All posts by cl@rks

Travelogue Ireland 2: Kilkenny

KILKENNY

18 November 2017

We woke to a grey but dry morning in Dublin (winning!) and walked through the town to the Avis office to fetch the car we’d rented for our roadtrip.

Dublin is a very easy city to navigate (once you’ve been around it once or twice) and the crisp morning made for a great walk in the fresh air.

We drove the car back to our hotel to collect our bags and check out, and were on the road by late morning.

We had 88km to take us to the first stop, Rock of Dunamase, which took just over an hour of easy driving on the open highway.

You couldn’t miss the Rock, as a 46m outcrop protruding sharply from the mostly flat plains of the farms surrounding it. The ruins of Dunamase Castle perched on top of the Rock made for a dramatic silhouette on the skyline, less daunting as you drive round to the entrance at the back, off a country cul de sac providing access to the Castle and its neighbour, a quaint little Church complete with creepy Cemetary.

We’d downloaded an audio guide off the Irish Heritage site which talked us through the outer gates, over where the moat would have been, through where the portcullis would have been, under the Murder Hole where the defenders would have rained boiling oil or buckets of excrement on invaders and into the inner Barbican.

The first known inhabitants of this hilltop built a fort in the early 9th century but were soon pillaged by the Vikings in 842. The Castle was only built much later in the latter half of the 12th Century and became the most important fortification in Laoise (pronounced “leash”) with the Norman invasion and then was a pawn in all sorts of wheeling and dealing until it fell into ruin by the 1350s.

After our wander, we drove the 7km to the next town, Portlaoise (“port leash”) to grab some lunch.

We parked on the edge of town and ambled along the narrow high street, window shopping and enjoying the relaxed pace.

We found a warm and cosy mom ‘n pops deli and settled into the window counter to watch the day go by as we were served our shepherd’s pie and lasagne, with chips of course. 

Fed and happy, we walked the remainder of the high street. Not much was open as we’d obviously caught the town between shops that shut at lunchtime and venues that opened for evening trade, but that didn’t matter because we were moving on anyway.

We only had 48km left of our day’s journey, so were in Kilkenny less than half an hour later, checking into our very homely B&B, Chaplin’s Guesthouse.

It had started to drizzle very lightly, but that didn’t deter us since Christian had remembered to pack our ‘holi-brollies’ (procured on our Baltic Cruise holiday) so we hit the streets and headed for the Castle.

Sadly, 2 wrong turns and early winter closing time left us arriving at the Castle as it was closing so, never ones to dwell on misfortune, we went to the Smithwick’s Brewery instead.

Not up for another hour of barleyhopsroastingtoasting stories, we had a wander around and felt enriched enough to hit the ‘in the field sampling’ with a clear (and educated) conscience.

Smithwick’s is situated at the tapered end of the teardrop-shaped Medieval Mile, so named because of the visible evidence in the architecture and layout of this portion of the city of Kilkenny’s heritage of being the medieval capital of Ireland. 

The Mile is home to 24 attractions in its narrow streetscape as a living exhibit that has visual clues like the Butter Slip, a narrow and dark walkway that cuts the teardrop in the middle to connect the outer roads and which housed the market’s butter vendors (because it is sheltered and cold) earning its name. It also has the conventional sights – town hall, city gate, cathedral – as well as a museum and a gallery for a well-rounded experience.

We started with The Hole in The Wall, a 16th Century tavern in Ireland’s oldest surviving townhouse, earning its name from the hole punched in a wall at the rear of the house to create access from the high street. Besides the anticipated exhibits, we discovered a tiny bar in the house, tucked away in a little room under the stairs, with only 11 seats, and joined the 2 existing patrons and the barman for our first Kilkenny ‘Irish Cream Ale’ draught.

Our sightseeing turned into a pub crawl, directed by the recommendations of our close company at Cosy Bar, starting with Hibernia, an upmarket venue diagonnally across from Kilkenny Castle. 

Next was Tynans Bridge House Bar, which is the perfect local’s pub with traditional decor, casual locals clearly at home around the massive wooden bar counter, dark and comfortable corners, sing-along classic soundtrack and a larger-than-life host, Liam, who joined and rejoined our table periodically like a returning old friend, quick with a story and a laugh. If we lived in Kilkenny, this is where we would be regulars, so we stayed for a few, like we were.

We rounded off the evening with Sullivan’s, which by stark contrast was a hall-like double-volume modern venue. The pizza and local red ale had been recommended on quite a few sites we’d researched on, so our choices were easily made. The food was excellent and ambiance created by the one-man-band performers who seamlessly mixed traditional Irish with more contemporary songs, so all in all a good evening was had.

As is often the case, the walk home seemed much shorter than the walk into town in the afternoon. Likely a combination of having a better sense of where the destination was, not having the drizzle to contend with and having the series of new experiences to giddily recount.

I’m sure we missed a lot of the classic Kilkenny experience by skipping most of the buildings and whatnot… but doing it our way was a lot more fun! 

… Or so I thought…

Christian had gone for a run while I was doing the above Travelogue, which I thought was finished… Until he came back with stories of how awesome the day was and all the things he’d seen on his run around the town and the castle.

Between the animated delivery and the magnificent Full Irish breakfast, it was decided to do a quick victory lap around the Medieval Mile to fill in the gaps of what we’d missed.

We packed the car and drove down to town, parking near the Hibernian pub we’d so enjoyed the night before.

Little was open, so it was easy to navigate the streets and get pics the way I like them – “post apocalyptic”, like we’re the only people in the world.

It seemed fitting to visit the churches, being a Sunday ‘n all, but unfortunately couldn’t access the one of most interest – St Francis Abbey where beer has been brewed for centuries.

We also got in a short walk around the Castle gardens before it started to drizzle, at which point we made our way to the car to get back on track with our original plan to go to Waterford.

Travelogue Ireland 7: Galway

GALWAY

22-23 November 2017

Thanks to our intentness to work in a seafood lunch at the seaside town of Doolin, we ended up seeing what’s dubbed (in its own brochure) as “the most visited natural attraction in Ireland”. I’d somehow thought that the Cliffs of Moher were further north up the coast than we were going so they hadn’t even featured in our planning but, nope, there they were. Perfectly positioned, right next to Doolin!

