know I’m getting spammy with the pictures of Lovell Hall, but we really found it fascinating and beautiful to have these old ruins so open to the public.
A panorama of Lovell Hall:
The weather in Minster Lovell was a soft mist that made all the greens of fields and trees look even greener.
This was the tenting field, where cloth was once stretched on tenterhooks. I’d previously gone decades without using the word ‘tenterhooks’ literally.
As we walked along the fields, I spotted other folks eating blackberries off the bushes. I took one for myself, but when I offered Lori one, she declined because it was too natural for her and she feared they might make us sick. Her loss, I said - mine was so ripe and so sweet and so good.
We took the bus from Minster Lovell to the slightly larger town of Burford, where we were given some time to split up for sightseeing, shopping, and lunch. We really meant to see the recommended sights, but our actions gave priority to the other two of those three. We stopped for a pub lunch at the Cotswold Arms, a pretty pub with an indoor courtyard.
There was one thing on the specials board that seemed particularly traditionally English to me.
My steak and kidney suet pudding was the second time in my life that I have encountered food that was recognizably delicious but not to my taste. It was very rich and tasty… but I don’t eat many organ meats, and halfway through the pudding it quite suddenly became too, well, organ-ic for me to continue.
Lori took a safer tack with fish and chips. It also was a very generous portion.
Even though we didn’t finish our entrees, Lori was eager to try the bread and butter pudding with custard. This was very good and very rich.
We lingered over our lunch long enough that we missed the sights of Burford and had only a little time to see a few shops that Lori considered absolutely essential.
We boarded the bus again to go off to Oxford. I took pictures from the window because it looked so much like my stereotype of rural English countryside. There were even old hedgerows.
I wish I had taken more notes on what we saw in Oxford, because I have so many of these photos for which I remember little bits at best, but the pictures look so Oxonian:
I don’t remember the identity of this monument in Oxford, but I remember the joke: apparently local students tell tourists that this is the steeple of a submerged church.
Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs:
The Bodleian Library is one of the places I’ve read about in books.
The Radcliffe Camera. Sadly, we didn’t get to go inside.
We got to tour one of the colleges of Oxford, Brasenose College (because the students and faculty weren’t present at the moment). It’s semi-modern, founded in 1509.
The dining hall was gorgeous; it reminded me of Harry Potter.
The chapel was also stunning.
Brasenose also has a portrait and a handprint of The Childe of Hale, a 9-foot tall giant who made a living as a bodyguard and exhibiting himself for money.
There was some free time in Oxford after the tour; we got tea in The White Horse, a pub in a building that dates back to the 16th century. Better than many of the pubs we’ve dined at in London, really.
One last picture from our walk back to the bus:
We paused in the train station long enough to get a picture of Paddington Bear, the most famous character named after Paddington Station.
We were cutting it a bit close, though, because we had theatre tickets that evening to see The Light Princess at the National Theatre. (I am yielding to local spelling there.)
London’s West End is as famous for theatre as Broadway is in New York. (It was fascinating to see so many posters for theatre productions in the subways.) And Lori was keen to see a show while we were there. I figured that if we were going to see a show in London, we might as well see a distinctively London show, something that would be the London equivalent of 42nd Street or Guys and Dolls. But we couldn’t identify any show that was so distinctively London that was playing while we were there. So we took a different approach for a distinctively London musical: we decided to see a musical that was opening in London and had not yet made its way to the US. And that led us to try on another hat in our grand experimentation with our roles as travelers, and find out whether we wanted to be the sort of people who would enjoy seeing a theatrical premiere.
The down side: we scrambled to get to the theatre to be sure that we would be on time. And we were tired from a day of walking, and didn’t see anything to eat on our walk to the theatre. So this night’s dinner came from the snack bar at the theatre, demonstrating that (a) egg and cress sandwiches are indeed to be found in England, and (b) an egg and cress sandwich from a theatre snack bar is a pretty sad dining experience.
