Inverness: My Heart is in the Highlands

 

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J. Gray and Irn Bru

Yesterday (Sunday) was our day of rest. Our crew (Little, hubby and myself along with my brother and his delightful partner) met up with our buddies from Seattle, the Gray family. We slept in, figured out the castle, went grocery shopping in Aviemore, developed our Dungeon and Dragon characters (Shhhh!), planned for Thanksgiving and listened to the Seahawks beat the Eagles on the radio. I won’t consider it a day wasted as we needed to recharge and the sheep and castle provided plenty of company and culture. Also, Jason introduced us to Irn Bru, Scotland’s second most popular beverage.

 

Our goal today was a simple one: Loch Ness and Nellie. One of Little’s favorite movies is “The Waterhorse.” We planned on heading to Inverness first to have lunch with all of friends staying at the castle and then over to the Loch. Inverness is the biggest city nearby; about 30 miles away and has a wonderful foodie culture and lots of choices for our pescetarian-vegan-eat everything crew.

Inverness is a northern town in every way. It’s been a place of epic battles between local clans and invaders from Norway; capitol of the Pictish people, the place of Jacobite revolts and where Mary Queen of Scots was once denied access to the castle. It’s a cold, hard, proud and beautiful town, with the river Ness running through it. We checked out the Victorian Market but because of the time of year, many things were closed. Not the bagpipe store or the ghillie shirt shop (no, really.)

We sat down to lunch at a delightful Turkish place where the owner tried his best Jersey accent on us and told us that there were only three blocks to Inverness really, and nothing much to do there but shop. Since shopping isn’t really our thing, we decided to walk around and explore the churches. We found a church of Scotland, a Roman Catholic church and two “Free North” churches.

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After a few hours walking around, we jumped back into the car, toes freezing ready to drive to Loch Ness and check out Urquart Castle. The drive was pretty and you could tell you were near because of the volume of Nellie stores – Nellie stuffies! Nellie learning center! Nellie postcards! Nellie Café!

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Sleepers!

While the castle was closed (this is the big challenge with November touring), it was wonderful to see as the sun was coming down. We watched for a while but the cold proved to be too much so we jumped back into the car to drive back to our home, Muckrach Castle. Tomorrow we are planning on a full day driving the Isle of Skye.

 

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Edinburgh: Head On

Lazy morning in Edinburgh! We woke up knowing today would mostly be a travel day again; this time to the Scottish Highlands. There was one thing on the agenda today and it was a simple one: find the Vermeer for mom!

Since I was a teenager and saw my first Vermeer painting in France (The Lacemaker), I have been captivated by his work. It looks so completely different in public than in a book. It’s also honest and dark and captivating. The work in the National Scottish Gallery is an important one – Christ in the Church of Mary and Martha is the first painting he did that survived. It shows a very different painter than his older surviving pieces – there are only 34 Vermeers in the world and as of today, I have seen 22!

Little loved the art. The gallery spanned the Italian renaissance work to the impressionists, which was his favorite. We talked about squinting our eyes and how the impressionists’ paintings would change, we looked at Greek mythology stories in oil. He held my hand and asked questions and even asked to take selfies in front of a few pictures. It was a lovely morning.

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Edinburgh: Asleep on a Sunbeam

Most of today was a travel day for us – we started in Killarney, flew to Dublin, then flew to Edinburgh and bussed to old town. The Air Link busses from the airport are super convenient and take visitors right into the heart of the city.

We stayed at a very nice hotel in old town – the best hotel we have had yet. Fraser Suites was indeed a suite meaning it was the first place we could watch a grown up show while little watched a kid show. Woohooo! We took a little break while we settled in and we met up with medinburgh 2.jpgy brother and his wonderful partner, who will be joining us on the next week of the journey.

They are vegan. My brother has been a vegan for about 15 years now. This can sometimes be challenging when it comes to where we can eat. No problem in this case – his partner suggested a vegan restaurant where they served haggis! Yes, vegan haggis! We were on our way.

After the haggis (and curry hubby had and udon coconut sauce I had), and Belle and Sebastian tunes on the cafe speakers) we burned some calories off trekking to the Edinburgh Castle. The castle can be toured on your own or on an official tour. We were there two hours before it closed and we had a set agenda of things to see, so we did it on our own. In order, we wanted to see; the Scottish Military Museum, the Castle Prisons, the Crown Jewels, the Queen’s Apartment. 