It was only an 80km stretch from Limerick but with single lane country roads, it took us over an hour to get there.

The entrance ticket to the Cliffs of Moher allows access to the whole complex, combining a self-guided (outdoor) tour with an (indoor) exhibition component. We couldn’t have had worse weather for our visit, being bitterly cold and raining, so we tried the inside bit first.

The Visitor Centre’s claim to fame is its eco-friendliness, tucked into the side of the hill like a cave with a grass roof so as not to spoil the landscape and view, and using geo-thermal energy, waste water treatment and sensor lighting. The visual displays bring the Cliffs to life through audio visual exhibits and 2 short movies, one of which gives you birds eye view of the cliffs.

Venturing outside, we used the free downloadable audio guide to walk ourselves through the South platform and then the North and see the Cliffs that had been waiting 320 million years for us to get there.

It was far from ideal weather for viewing. The brochures spoke of how you could see this, that and the other “on a clear day” but we were lucky to even be able to see the series of jutting cliffs because it was so misty! To give context, the Cliffs are 200 odd metres high and range for about 8km over the Atlantic Ocean. They, at least, are really hard to miss – and are quite astounding in their magnitude and composition – clear day or not! But we didn’t see the puffins, the Falcons or the views of 5 counties that might have been seen under different circumstances.

We were chilled to the bone and now even more motivated to get to Doolin for lunch.

It’s a weird thing about travelling that you’ll stumble repeatedly over something you ‘have to do’ when you’re looking for something else entirely… And then when you try and retrace the referred have-to-do, it seems like all trace of the articles you’d originally read have been been removed from the internet! This was the case with Doolin. I couldn’t seem to find the article that had stuck this nugget of a town into our plan.

Fortunately, it’s a 1-horse town so we drove through it all the way to the dock at the end and then back again, and settled on the place that looked most welcoming, Gus O’Connor’s pub on Fisher Street.

Great choice. Fire on the go, so roasty-toasty inside; big smiles from the barman and waitress. A table right by the fireplace, just waiting for us… We had the most delicious seafood chowder and Atlantic salmon with Parmesan mash and all was right with the world.

Really smug at our great decision – and commending ourselves on our commitment to the authentic Wild Atlantic Way experience – we hit the road once again, headed for Galway.

We were again staying in a hostel, again in a private suite. This hostel, the Bunk Boutique, seemed quite upmarket with an equal split of dorm rooms and suites. Our room seemed brand-spanking new with its laminate floor, modern finishes and crisp white linens.

The hotel was conveniently located right next door to the Tourist Office, where we picked up a map and the lady on duty advised us that the daily walking tour at 11.30 am would be worth our time if we could see our way clear to leaving Galway a little later than we’d planned to. With no clear plans for our last day besides getting to the airport on time (no particular rush with a 9pm flight), this seemed as good a plan as any – and with it being by far the coldest day we’d experienced in Ireland (cold enough to add another full layer of clothing!) the thought of keeping the evening’s plans minimal and indoors was of great appeal.

She also recommended that we have dinner at McDonagh’s fish and chip shop, which we’d shortlisted anyway, and which was on the other side of town (being a Medieval town, this meant a 15 minute walk at most) so gave us a goal to get there and back over the course of the evening.

Galway is a charming little city.

We crossed Eyre Square, that has been the centre of town for centuries and now was playing host to a Christmas market with scores of little wooden huts selling sweet treats, gift ideas and winter woollies. The middle had a festive display with Gingerbread house, reindeer and candy canes, and little stage that was hosting local musicians keeping everyone entertained while they shipped on Gluwein and munched on their take-away.

The other side of the Square deposited us at the top of the shopping streets; atill the original Medieval pedestrian walkways with authentic facades and visible family crest headstones above shop entrances. Buskers’ music filled the air and the Christmas decorations strung overhead provided a warm glow. There was lots of activity, but the kind of busy that added energy not crowdedness.

We stopped off at a pub at the top of the street – one of the oldest in Galway, known for its ‘craic’ (good times) – to recount our day and applaud our good fortunes and great experiences, biding time for the famous fish feast that awaited us.

A product of our own anticipation, it became quite an early dinner! And was every bit the hype we’d read about. We opted for the battered cod and salmon, which arrived with a mountain of chips and mushy peas. A visible award-winner!

Doing the usual pub search both on our walk through town and on the internet over dinner, we decided to spend the evening (our last in Ireland, sob!) at Sally Long’s, the only hard rock pub in Galway.

Quite different from all the strictly traditional pubs we’d been in over the course of the week, Sally’s had a Harley in the entrance, a Last Supper mural of musical legends, a pool table and was blasting AC/DC when we arrived. It was good for a change of pace.

Our last morning had to start the right way: FULL Irish breakfast. We got exactly that at a fantastic little restaurant called Riordan’s, which gave ALL the trimmings (mushroom, baked beans, fried potatoes etc) as well as the sausage, bacon, black and white pudding. Excellent fuel for the walking tour and to combat the icy day.

It was a far better call to defer the walking tour as although it was cold, it was clear blue skies and no rain.

We met our guide, Jerry, who walked us through the town we’d already become quite familiar with, but filled in the gaps on the who, what and how we’d gotten to the Galway we were in.

Besides the usual tales of pillage and plunder, Vikings and Cromwell, Jerry spent quite a bit of time telling us about how life changing John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963 had been. Obviously of Irish descent and leader of the free world, his visit went beyond ‘welcomed’ and all the way to hero worship and squares and roads were renamed after him, statues and commemorative busts erected and portraits and plaques placed alongside the Pope in the churches!

Another interesting sight and anecdote was Lynch’s Window, where the local Magistrate, James Lynch, lived up to his reputation for unbending justice when he notoriously hanged his own son who had killed a merchant. This is where the term ‘lynching’ is derived from.

Jerry concluded his tour at the Spanish Arch, so named for the Spanish merchant sailors who came ashore there to peddle their wares. This was also the site where the Claddagh women would sell the fish their husbands had caught. The Claddagh lived across the river in rows of white thatched huts and only crossed for trade. They are the people from whom the traditional Claddagh rings stem. You’d recognise the design if you saw it; the band forming 2 hands on the top side that are clasping a heart with a crown on it.