The Light Princess was pretty good, but not as stunning as I had hoped. The special effects of the gravity-less princess were well done. The songs were pretty good but not good enough to make me crave the soundtrack album - though they did get better in the second act. The biggest disappointment was that all week, we had been seeing these stunningly gorgeous posters for The Light Princess in the Underground (and felt a thrill of “we’re going to see that!” every time), and the show itself had no moment as dazzling as the poster.
Afterwards, we wandered through the Embankment looking for more food, and came across a crowd dancing on the bank of the Thames. We thought that it might be a flash mob of some sort, but when we talked to them, it turned out that they were just theatre students partying. (These snippets of video are very short, and well worth a glance.)
They weren't all students, though; the guys in the foreground of this snippet were just blokes who had walked past on the way from the pub and decided to join in. This was definitely a better class of drunken revelry than we are used to.
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|Thursday, February 6th, 2014|
10:58 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 24: Tower of London, Fortnum and Mason, The Empress
Tuesday in London began with a trip to the Tower of London. One of my misconceptions was already dispelled by seeing it on Sunday: I had thought that the Tower of London would be much taller in proportion to its width.|
One of the particularly fascinating bits of the Tower of London was the Beefeaters themselves. They are members of the armed forces, only eligible to become Beefeaters after twenty-two years of distinguished service. (There’s a lot of competition for the positions, also - our guide mentioned that there were 80 candidates applying for the most recent position.) So this guy who gave us our tour probably served in Afghanistan or Iraq in Bosnia (presumably in a different uniform). And if his service was more than usually distinguished, there’s a good chance that he saw combat then. It must be quite a transition to go from a life of combat-readiness to a life of guiding tours.
We took the extra tour to see the Crown Jewels, and it was well worth it. The United States really has nothing like them (which might be a virtue). They are well-presented, with a lot of historical context - and a moving walkway to keep people from gawking too long. Since they didn’t allow pictures, we ended up buying a book about the Crown Jewels.
As we were preparing to leave, we happened across an interactive drama happening in one corner of the Tower Grounds. A counterfeiter was being investigated, and eventually convicted and hanged. I’ve forgotten the name of the counterfeiter, but the Warden of the Mint who was investigating the crime was someone I’d heard of: Isaac Newton. Apparently he was given the job as a sinecure after his advances in physics - but he took the job very seriously and did an excellent job, including the Great Recoinage of 1696.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious: the Tower Bridge is so named because it’s close to the Tower of London.
Our other goal for the day was to get a nice English tea. I had formed a notion that the place to go for an excellent English tea was Fortnum & Mason. We got there and asked about tea - and we got horribly snubbed. The hostess at Fortnum & Mason made it very clear that we were not smartly dressed enough to be allowed into any but the least fancy of Fortnum & Mason’s tearooms, named the Parlour. (I looked for a t-shirt that said, “I got snubbed at Fortnum & Mason”, but did not find one.)
Tea at the Parlour was fairly nice, but the circumstances made it very easy to find fault. Service was really extremely slow and indifferent. And the only option for an afternoon tea came with mini ice cream cakes - which meant that you couldn’t linger without the ice cream cakes getting melty. The whole experience made us extremely cranky.
When we made it back to the inn, we were tired and grumpy - and, we realized, hungry, because scones and ice cream cake was all we’d had between breakfast and dinner. Julian the innkeeper recommended his favorite Indian restaurant, The Empress. (Although we thought that “just a few blocks” meant two or three, and our feet were hurting after six or seven.)
The Empress was a lovely dining experience. Our first sign that this was something special came when we were ordering. Lori ordered a korma (because she is very spice-averse) and the waiter murmured “that’s not very authentic”. Some diners might find this annoying. I can well believe that I would find it annoying sometimes. But for us then, it was a lovely thing to have a waiter who would make strong recommendations about the food. We got into a lengthy conversation with the waiter, and we followed his recommendations, and we had a great time.