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While everyone enjoyed the military museum (did you know the Scottish Military wore kilts as uniform until 1942?) the prisons turned out to be more interesting than I would have expected. Prisoners of War were held here from the revolutionary war and on display were two old doors where American POWs had carved initials, dates, even an American flag!

I’m a history nut and have read much about Mary, Queen of Scots. It was unfathomable to be in her chambers, in the room she gave birth to James in. What a treat! edinburgh 9.jpg

After we left the castle, we walked down to St. Giles Cathedral, which was across the street from our hotel. St. Giles started as a medieval Catholic church but was turned Protestant when the country did. Queen Mary returned to Scotland after being exiled in France for her safety but did not return the Cathedral to it’s Catholic roots. It’s a beautiful church with bright blue ceilings and the telltale signs of a church that has moved through reformation – no crucifix to be found but a few Celtic crosses.

The church was closing and we were heading out for Indian food on Market street. One of the delightful things about being in that area is hearing bagpipes every time you step out of a door. It’s a busker trying to make a few dollars, but in that moment surrounded by the stereotypical large grey gothic stone buildings, it just seems perfect and right.

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Beauty’s home Killarney, ever fair Killarney.

Killarney Plans:

  • Gap of Dunloe
  • Ring of Kerry
  • Moll’s Gap
  • Ross Castle tour

Killarney Actual:

  • Muckross House
  • Muckross Abbey
  • Torc Waterfall
  • Ross Castle closed; but pictures taken in the rain with only ducks as fellow visitors
  • Shopping
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    Window shopping in Killarney

 

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Drinking Chocolate

Your plans can change just like *that* and luckily, my little family is always prepared for things to go differently than planned. After a sweet night in Killarney window shopping and watching the city put up Christmas decorations, and a visit to St. Mary’s Cathedral where we caught the end of mass and lit prayer candle, thick local butter on Irish brown bread – THIS is why Ireland and I have a thing. I mean, breakfast cheese? Who does that? And yesterday, one of the selections on the breakfast menu was “assorted cheese selections” and “potato waffles.” Yes please, Ireland – you were meant for me.

After breakfast, we checked in with the Gap of Dunloe tours as it rained pretty hard over night and early in the morning. Although the sun was shining, the tours had just ended for the year – so on to plan B. The heavy rain started again so we decided against the long ring of Kerry drive and Moll’s Gap, and instead planned on hitting Ross Castle (supposedly open, according to the internet.)

 

We decided due to a little break in the weather we would go a little farther than the castle, travel a bit along the ring and hit Muckross House in the Killarney National Park, a super interesting home that had at one point belonged to the Guinness family. The big thing we had promised little with Gap of Dunloe was the pony carts and we knew Muckross had them. I’m so, so glad we did! Due to the time of year and few tourists, we bartered down (unknowingly and unaware) the price of the “jaunties” as they call them. We asked how much for a ride and it went like this:

“50 euro for the carriage, 40 minutes. 50 euro for all three of you. Okay, 40 euro. 40 euro, 45 minutes.”

Me: Okay. To the waterfall? How do we get to the abbey?

“40 for the waterfall, 40 for the abbey. Okay, I’ll do 30 for the abbey if you do the waterfall. Okay, the season and all, 25 for the abbey if you go to the waterfall. No, 20 is what I will do.  40 and 20 for the waterfall and the abbey, one and a half hours.”

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Warm wool blankets for the carriage

 

I’m not good at bartering. This was baffling and if I had been allowed to say a word during the whole thing, I would have been good at 40 and 30. So we tipped well.

What a carriage ride it was! We rode past the middle Killarney lake bundled in woolen blankets, seeing a herd of red deer in a field and wind rhododendron to the Torc Waterfall, where we jumped from the covered carriage and hiked VERY QUICKLY to avoid being soaked. The waterfall was lovely. We then traversed the property over to the abandoned Abbey. If you know me, you know I’m a little obsessed with a specific time in history and the Abbey was immediately front and center when the carriage driver explained that the “hanging tree” we drove by was not called that by its shape (my assumption) but by

what Oliver Cromwell did to the local men. And it was Cromwell himself that destroyed the Abbey. He destroyed so many that I don’t know all of their names – it was over years and years. So it was fascinating to learn about the history. The Muckross Abbey was by far the highlight of our trip for me.