Done with the tour, we jumped in the car and headed for the airport. We had plenty of time since it was a 200 odd km drive and we had over 4 hours to cover the ground.

We needed to stop to refuel so coincided it with a visit to the Fields of Athenry, made famous by the Irish ballad of the same name… With a killer version by The Dropkick Murphys!

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time for our flight. A bit early, in fact, as check-in wasn’t even open yet. We made the best use of the time and got in a last Guinness for the road. Unbelievably even with the usual airport inflated prices, the pint was still cheaper than the tourist trap Temple Bar!

Sláinte Ireland. Thanks for all the good times. Hope to see you again soon!

Travelogue 6: Limerick

LIMERICK

22 November 2017

The drive from Tralee to Limerick was only 101km and we were back on double lane highway so it went really quickly.

We routed through the little town of Adare, renowned to be one of Ireland’s prettiest towns – and we could see why. If we hadn’t just stopped for refreshments in Tralee, we’d have stopped in Adare for something just for the sake of soaking in some of the prettiness!

But we soldiered on and went to Limerick, where we’d be spending the night.

Our hotel was in a prime location, right alongside the wide River Shannon and had we had a room on the other side of the building, we would have had a view of some of the most famous sites in the town: St Mary’s Cathedral, St John’s Castle and the row of Georgian houses in between.

Even though it was still early when we arrived, it was already dark, so we took a whirl around the Medieval Quarter to get a lay of the land, but left the formal sight-seeing and picture-taking for the morning.

Not yet hungry (again) either, we made our way through the modern shopping streets on our way to the more quaint Market District.

The roads were busy with people finishing work and doing their shopping. The town’s Christmas lights and decorations were already live, combining with the dark and crisp evening to make for quite a festive feel – probably more Christmassy than we’ll feel in a month’s time in sunny South Africa when it really is Christmas!

The Market District was a little quieter; being mostly restaurants and pubs, probably a bit early for its main trade. We’d consulted online for recommendations on where to try – there are way too many pubs in every Irish town to take chances! – and started at Nancy Blake’s.

We settled on the barstools in the little passage that connected the two main bar areas, but soon moved because it was too warm – hardly something we’d suspected would be said on this holiday! – from the effective fireplace in the smaller bar.

Our second stop was quite the opposite. Flannery’s was dark and a bit chilly and lacked the warmth in both temperature and atmosphere that Nancy Blake’s had had, not helped by the indifferent bartender who was playing his own (dreary) music and smoking on the doorstep. By that point it was dinner time anyway, so we chalked it up to experience and moved on.

We pinpointed The Locke as our final destination since it was accoladed for its menu, had traditional music and dancing every night and was just across the bridge (over the mighty Shannon) from home.

We had a Limerick local serving our table, so took his advice on dinner orders and were soon enjoying a seafood pie (like a cottage pie but with a creamy fishy mix instead of mince) and a traditional Irish stew that complemented perfectly, cutting the creamy pie with its simple stocky broth.

Our dinnertime conversation was logistics-intensive. We were, not unusually, planning a meal ahead like they were going out of fashion and thus, in this spirit, planned get up and have breakfast at the very earliest possible instant (rather than lazing and languishing in bed as we’d been doing the previous days) so we could do our self-guided Limerick tour and make space for a seafood lunch when we were back on the Wild Atlantic Way. Only we could decide at dinner that we best hurry up and have an early night so we can have breakfast early enough to be hungry enough by lunch to appreciate it!

With this ‘early to bed; early to rise (for a fuller-than-Full Irish)’ in mind, we were soon headed back to our hotel, happy as little larks with our preliminary sightseeing done, a great evening behind us and another exciting day ahead of us.

We could have done with an organised walking tour of Limerick as it seems there’s more detail to the story of this city than can be cobbled together through the handful of sites and bitty historical overviews on the internet.

Unfortunately, the local walking tour guide, Declan, has a day job at the tourist office so can only accommodate during his lunch hour – and this was obviously too late as we a) had breakfast to move and b) had our own lunch plans. So, we made the most of it and did a quick loop around the Medieval Quarter on our own.

From what we can tell, the area of Limerick has been occupied since the Stone Age, succumbed to the Vikings in the 800s and 900s and then got its signatures architecture (St John’s Castle and St Mary’s Cathedral) around 1200. The Castle was sieged several times between the English/Irish issues, Cromwell and William of Orange, which was pretty typical of the 1600s which seem to be quite a tiring time in Irish history in general. All sorts of people invading and marauding and fighting battles to back and forth bits of Ireland inch by inch.

We wanted to end off our tour with the McCourt Museum, a tribute to the Frank McCourt book “Angela’s Ashes”, a copy of which my Grandpappy had given to me as a teenager. The story is an anecdotal memoir of Frank’s impoverished childhood in Limerick and the museum is said to be small but very tangible of life in the time the book was set.

Unfortunately, the museum only opened at 11 and wasn’t worth waiting almost an hour for, so we hit the road in search of the next wonderous experience.

Travelogue Ireland 5: Killarney

KILLARNEY

20 November 2017

The main drive for the day was the Blarney to Killarney stretch, which took about an hour and 20 minutes despite being only 60 or so kilometres, thanks to single lane country roads with one or two impediments along the route.

Arriving in Killarney was surreal. A picture-perfect 19th century Stepford town that is neat as a pin but with enough allure that you want to step into its shoes.

We pulled our rental into the parking lot and were very pleased to find the hotel to be more fitting of the surroundings than the price tag. Bonus!

We dumped the bags and headed out to make the most of daylight and visit the Torc Waterfall. We unwittingly, apparently, had coincidentally managed to be in Killarney for the falls’ most impressive time of year – where there’s lots of not-rain and the falls are full and gushing! We took a trot around the base of the falls, but when tempted by the path surrounding it, were put off by the slippery leaves that made the steps lethal from the not-rain.

Having sated our sense of adventure, we returned down the road to Muckross Castle to investigate the magnificent house and gardens (and craft shop). Nice, but nothing life-changing.