After some discussion about whether the “exotic spices” mentioned in the description would be too fierce for Lori, she settled on the Murgh Banarashi, a dish that I’ve never heard of in the USA. The most recognizable taste was pineapple, but there were a bunch of spices that I couldn’t identify. It was really tasty, though, with clear bright flavors - one of Lori’s favorite Indian restaurant experiences.
I ordered the Indian Shepherd’s Pie. The waiter didn’t say anything about it being inauthentic. I hope that he didn’t think I was too irredeemable to discuss authenticity with. But what I was really looking for was authenticity of a different sort: I wanted food from a British-Indian tradition. I’ve read British authors talk about Indian food as a normal part of their life (for example, Terry Pratchett’s Death says “I could murder a curry” in one of his first appearances, and Lister in Red Dwarf is a fan of vindaloo), and I wanted to taste Indian food that would be familiar to a Briton
I haven’t read a reference to an Indian shepherd’s pie, but I think I achieved my goal. It was a shepherd’s pie, with sauced ground lamb and peas topped with mashed potatoes and cheese, but it was all seasoned with Indian flavors and it was really tasty.
Between dinner and dessert, they brought us plastic tubes that were warm to the touch. We asked what they were: they contained heated moist towels for our hands. How refreshing!
We had a good conversation with the waiter about where he was from and what foods he missed from home. Sadly, although I remember that he was from Bangladesh, I don’t remember what foods he missed. I do remember that we chose our dessert because he said that it was a particular favorite of his. The dessert was shemai, another dish I’ve never encountered in the USA; the description said “Traditional Bengali dessert made with vermicelli, ghee, raisins, milk, sugar, and nuts”. My best analogy is that it was like a rice pudding thinned with milk and cream - it was very tasty.
The menu of after-dinner drinks includes Chili Naga Vodka. “Drink at your own risk; very very hot.” I didn’t try it.
We had a splendid time at The Empress. It was one of the best meals we had in London, and one of the best Indian meals we’ve had.
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|Sunday, January 26th, 2014|
12:03 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 23: Sherlock Holmes, British Museum, Winchester
Monday morning was a particular experiment in what sort of tourists we want to be. We got a private guide for a Sherlock Holmes tour.|
We had not originally planned to do it this way. But I felt that a necessary part of our London experience was a detective tour, and I had assumed that detective tours would be abundantly available. But after I had bought tickets to fly to Ireland on Friday afternoon, I discovered that the only tour I could find was on Friday afternoon. So we paid the cost of a whole group, more or less, to get a private walking tour.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken notes, because I look back across the pictures I took and I can’t remember much of the significance of the shots.
We met at the Criterion restaurant, where Dr. Watson first met Stamford, who introduced Watson to Sherlock Holmes. This had a double significance for us, because the Criterion had also been the setting of a significant scene in the episode of Downton Abbey we had seen the previous evening.
This row included several Gentlemen’s Clubs, and probably would have included Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes Club if it had actually existed. The Athenaeum is at the left; the dark brown building at the right is the Reform Club, of particular significance in Around the World in Eighty Days
This had once been the German Embassy, which played a particular role in “His Last Bow”...
… and this little side door to the embassy received special mention in that story.
Scotland Yard of course appears in the Holmes stories many times.
Our tour included a stop at the Sherlock Holmes Pub, which was decorated with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.
The upstairs of the Sherlock Holmes pub has a careful recreation of Holmes’ and Watson’s rooms in Baker Street.
We ended our tour in Covent Garden, mentioned as the place where the goose was bought in “The Blue Carbuncle”. Our guide explained that there had never been that sort of market here, and speculated that this was Arthur Conan Doyle engaging in the wild tomfoolery traditional to a Victorian Christmas story.