The ancient trees, the Celtic crosses in the graveyard, how all of it was being swallowed by the yew and cedar trees and rhododendrons. The light came through the barren winter trees and made the empty windows look like they had stained glass. It was breathtaking and something everyone should see.

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Ross Castle

We headed to Ross Castle next and the rain really began to hit. We ran as fast as we would up to the entrance of the castle, only to discover it was closed. We decided to check out the exterior of the castle and the towers before it was just too cold and too wet and we retreated back to the warm hotel room for laundry and warmth.

 

We decided the best choice was to give up and stay around the hotel. We picked up some sweets from a sweet shop and bought Christmas presents at the Aran Woolen store. We had a wonderful, rich Italian dinner (remember, always ask for advice. This place wasn’t even listed in travel advisor or yelp!) and everyone was asleep by 8. Well, not me – I’m still up typing this but won’t be up for too much longer. Another adventure tomorrow!

Dingle: Dingle All The Way!

We woke up to the sun shining again for us (how about this weather?) this time in Dingle (population ~1900.) The previous night, Ben had headed out around 9 PM to find authentic live music and he was successful in the tiny O’Sullivan pub, which had about 6’ ceilings and could fit around 20 people.  He had a blast! We tried three different times to hit the Dingle Music Shop to pick up some CDs for the drive, but they were always closed when we stopped by (and no posted hours.)

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O’Sullivan’s Pub – where the music happens

 

 

After breakfast (Ben went for a traditional Irish and had black pudding!) we walked around Dingle for a couple hours. The town is just adorable – pubs, bookstores, fish and chip and fish monger shops. The hostess at breakfast suggested that we hit the Slea Head drive and so we did, around 11:30 this morning.

Two pieces of advice to provide – If you are travelling in the UK, always opt for the breakfast. It usually will only cost a few dollars more when you book the room. If you wait, it will always be at least ten more, per person. The UK does a BIG breakfast, unlike many European breakfasts where it is continental. The UK will always dingle-2have a continental option PLUS a hot breakfast. Second piece of advice – ask for advice! The breakfast room manager brought over a map and explained where we needed to go. We had an open agenda after two days of go, go, go so away we went.

Slea Head is MAGNIFICENT. Okay, truth is – Idingle-5 didn’t need any arm pulling as scenes from the last Star Wars and the one coming out next year were BOTH filmed here. There weren’t any people around. The signs were all in Gaelic. It is only about 50 miles around but we took just less than two hours as we stopped so many incredible places. It was magnificent and  someplace really off the beaten path. You can see the Great Blasket Islands from the drive and many interesting ponies, sheep, goats and cows.

dingle-1At our stop back at Dingle we opted for Fish and Chips (me) and some sort of Beef Pot Pie (Ben). Dingle is truly a foodie town where you can’t go wrong – the cheeses and butters and meats mostly local, the fish fresh caught and never frozen. There is a fish monger food truck, local ice cream, delightful coffee shops.

As we headed out to Killarney, Ben first chatted with the Bartender at the pub we were lunching at. He suggested a route change to Killarney to save time. Again, that advice! It was a beautiful, cliff-hugging adventure.

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Murphy’s Pub

 

 

We’ve landed in Killarney and to my delight we were upgraded to a suite with a Jacuzzi tub – which is fantastic as we are here for two nights and my back is suffering from the driving and walking non-stop. I’ve bought some water and mandarin oranges for a treat  (“still water and easy peels” if you are Irish) and will jump in the tub now to refresh myself for our adventure in Killarney tomorrow.

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The Wild Atlantic Way: When Irish Eyes are Smiling

We started our day with a big breakfast at the hotel and headed out for the longest day of our vacation, driving from Galway to Dingle (AKA the “Wild Atlantic Way) which is about 225 miles/5 hours of driving. We had a late start because it was the first full day of vacation. I was up researching at 5 AM and the boys slept in until 8:30. Our route would take us through some pretty typical stops and was an aggressive one considering the amount of sunlight there is this far north – and an impossible one cDungaire castle.jpgonsidering the 6 year old that is travelling with us. SO. MANY. BATHROOM. STOPS.