We returned to the hotel to park the car and walk into town. 

Killarney is beautiful. Not a hair out of place. Pretty little streets with Christmas lights and toy soldier decals on the traffic bollards to add to the effect. Not a single facade needing so much as a touch-up of paint. 

The centre see-and-do is a neat little grid lined with brightly-lit shop windows, most complete with Christmas decorations. It feels like you’re walking through the set of one of those RomCom festive blockbusters!

It was still a bit early for dinner so we thought we’d sample some of the pubs by way of sundowners. We contrasted a very dark and dingy local spot called O’Connor’s with the more upmarket The Laurel’s before making our way to Murphy’s for dinner – a feast of local Kerry lamb and Kerry beef Cottage Pie.

The waitress was so friendly and free with advice that it was hard not to take her suggestion and nightcap at Reidy’s around the corner, where Christian had a taste of some *very* pricey whiskey he’d wanted to sample at Midletons, while we were entertained by the lively band.

Killarney is well positioned to access the grand sites of Ireland’s South West. We’d already predetermined that if weather was good we’d attempt the Ring of Kerry, a 180km circular driving route that takes in some of the most breathtaking scenery in the lush inland and the dramatic coastline with its crags and cliffs. Of course, lousy weather would result in a slow and tedious drive and an album of misty pictures. 

We woke up to rain and, with a full Irish breakfast on board, slipped into Plan B, the smaller Dingle Peninsula, said to be home to a wealth of historical monuments (more than 2000 archeological exhibits!), Irish culture and still have more than its fair share of beautiful scenery.

The driving was slow going compared to what we were used to, since the road was primarily (what could only be very generously described as) single lane and winding, but we were still at our first stop, Dingle, in around an hour so we carried on driving past it to see the Fahan Beehive Huts.

The huts are a collection of stone igloo-looking buildings fashioned together by piling rocks very specifically so that that overlay and overlock each other, forming a perfectly dry room beneath. They had been so carefully crafted that there were even flat rocks forming lintels and doorframes on each beehive. You can still see the fireplace alcoves so these beehives might actually have been quite snug once a toasty fire was going.

There is some conjecture as to how old these relics really are, since this form of masonry, called ‘corbelling’ has been around since into the multi-thousands BC and was still used as recently as the 1950s. The site is relatively well preserved since the area was quite remote, but it’s a pity that only 5 huts remain from the 400 more that used to fill the hill – and amazing that we’re still allowed to walk around inside the huts since they’re such a rare artefact.

Returning to Dingle, we took a break from the drive and had a wander around town. Another quaint and delightful little seaside town, all pubs, fish n chip restaurants, coffee shops and odds and sods shops like crafts and a haberdashery.

We concluded our visit to the Peninsular and foray with the World Atlantic Way with a drive to Tralee (an hour) to stop for refreshments before the final leg to Limerick, where we’d be spending the night.

Travelogue Ireland 4: Cork

CORK

19-20 November 2017

We had 132km to travel from Waterford to our stop for the night, Cork, which we planned to break with a quick visit to the Midleton / Jameson distillery en route.

Again it was all double lane highway so an easy drive, which was fortunate since our “break” at Midleton turned out to only be a hop, skip and a jump (24km) from our final destination. 

Our arrival was ill-timed, with a tour having just departed so, not prepared to wait almost an hour for the next one, we made do with our own makeshift tour of the giftshop and all the exhibits in the reception area. Suited me fine since, seeing as I’m convinced I’m allergic to whiskey since it has made me violently ill both times I’ve tried it (in my twenties), this excursion has been filling me with trepidation since Christian suggested it!

He was also filled with less anxiety pulling out of the distillery having literally rather than figuratively ‘bought the t-shirt’ – a relief we both expressed when less than half an hour later we were negotiating the lanes around our residence, so tight that I actually got out of the car to direct as we inched through! 

We had booked into a hostel, which we do by rare exception and had only done so this time since they offered private en suite rooms. Turns out that there were only a handful, enabled by the hostel having bought the townhouse next door. It felt like we had an apartment since we had a suite the opened onto a twin bedroom, with a private double bedroom on the one side and bathroom on the other. It was flippen’ freezing in the room, so the extra duvets would come in handy!

Having not eaten since breakfast and no doubt psyched by the fact that it was dark even though it was only 4pm, the first and only priority was to get some dinner.

Our burly but friendly reception desk chap hadn’t hesitated an instant when we asked for a referral, offering The Fish Wife as his recommendation. Perfect. He’d given us a very simple tourist map and set us on the right direction so we headed off into the night (well, dark afternoon), single-minded.

The fish ‘n chips shop was tiny, with a couple of bar stools in the small customer-side of the mostly-kitchen space. But it smelled heavenly and offered the service of delivering your food to you across the road on the ‘heated & seated’ terrace of the Shelbourne pub, should you be amenable to returning the favour and buying a drink.

We were amenable and ordered a Murphy’s stout (checking out the competition, being on their home turf ‘n all) while we waited, people-watching the bustling MacCurtain Street in rush hour.

Soon our cod and chips (with mushy peas) arrived and we could see what all the fuss was about. It wasn’t as homely as North Shields Fish Quay with their complimentary bread & butter and pots of tea, nor as picturesque as Mersea’s offering, but it was generously portioned, delicious and well-timed which is a hattrick that adds big points.

Fed and happy we followed the sounds of cheering that we’d heard intermittently as the wind had carried it in our direction. Over the River Lee and into what looked to be Cork’s upmarket shopping hub. As we crossed over the bridge we could see that the streat ahead that  run  between  the  big  glossy department stores lining either  side  had  been cordoned off and we were faced with the back of a stage.

We followed the crowds around the block, eager to see what all the fuss was about. Turned out to be a big event celebrating turning on the town’s official Christmas lights. The road was packed and there were entertainers and food stalls keeping everyone in good humour and piped commentary from the local radio station, who seemed to be hosting the event. Nothing was happening on the stage yet, but there was obviously a show to follow.

We hung around for about half an hour, soaking up the vibe and the surrounds, but on asking a policeman what time things were happening and being told there was another hour and a half to wait, we decided that we’d seen enough Christmas lights in our time to imagine what takes ones would be like.