So here’s the question of this big experiment: was this private tour worth it? On the one hand, it was definitely a better tour experience - we never had trouble hearing Richard, and we felt well able to ask all the questions we wanted. But I didn’t feel much sense of “wow” during the tour, either the excitement of seeing a site that had a prominent role in the book or the excitement of feeling that Richard was really giving us a customized guide experience. And it was pricey enough that I wanted (reasonably or not) to get some “Wow”.
I still think that hiring a private guide might be a good thing under some circumstances; I’ve read many accounts of people saying it was the best travel decision they had made. But there are clearly other factors involved with making a private guide an awesome experience, and I’m not sure what they are.
We had a quick lunch at a pub in Covent Garden called the Cellar, which turned out to be owned by the same corporation that owned the Prospect of Whitby where we’d dined the previous night (and a great many other pubs). We had a sausage sampler and a cheese and pickle sandwich. I was surprised that the cheese in the sandwich was shredded cheese - I don’t think we encountered sliced cheese in all our vacation.
For the afternoon, we went on another walking tour, through the British Museum. We knew that a few hours would not be enough time to effectively scratch the surface of the British Museum, so we hoped that a tour would help us come closer to effectively scratching the surface. (Because I goofed, we went to the Museum instead of to the Underground station where the our gathered, but we managed to meet the tour at last.)
As we waited at the museum, Lori found a snack that became one of her favorites from the trip: millionaire shortbread, a tasty treat of shortbread topped with caramel and chocolate.
Unlike the Sherlock Holmes tour, the British Museum tour gave me a “Wow” moment right away with the Rosetta Stone. The content of the inscription on the Rosetta Stone is not terribly interesting, but the really exciting thing about it is that it was inscribed in three languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Ancient Greek was understood by scholars when it was discovered, but the other two languages were not, so the Rosetta Stone has been an essential clue to our modern understanding of Demotic and Hieroglyphics.
(One of the questions I’ve pondered about this: it took over 20 years to decipher the first Rosetta Stone; if we found an equivalent puzzle today, how long would it take us to decipher that with the Internet and computers and an improved understanding of linguistics?)
It turns out that the stele you can touch is not actually the real Rosetta stone; the real one is much better protected. I sheepishly admit that it didn’t have the same “Wow” effect for me.
This massive statue (and its twin in the same room) came from an Assyrian temple.
And some ancient guardsman scratched a game board into the base of one of them.
There was a fantastic bas-relief of an Assyrian lion hunt. I remember the tour guide explaining that although there were dogs and guards and beaters in the group, only the king was allowed to spear the lions.
From Assyria, we moved on to Ancient Greece, and the Elgin Mables, carted off to England by the agents of the Earl of Elgin. (Greece would like to have these pieces back.)
Once again, my notes have failed me. This might be the temple of Athena Nike, or it might be the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the tomb that gave us the word “Mausoleum”.
The staircase was decorated with Roman mosaics.
These pieces were parts Roman hoards found in Britain. In the words of the tour guide, “We may have to return the Marbles, but this is unquestionably ours.” I could have spent many hours in just the Roman area.
In fact, I went back afterward for more pictures:
The last room the guide took us to was the clock room. This ship automaton would proceed down a banquet table, hoist the sails, and fire the cannons.
Another amazing clock from that room.
I had particularly wanted to see the Sutton Hoo hoard, a fabulous hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasures from the sixth or seventh centuries, including a nearly complete ship burial. Unfortunately, the exhibit was under maintenance when we visited, but we were able to see this fabulous helmet (and a modern reconstruction):
I think we only managed to visit a tenth of the rooms of the British Museum in our afternoon - we could have spent a whole week just in the British Museum without seeing everything.
Our last plan of the evening was one more walking tour, “Westminster by Gaslight”. This was the worst evening of our whole trip. It wasn’t the fault of the tour, though. Our legs were really aching from the first two walking tours. I think that two walking tours in one day is our limit.