Dunguaire Castle was the first stop just south of Galway and on the way. It’s a small tower/keep style castle that has been restored and people can walk around it but for the winter, it’s main gates were closed so only the outside was accessible.

Next we hit up the Cliffs of Moher where we only exclusively heard American accents. At first I was unencouraged because it looked very touristy but I was pleasantly surprised – you can’t take melancholy me or bummer Ben out to a touristy spot without spontaneous eye-rolling and sarcasm. But in this case. if you could tune out the noise (“They got them rings with the two hands together in the jewelry store!”) and focus on the weather and the view, it was nothing short of spectacular, outstanding, breathtaking.  

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Cliffs of Moher

But our favorite spot was the last one scheduled: Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. Oh man! This place is a goldmine! It’s a 1425 castle restored to period where you can explore all the rooms and levels, from the dungeon to the top of the turrets. As you can imagine, little guy flipped out. Goats to pet! Crazy looking sheep! Houses you could go into and explore! It was just TOO cool. Then around the castle there are about 25 buildings representing life in those times; a couple pubs, farmer’s cottages, weavers’ home, private church, a walled garden, a school house, a doctor’s office; all open to see and explore. This was the single best activity for the family as we were all very intrigued. A friend of mine that lives in Shannon recommended a nearby place to called “Durty Nellie’s” – while it had a wonderful story and extensive menu, we just ran out of time.

 

The drive to Dingle ended up occurring later than we planned for (and mainly in the dark) because our plans that day ran so late. It’s a sign of how much fun we had for sure. Tonight, we stay in a bed and breakfast/pub and hubby has already jumped to another pub to listen to live music while I fall asleep at the keyboard with our little guy in the twin bed on the other side of the room. Tomorrow we explore Dingle!

Galway: Our Own Dear Galway Bay

Tonight we watched the sunset over Galway.

Galway was our first stop and just a few hours drive from Dublin. To close up the post from yesterday, we did find our luggage in Dublin, had a terrible time figuring out the car rental and drove white-knuckled as Ben took to the other side of the car/road. As we were about ten miles out of Galway, the thickest fog ever rolled in and you couldn’t see anything. Whatever. It’s over. We are here.

Truth is, we were exhausted. A couple hours of sleep since Saturday and we were coasting on the fumes of gas station lattes. We arrived at our hotel a little early and they graciously checked us in so we could power nap.

A couple hours later, we were headed down the craziest winding roads (over the bridge, around the University, back over the bridge, through this alley…) we thought the GPS must be broken. But the truth is I’m glad to have it. No matter the crazy path it takes us on, we arrive where we intended to go eventually.

We headed to a few churches to check out the history:

·         St. Nicholas Church (a 700-year old church that once was host to Christopher Columbus)

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Galway Cathedral

 

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Galway Cathedral

·         Galway Cathedral (The newest Roman Catholic Stone Cathedral, along the River Corrib – very architecturally interesting)

We spent the evening walking to the Latin Quarter and Quay Streets, stopping at Lynch’s Castle to take money out of an ATM (really, it’s a bank now.) The Latin Quarter was buzzing with students in and out of the bookstores, bars and shops, buskers on the sides in front of theaters and art everywhere. And the whole place was light up for Christmas. We crossed the bridge from St. Nicholgalway-3as to head to Galway Cathedral and along the Corrib we could see the famed Spanish Arches. We walked by the post office, where a giant Irish Wolfhound was tied up waiting for his master. When he stood, he was taller than the little guy!

I think that if we were to do it again, I would have looked for a hotel in the Latin Quarter/Quay Street area as it was fun and vibrant and full of things to look at. The problem is there weren’t any places to park and I thought that the first day of driving in Ireland might be best rewarded with a parking lot. And if we didn’t have to drive back to the hotel, we wouldn’t have spotted the Bohermore Cemetery.

Bohermore Cemetery is a Victorian era opened in the 1800’s. It’s quintessential – stone church, green hill, Celtic crosses as far as the eye can see. It was the perfect opportunity to bust out the fancy camera and take some pictures.