We made our way back to the entertainment district and picked Corner House pub to round off the day with Guinness and traditional music.

Having consulted THREE weather sites for a rain-check, I was confident it was Not Raining on Monday so, because it was warming up and dry, I ditched the full hooded waterproof jacket in favour of a more comfortable lined hoodie that would suit our ‘in and out the car’ day.

We headed off to Cobh (pronounced ‘cove’), the last stop of the ill-fated Titanic journey, as our first excursion for the day. 

Needless to say the ‘not rain’ was still too much rain for us and we skipped the waterfront walk and museum visit we’d planned to enjoy a real genuine homegrown Cobh breakfast instead. 

It was a great call – 3 pork sausages, bacon and an egg on a mammoth roll, washed down by a pot of tea, for €5 each, from a tearoom that had been exactly there for over 100 years, told us more about Cobh than we’d intended to learn. Double thumbs up!!

It was slightly less not raining when we left the tearoom and we managed a quick trot along the promenade, which rewarded us with a photo opp with a passing Irish Battleship!

Feeling smug and rewarded for a great decision and job well done, we hit the road for Blarney.

30 something kilometres later we got to Blarney to visit the famous Blarney Castle and kiss the Blarney Stone.

The Castle is the 3rd structure to be on the site: a 10th Century wooden hunting lodge was replaced by a stone structure in around 1210, which was demolished and used as foundations by Cormac McCarthy in 1446. It’s the tower of this 3rd castle that tourists have been visiting for hundreds of years to see the Blarney Stone which is embedded in the walls below the battlements. Kissing the stone is supposed to give the ‘gift of the gab’ and, being slightly below floor level, requires that you lie on your back and bend over backwards to kiss it. It’s likely a load of baloney, but still worth a shot!

You can walk through the whole castle, exploring the alcoves and niches that branch from the central narrowing spiral stone stairwell. While an architectural and construction victory to be still standing all these years later, it’s a far from comfortable dwelling style. And must be a mission to furnish!

The castle is set in magnificent gardens, said to be one of the most visited in Ireland (hardly surprising with the Castle as a top attraction and with the price of the entry ticket!) so we took a wander around the prehistoric fern garden, the deadly Poison Garden and Rock Close with the Yew trees and Druid stones until it started to not-rain again so we headed for the car.

Leaving Blarney we had the end goal for the day in mind – get to Killarney. 

Travelogue Ireland 3: Waterford

WATERFORD

19 November 2017

Waterford was a detour daytrip added once we’d spoken to my folks who had been (some 24 years ago) on their own roadtrip. A quick Google revealed that the pretty coastal town had 3 main things to offer – the world-famous crystal, the historically significant Viking Triangle and the “blaa” (a bready doughy thing that definitely seemed worth a try).

Leaving Kilkenny a little later than expected, we were delighted to find that Waterford was not only a mere 48km from Kilkenny, but it was also double lane freeway all the way.

Barely half an hour later, there we were. In Waterford!

Waterford claims to be Ireland’s oldest city, over 1100 years old, having been settled by Regnall (Anglicised to Reginald), the Viking adventurer and pirate in 914. He established a base, named it Veorafjorer (“haven from then windswept sea”), built a ‘longphort’ dock, made himself king and then took a fleet of ships and sailed to York, conquered it and became the first Norse king of York as well.

Waterford has embraced that story and created The Waterford Viking Triangle; a compact historical adventure in the old town with a concentration of things steeped in history to see and do.

We parked on the quay and made our way to the apex of the triangle to start with Reginald’s Tower; the oldest civic building, going back to 947AD, which now houses a Viking exhibition inside and a 40 foot replica Viking longboat outside.

We arrived at exactly midday, which the signboard outside advised was the start of Storytelling. Serendipitously, entrance to the Tower was free for the day, as part of some Winter celebration, so we went all the way to the top… And then did a rapid about-turn when we were faced with the storyteller; a lady in a heavy velvet cape and hat, wielding a ukelele. She’d already started plinketty-plonking and warbling the story. I think Christian might have thrown himself from the top of the tower if I’d subjected him to that for the full hour!

We did have a squizz at the other exhibits on the lower floors which gave us some insight into the who’s who and what’s what.

It’s a pity that Waterford’s Epic Walking Tour only runs in summer as we’d have liked to do that since it seems to hit the whole Triangle and it would have been nice to have some details (and anecdotes)… But we made do with our own makeshift walking tour, armed with a free map from the Medieval Museum.

The triangle is so compact that it’s more of a ‘pivot’ tour with short bursts of walking in between. Emerging from the Medieval Museum, we did the first pivot with the Royal Theatre, Mayors’ Treasury and King of Vikings virtual reality experience to the right and Bishops Palace and Christ Church Cathedral to the left. 

We went left and took a cheesy snap at the Strongbow and Aoife interactive sculpture – a set of bronze throne chairs.

Strongbow was a Norman Lord (Richard Fitzgilbert De Clare) who was recruited by the King of Leinster who had made a poor political choice and – adding insult to injury – had abducted another regional king’s wife and thus fled to England. He wasn’t having much success enlisting support until he happened upon Strongbow who took a fancy to the King’s daughter, Aoife, and put together an army of men to send to Ireland to help the King regain his land, which they were able to do… And then some. Seems like the Normans and Irish got on better than either did with the English so perhaps not so smart on the King’s part to jump out of the pan and into the flames. 

On a more somber note, the next photo opportunity was the John Condon memorial; a bronze sculpture in Cathedral Square commemorating the outbreak of World War I, which claimed the lives of more than 1100 Waterford men and women, including the youngest soldier to die in the war at just 14 years old.

On that note we concluded the tour with a visit to the famous House of Waterford Crystal and its lavish retail store that holds the largest collection of Waterford Crystal in the world – hardly surprising, looking at the price tags! Needless to say, the only keepsake we came away from the crystal shop with are lovely memories and a photograph for the annals.

Sadly, we came up dry on the third goal for the day, based on our Googling turning up that these ‘blaa’ bread rolls are a bakery thing and there were no bakeries open, being a Sunday afternoon.