But worse, Lori’s phone got pickpocketed in the Westminster Underground station as we were waiting for the tour to start. She took out her phone to take a picture of Big Ben (much like this one taken with my phone):
As the tour began, she reached into her purse for it to take another photo, and discovered that the pocket where it belonged was unzipped. This was the first clue something was wrong… because she was fairly sure she’d zipped it back up. She then spent several frantic minutes searching her purse, but no phone.
We paid only meager attention to the tour of Westminster, and spent most of the time searching through her purse in hopes of finding it. This was too bad, as there was plenty of interesting history and architecture discussed.
The tour ended at the Houses of Parliament, so we asked a policeman guarding the gates how we should file a report. Instead of referring us elsewhere, Constable Ryan took our report himself. He was extremely pleasant and friendly; although he didn’t give us much hope of recovering her phone (we didn’t think there was anyway), he assured us repeatedly that we had not done anything wrong, and he had had his own wallet stolen nearby, “and I like to think I’m pretty aware”, and he hoped this would not give us a bad impression of London. He called us several times to inform us of the progress of the case. We could deal with the loss of the phone, but we most regret the loss of the pictures Lori had taken.
It was late by the time we were done with the report, and we were tired and hungry and upset. We could fix one of those, at least: we went to St. Stephen’s Pub, supposedly favored by members of Parliament.
This was the epitome of a dismal lesson about English pubs: a beautiful, well-maintained pub like this offers no guarantee of food to match the decor. Lori got a chicken and ham pie with no trace of ham, and I got ham and eggs prepared as if the cook had been been traumatized by an egg as a child and sworn eternal vengeance against all things ovate.
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|Sunday, January 12th, 2014|
11:51 pm - London and Ireland Trip, September 22: Camden, Southbank, Winchester
We started the day at Waterloo Station, because Lori’s friend Deb had come a couple of hours by train to show us around. We hadn’t realized that it was such a long trip for her, and we felt very touched she had come so far for us.|
We were happy to let her suggest an agenda, and she suggested Camden. (A bit of web searching has revealed to me that Camden may refer to either Camden Town or the larger London Borough of Camden which contains Camden Town. I think we were within Camden Town, but I’m not sure. I understand that London contains two cities, but that’s about the limit of my understanding of all the places within this conurbation.) We were also happy to have her guidance with the buses; although we figured out the Underground fairly easily, navigating by bus remained opaque to me throughout our trip.
The first part of Camden we visited was a mixture of open-air markets crammed with tightly packed stalls and shops with fabulous three-dimensional facades.
As we meandered towards Camden Locks (once a canal yard, now repurposed as a mall full of shops), we saw a town crier.
It was our second full day in England, and I was still enthusiastic for British food. So we stopped for lunch at a little place called Brit Break Cafe.
In the US, I’d expect a “sausage roll” to be a sausage in a bun, like an overgrown hot dog. So I was charmed by the novelty of a sausage roll being a sausage completely encased in pastry. Unfortunately, it was mediocre at best - the sausage seemed to have more bread crumbs than meat. I appreciated that Deb said it was only so-so by her standards.
The luncheon conversation with Deb also gave me some insights into British cuisine. She said that British food often was as bland as it’s stereotyped to be, but it’s accompanied by very flavorful sauces, like HP Brown Sauce. That was an eye-opener for me; I hadn’t thought about the role of the sauces in the cuisine.
As we were walking about Camden Market, we spotted a really exciting ice cream place: Chin-Chin Labs.
Chin-Chin Labs makes ice cream to order with liquid nitrogen. When you place your order, the guy measures your ingredients, fills a pitcher with liquid nitrogen, dumps it all in a mixer for a minute or two, and then hands you your ice cream. It has a thrilling feeling of mad science.
And Ahrash, the proprietor, was splendidly friendly and excited to talk about what he was doing. Even though the trappings had a mad-science vibe, he was as convivial as any Roadfood proprietor we’ve encountered.