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Galway was just the first leg of our Western Ireland tour, the jumping off point for another adventure tomorrow that will hopefully find us landing in Dingle.

Chicago: Via Chicago

Chicago is a city both the hubby and I love. The art deco buildings, the stark weather, train lines above your head and the just-a-little-dodgy back alleys. We lucked out with a ten-hour layover in Chicago on our latest trip and figured little guy was big enough to try to get out of the airport and see something cool.

I have friends who are from or currently live in Chicago so a quick poll on social media told us that leaving the airport was as easy as catching the Blue Line to downtown. Follow the signs out of the airport, buy a ticket and jump on. It was about 20 stops (give or take) and a good 50 minutes to the Jackson stop downtown.

We had thought to take a bus from there but as fans of Lyft and time, we called Lyft. Earlier this week, we debated between visiting the Shedd Aquarium, Planetarium, Art Institute or Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). Hubby works at a Science Museum and was very convinced that was our stop. Our wonderful Lyft driver had boys of her own and on the way to MSI, and she gave us the scoop. If you only have a few hours, you’ll want to visit the genetics display (with the cutest baby chicks ever and awesome frogs too), the miniature super-detailed Chicago and the giant train track, and the Toy Maker 3000 and the awesome weather exhibit. We had time to do a little more (Maurice Sendak art exhibit!), but her recommendations were SPOT on.

One of thchicago-3e reasons I was so easily convinced to check out MSI was that it is on the list of ASTC list – Association of Science and Technology Centers. They offer entrance to hundreds of partner museums patrons. In this case, our membership to the Pacific Science Center means a free visit at  MSI, which would have cost almost $70 chicago-2otherwise. Check out this link to learn more about ASTC – seriously, just visiting two out of state science museums more than covers the cost of the annual home museum membership.

We did splurge on one thing – we bought passes to Brick by Brick, a special Lego event demonstrating how construction, skyscraper and bridge building works. It included some fantastic Lego work as well, like Cinderella’s castle. I’m a big brick nerd and I really enjoyed the exhibit. Poor hubby had to practically pull the little and I out and remind us there was so much more to see.

After a full morning geeking out, we went to one of the more famous Chicago deep dish pizza joints, Lou Manalti’s. Hubby had never had true Chicago deep dish. And although it’s pretty good, I have to admit I’m just not crazy over it. The butter crust ends of making me feel greasy. But it’s tasty and fun to eat and a treat for a special place like this, like eating cracker pizza in Wisconsin or NYC style in Brooklyn. The real thing I loved at Lou Manalti’s every visit is the salad. It has this bruschetta flavor and a sweet but vinegary dressing that I’m crazy about. I still haven’t found the Chicago deep dish pizza that converts me but in chicago-1the name of science, I will continue the research. A friend recommended Giordanos but it opened too late this trip for us to investigate.

We hustled back to the airport in the afternoon with two hours to spare before out next flight, just because. And as it turns out, there was no need to hustle because American Airlines gave away our seats. I checked twice with the agents at the gate because I knew the flight was oversold and the second time I even caught some attitude. We were there early and went to board when called and there was a “glitch in the system” so someone else was already occupying our seats. I have a suspicion about that glitch: we used miles to buy our tickets so we were bumped and American wasn’t honest. To make things worse, they couldn’t promise where our luggage would land or when, which is pretty devastating to our next leg of the trip. We have a rental car and a road trip first thing in the morning, which we can’t move forward on without a car seat and clothes.

I’m beyond upset at them (it does get worse; they told us they rebooked us on United in terminal 1 and in fact they booked us on Aer Lingus in terminal 5; meaning a trip out of security and on the train.) I’ll send in a complaint but the truth is the folks at Aer Lingus are lovely. The plane is comfortable and they made sure to give us a row to ourselves. Complimentary dinner and some doting on the little and he’s fast asleep as I’m typing this and we are flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe this is for the best; I didn’t want to be cramped up and bitter dealing with all those rude and inefficient American Airline employees. Then again, maybe everything is better when it’s done with an Irish Accent.

If things go well, I will be updating from Galway and the Wild Atlantic Way tomorrow night, hopefully showered by that point.