Still, as they say, 2 outta 3 ain’t bad and we felt we’d had enough Waterford experience to have been more than worthwhile, so we hit the road for the next stop on our Epic Ireland Roadtrip Experience (EIRE).

Travelogue Ireland 1: Dublin

DUBLIN

16-18 November 2017

Ireland had been high on the travel list for as long as the (virtual) list had been in existence, but it was probably the Guinness drought at our local, The George, in Umhlanga (where we’d temporarily relocated to for 6 months starting in September) which raised its priority.

We patched together a roadtrip map, booking our rental car and accommodation but otherwise setting off with an unusually thin plan, thanks largely to a crazy work schedule (which is neither the stereotype for Durban nor the lifestyle we’d envisioned for our coastal relocation) and rationalised our relaxed agenda with Ireland’s notoriously temperamental (read: miserable) weather. We figured there was no point wasting time planning things that we might not get to / want to do if the weather fell foul. Besides, everything looks lovely in the pictures anyway and, no matter what, we’d have some solid logging for our Guinness Index.

Thankfully our flight landed at 11h10 so we had the kindest possible acclimation, emerging from the airport into the 8 degrees midday ‘high’ in Dublin; bracing to say the least. But it wasn’t raining, so thank heavens for small mercies!

We’d specifically chosen our hotel because it was central to the sights and the airport Airlink bus stops right outside. The airport is also only a few miles from the city so it was an easy commute to get to where we needed to be. Right in the thick of all we needed to see!

With such a quick ‘n easy process, we were at our hotel just after 12 so too early to check into our room. We stowed our bags in the luggage room (uneasily, being South Africans, which means always assuming someone is going to steal your stuff!) and headed out to see what we could see.

True to form, maps give great direction but little perspective and everything was much closer than we thought it would be.

Our little orientation circuit took us down Henry Street (a wide pedestrian shopping street), along to the Liffey River and over it on one of the many bridges into Temple Bar (the famous pub district) back  over the Liffey on the Ha’Penny Bridge, along the renown O’Connell Street, back down Talbot Street (another pedestrian arcade) and back to the hotel, just passed 2 o’clock check-in!

The first of our only 2 pre-arrangements was a Guinness Storehouse tour (an obvious must for anyone’s trip to Dublin, or Ireland for that matter), booked for 5pm. We’d be booked the last entry for the day because it’s half-price online (€17.50) and to double as sundowners. We’re also flash tourists so didn’t see the 7pm closing time as a risk to taking in the full experience.

That left us enough time to freshen up, do some basic research (internet, Google Maps, the magazine guide in the room and my brother on WhatsApp since he happened to be in Dublin as well and had spent a few weeks there already so knew the lay of the land) and grab a quick bite en route. We wanted convenience food but local, so ate at a Supermac – a “100% Irish” (according to every piece of branding) burger chain with a branch every time you blink – with a carb bomb tasty and filling enough to be The Meal For The Day.

We got to the Guinness Storehouse a bit early, which didn’t seem to matter as nobody checked our (bargain 5pm) tickets and we were welcomed and ushered through to start our tour on the light side of 4.30pm. 

It’s an impressive set-up, with the intro conducted at the base of the 7 storey circular atrium designed to look like a pint glass – that would hold 14.3 million pints (the equivalent of 3 pints per person in Ireland!). After the intro, guests are set free to enjoy a self-guided tour at their own pace, which really appeals to us.

Each floor tells a different story through larger-than-life displays, videos, interactive exhibits and bitesize chunks of info displayed on walls, floors and ceilings to keep things interesting and entertaining. 

The recipe is shared in painstaking detail: Barley… Hops… Yeast… Water… And, the secret ingredient, Arthur Guinness.

Arthur and his wife Olivia had 21 children, but they lived in difficult times and only 10 survived to carry on the family name. The business was family run for several generations, but is now owned by alcohol brandhouse Diageo, which is a bit of a shame.

The tour ends with a free pint in the top floor bar, Gravity, which has spectacular 360 degree views over Dublin with etched blurbs on the glass so you know what you’re looking at.

It seemed only natural that our next stop would be the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub, dating back to 1198. A quaint patchwork of a pub with a series of adjoining rooms, with lots of nooks crannies crammed with tables and chairs / stools. Very festive and lots of hearty food being served. 

My brother came through and joined us for a pint of Guinness which led to a bit of a pub crawl that included Oliver St John Gogarty (Temple Bar classic with live traditional music and a pricy pint) and Mulligan’s (more down-to-earth and €1.30 cheaper per pint!)

It’s been a worthy innings for Arrival Day and we welcomed a good night’s kip in a warm bed!

The second (and last) of our pre-arrangements was a walking tour departing from City Hall Square at 11am. 

We had a very leisurely start to our first holiday-day, languishing in the not-having-to-get-upness of it all and appreciating the soft and warm duvet before having to suit-up with all the layers to take on the elements.

We left our sanctum just after 10 and picked up a banger and bacon baguette en route to the tour meeting place.

We were again lucky (and delighted!) that it wasn’t raining in a city that according to our tour guide, Jack, gets an average of 270 days of rain per year.

Jack started us on our tour with a summary of Ireland’s illustrious history, with the fitting backdrop of Dublin Castle, built by King John (the bad guy from Robin Hood).

10,000 years ago, Ireland was connected to Britian by land bridge in the Ice Age. Then the ice melted and split the two. (Our guide was openly elated about that!)

Apparently then, some time later, the Romans came to Ireland and set up trading posts and whatnot… But buggered off when they experienced the weather, naming it Hibernia “The Land of Eternal Winter”.

In 841 Ireland got its first Viking invasion. They thought it was a fabulous place and did a great job of establishing a whole bunch of towns, including Dublin in 988.

Almost 350 years after the Vikings invaded, the Normans arrived in 1169, invited by the Irish King Of Leinster who had been driven out of his kingship by a rival Irish King. But then he didn’t have enough soldiers to win it back. This marked the beginning of almost 800 years of British rule.

The Irish and the English actually got on pretty well until Henry VIII, who broke away from Catholic Church, which didn’t suit the Irish commitment to religion.