But how’s the ice cream? Lori ordered the Pondicherry Vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce, and it was extraordinary. It had the texture of soft serve ice cream, but it was even more smooth and the flavors were really rich and vibrant.
I had planned not to get anything, but after sampling Lori’s, I had to get some of my own. I chose Black Raspberry Brandy Sorbet. (Ahrash asked me how much booze I wanted. I said “medium booze”; in retrospect, I should have asked for more brandy.) The texture on this was just amazing; it was much smoother than any other sorbet I’ve ever had.
As we were heading back to Waterloo, I took a peek in a pub called the World’s End (dating back to 1690). Their prohibitions on what could be brought in merited a photograph:
Near Waterloo, we happened across a street fair celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Konditor and Cook bakery. We were particularly excited about this, because this seemed like an event that was intended for Londoners as much as for tourists.
We are hardly ones to pass up free cake, so we sampled the Victoria Sponge. It was light and caky.
We had only been there for a few minutes when a cry went up that the meringue bobbing was about to begin. I’d never encountered meringue bobbing, and was keen to see what this was about. Large donut-shaped meringues were suspended by ribbons from a long string. Young children lined up underneath the meringues, and when the emcee (in a splendidly plumed top hat) gave the signal, they raced to try to free the meringue - but they were forbidden the use of their hands. It was particularly funny to see the children who were too small to reach the meringues by standing, so sought victory by leaping and biting the meringue in midair.
I was curious about the “Pie Wrestling” listed on the schedule, because I figured that I could probably take an average pie two falls out of three. But we didn’t see the pie wrestling before we left the festival, and this inflated kiddie pool puts some doubt on my interpretation.
From there we wandered over to Southbank (the south side of the Thames, popular as a tourist area and skate park). Deb had to leave us after a bit there, but we kept walking around.
There were buskers:
We next walked across London Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament.
A panorama from London Bridge:
It happened that the Tour of Britain bicycle race was coming through just about that time, and Westminster was thronged with spectators. I tried to catch a photo as the bikes came through, but was unsuccessful.
Lori admired this statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.
Just past Parliament Square is Westminster Abbey. I had seen pictures, but I had not previously grasped how really massive Westminster Abbey is. It really towers over the people near it in a very grand way.
Because it was Sunday, Westminster Abbey was not open for tours, but we were allowed to attend the events going on. We attended an organ recital (impressive how the organ filled the immense space, but we both dozed despite our best efforts) and evening services. We were struck by the tombs and monuments set into the walls and floors - particularly the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the entrance, surrounded by silk roses. (Pictures weren’t allowed)
Another architectural picture, of Methodist Central Hall. We learned later that this was the original meeting place of the United Nations.
Even though we’d had a chance to rest our legs a bit in Westminster, we were still weary from lots of walking, and Lori’s feet were hurting from her blister. We chose the Speaker for dinner because it was just a few blocks away, only to find that it was closed. The signs on the door made for interesting reading about the history of Parliament, though.
So we found a cab and asked the cabdriver for a recommendation for a pub. She suggested the Prospect of Whitby. We had a really fascinating conversation with the cabbie; she told us about the rigorous process of becoming a licensed cabbie. Cabbies have to be able to navigate anywhere in London without reference to map or GPS, and the examination involves being assigned a starting point and destination and describing the best route in minute detail. To study for this, prospective cabbies drive around the city on motor scooters taking notes on clipboards in front of them. She said it takes four years to understand London well enough to get a license.
(We learned recently that this is called ”The Knowledge”, and there’s even a movie about it.)
The cabbie said the Prospect of Whitby is London’s oldest pub. Signs inside the pub say it was patronized by Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys.
I got fish and chips with mushy peas; none of it was particularly good. But hey, I can say that I’ve tried them.
Lori got roast beef with vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. The vegetables were pretty good, but the beef was bland.
The summer berry pudding was much better:
We made it back to the hotel in time to watch half of the first episode of the season of Downton Abbey, which wouldn’t be available in the US until January.
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