As if enemies and invasion weren’t enough, proper disaster struck in the 1840s and 50s. The 8.5 million people succumbed to the failed potato crop, the staple food – and, in most cases, almost only food – of the majority of the population and only half survived. More still emigrated and wilted the population down to a couple of million. It’s taken over a century to recover and Ireland still only has 6.7 million people now.

The North/South split came about from the Easter Uprising in April 1916 when a group of Irish nationalists staged a rebellion against the British and proclaimed an Irish Republic. It lasted 6 days and resulted in self-governing parliaments for Northern Ireland (the six north-eastern counties) and Southern Ireland.

In 1922 Ireland got its independence for the first time in 750 years. 210 or so wars in Irish history… And they only won 1. The last one. The War of Independence. Which explains the commitment to Isolationism, including remaining neutral in the World War.

Ireland’s independence left deep political division. Catholics wanted a Republic (IRA); the Protestants appreciated what England had done for them and wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom. It was a bloodthirsty battle that spanned decades and took thousands of lives. 1998 saw the Good Friday Agreement which ended the formal bloodshed almost overnight.

The economy enjoyed a heyday called the Celtic Tiger at the end of the 20th Century, but then the economy collapsed – and again a lot of people emigrated  to find jobs and opportunities – and the country is only now starting to recover from the recession.

To finish off the story of the  Irish/English, Queen Elizabeth only visited Ireland for the first time since Independence in 2011. It was apparently a solemn occasion that was observed in quiet contemplation from home… In stark contrast to the 100,000 people that had lined the streets for Obama’s visit. The Queen, bless her, wore a bright green dress, started her public address with a warm opener in Gaelic (nice touch) and did a good job of humanising herself on the visit by taking in the tourist sights, including the Guinness Storehouse (where she didn’t fancy her pint, but Prince Philip polished it off for her, after gulletting his own).

By now we’d walked around the Castle and were on the outside, next to the Charles Beatty Library, which Jack told is is one of the best places to visit in Dublin (and is free to enter).

Dublin Castle is 800 years old but only the tower survived with extentions of Georgian architecture, for which Dublin is famous, and a Gothic church that hasn’t seen a service since 1990. We could now see, on the other side the historic building, it has been painted in bright colours – a hangover of the Celtic Tiger mania and too expensive to reverse, according to our guide (who calls it ‘Legoland’). 

The tour then moved on to the Christ Church Cathedral, which has had its fair share of mottled past, including being home to a brothel for 30 years… To add insult to injury, run by serial killer madame, Darkey Kelly.

We were by now 2 of the 3 hours into the tour so Jack gave us (and himself) a break at Bob’s Bar in Temple Bar, which was already festive and I suspect where every day is St Patrick’s Day. 

By the way, until 1978 it was illegal in Ireland to sell alcohol on St Patrick’s Day. It was supposed to be a day spent in church or in quiet contemplation, appreciating the Saint – who was actually Welsh and only visited Ireland twice – bringing Christianity to Ireland.

Hardly the case anymore!

Jack regrouped us and walked us through Trinity College’s beautiful campus and on to the National Library, where he sat us on the steps while he concluded his story with insight into modern day politics. 

He then advised on good places to eat and drink in Dublin and invited us to join him at O’Neill’s, which we did… For a lot longer than expected! 

Four pints, four hours and a whole lot of stories later, we parted ways with the world’s best tour guide, Jack Redmond, and went for a very necessary traditional Irish dinner at O’Shea’s, comprising Irish Stew and Beef & Guinness Pie. Obviously.

Travelogue South Africa: Kynsna

KNYSNA

13-17 July 2017
Based on a New Year’s resolution to get fit(ter) in 2017, we succumbed to entering the Knysna Half-Marathon that our friends had been trying to get us to enter for years, unsuccessfully.
It seemed like July was lifetimes away and there would be plenty time to train… But you know what they say about time when you’re having fun. It’s not training, it’s flying.
We had planned ahead with the flight though and had Vitality Flight Booster in place to get us from Jozi to George for a long weekend to balance the running bit with a lekker experience on the loveliest coast in South Africa (in our opinions).
Half day’s leave aside, it was the usual frenzied depart from the Big Smoke and we both banged away madly on laptops on the flight down. A worthwhile exercise such that we could arrive with ducks in neat rows, to join our friends Tim and Wendy who’d be our partners in crime and who had flown down earlier than us.
They had caught a taxi to Oubaai Spa and Resort and made a mini-break of the few hours our later arrival afforded. They’d brunched and had a massage and by the time we arrived were nestled in the bar lounge with their own very comfy couches and fireplace that they’d made the setting for their card games. With their Bluetooth speaker and not another customer in sight, they were not only told to make themselves at home, they were the atmosphere.
All excited to be on holiday, we shared a welcome drink and a catch-up on our quick and painless transfers and then headed for the car – a very fancy free upgrade Mercedes – to make our way to our actual destination for the weekend.
We’d booked better than our usual, thanks to the Vitality travel benefits and found our digs to be very lush; a double storey cottage in the very lovely Belvidere Manor lodge. With bedrooms on both floors, we found ourselves with private suites as well as a cosy communal lounge (complete with fireplace) and kitchen/dining room.
Giddy at our good fortune, we moved to The Bell – dubbed “The smallest pub in Knysna” and the deal-sealer on our choice of accommodation.
With the outer appearance of an old-school barn, in black and white with a big wooden door in a low doorway that Christian had to bend through to avoid hitting his head, and its 10 or so tables in the inviting low yellow glow, The Bell was perfect for our welcome dinner. AND it served the local craft brew, Forresters, on tap!
With a formidable menu of pub grub favourites, we ploughed our way through bangers & mash, fish & chips and a chicken and mushroom pie that was to die for. So far Belvidere Manor was shaping up to be our kind of place!
Friday morning began with the included breakfast; a tasty buffet of fresh baked goods, cold meats, preserves and cheeses, and scrambles and bacon for good measure. We were allocated what we considered to be the best table in the house, a round wrought-iron table in the corner of the wrap-around verandah that hugged the house, with the rolling lawns that infinitied into the view of where the clear blue skies met the sea beyond.
We lingered over breakfast, loosely planning our day but mostly enjoying the morning sun, so strong enough in winter to cut through the chill of the morning but moderate enough to allow for proper basking.
Our first and only mandatory task for the day was collecting our race numbers for the next day’s Marathon. The registration set-up was in a marquee in the same grounds as the Knysna Oyster Fest grounds, so there was already quite a bit of activity with participants of both making their way onto the field.
The process was very well organised and it was only a few minutes later that we were on our merry way with our goody bags in hand.
The stands in the registration hall were all sports related, pedalling all sorts of sportswear, accessories and paraphernalia. It’s scary how expensive everything is for a sport that technically requires no equipment. This certainly wasn’t looking like an event where you just pop on some trainers and hit the road!
The boys took part in one of the interactives, where you had to pedal as fast as you can for a minute and they rewarded you for calories burned with the equivalent amount of Smart Shopper points. Wendy and I shopped (and bought nothing).
With our admin done, we made our way down to the Waterfront to have a coffee in the upstairs restaurant that afforded us the best views through the floor-to-ceiling windows, but out of the icy light wind.
It was really good to have a Friday to ourselves to relax and watch the day go by. With the race the next day, we intended to take everything at a leisurely pace, so planned to stock up on snacks and head back to enjoy the fireplace in our cottage with an afternoon of cards and laughs.
We’d seen signs for a Superspar so headed off in that general direction. Walking a few blocks in and having no new clues as to its whereabouts, we asked a couple of car guards for directions. Their “you can’t miss it” style directions were an oversell and despite our best efforts, we seemed to criss-cross the better part of the whole of town… And ended up at Checkers!
We do love a new card game and were grateful to have an afternoon of tutorial and practice for this cool new game Tim and Wendy taught us that was clearly designed with drinking penalties in mind! With a cosy fire and easy company, we had a fun and relaxed fritter into the evening.
Dinner had been predetermined as Chatters pizza parlour, based on the delicious aromas that had wafted from the restaurant as we passed on our hunt for the Superspar (whose superhero ability must certainly be invisibility, from our experience).
We arrived at Chatters just before 6pm, amped for an early dinner to suit out early night aspirations. Chatters was already busy and were fully booked for a double sitting. Not taking ‘No’ for an answer, we tested a new technique and just hovered until someone (else) made a plan… Which saw us sitting at a garden table and eating fresh pizzas 20 minutes later, washing it down with a single glass of red to balance celebrating the good life with good sense of the impending morning ahead of us.
Returning home we thought we’d prep ourselves for the morning and then resume position playing cards, not realising how much admin goes into race prep! Besides the usual stuff like pinning numbers to shirts and whatnot, this race had some sophistications like electronic timing tags that had to be attached to shoelaces, conveniences like a togbag service that required ID tagging, and of course situational circumstances that needed a whole bunch of pre-planning.
The race starts at the top of a mountain so we needed to catch a taxi to the park-and-ride shuttle meeting point (and there’s no Uber in Knysna so it was a prearrangement that had to be made at hotel reception with a local driver); the shuttle required a tag that was included in the race pack. Once at the top of the mountain there was an inevitable wait while the 8500 participants all were shuttled up to the start so we needed to be warm.
The organisers had advised that they would be collecting discarded clothing and blankets to be donated to the poor and those affected by the terribly Knysna fires that had ravaged the town only weeks before leaving countless people homeless. This meant that we didn’t have to ration clothing on the day, having to carry whatever we wore through the whole race. It was a blessing and a curse and resulted in a veritable tower of clothing that I intended to layer myself in – a bold combination of colours that possibly even the homeless may baulk at!
By the time we were done it was bedtime. A great call – a good night’s sleep is invaluable when it comes to anything taxing, especially something tasking the mind as heavily as it was bound to task the body. I was still VERY intimidated at the thought of running 21km in a row!
But the morning came and our prep paid off. The taxi was waiting at 6am, as arranged. The shuttle was an incredibly well-oiled machine. And we had no more than a half hour to hover and worry and not get toooo cold (although I couldn’t feel my toes, they were so numb).
Soon we were huddled at the start, counting down to the gun going off… And we were away.
Well, not immediately away. It takes quite some time for that many people to even get to the start line and it was a good 5 minutes before we were even on the official track, taking the first official step of oh-so many.
As always, the first kilometre was slow and clumsy while the pack sorted itself out. And again we wondered why people who fully intend on walking the race still jostle to get to the front for the start.
The first few kilometres were uphill but we were pleasantly surprised as we’d prepared for quite a climb based on the anecdotal accounts we’d been given from friends who’d successfully completed the course in previous years.
It was still good relief when the course plateaued – and another relief when the several kilometres of downhill were not as death-defying as they’d been painted to be.
The hardest part was actually the last couple of kilometres as the course joined the seafront promenade. After all the ups and downs, running on flat ground was a lot harder than it should be. Most likely because of the 20 odd kilometres that had been put onto my wildly unprepared legs already. Running out of juice, I even had to walk a bit in the home strait, able to see the Finish line; so close but yet so far away!
We did remarkably for our first attempt; I came in on 2 hours and Christian 10 or so minutes after me. We’d set our sights on somewhere around the 2h15 to 2h20 mark and had thought that to be optimistic as Half-Marathon virgins! Of course, we didn’t hold a candle to Tim’s ridiculously fast 1h48 finish! … But that just meant he had time to get the beers in while he waited for us!
Conveniently, the Finish line for the race was into the Oyster Fest ground so it was an easy sell to have a lovely long sit and sample all the Forresters craft beers that were flowing freely. The weather had truly been kind to us on this winter’s morning and even though it was chilly with a persistent icy breeze, the sun was still smiling on us – and it could have been a LOT worse on a coast that’s known for being Cold And Wet.
Lunch soon became a concern – hardly surprisingly only with a few bananas on board and almost 1500 calories burned! – but the queues were too long as the Festival stalls to make them viable for standing on weary legs, so we decided to see what the town had on offer.
Exiting the grounds, we lucked upon a bank of taxis sponsored by Europcar that were shuttling guests to local places of interest. We jumped in the Thiessen Island one, which left immediately almost as if on command and with us as the only passengers so we felt quite swish.
We were going to hit the Forresters brewery for lunch, but it proved to be as elusive as a Superspar… Which worked out to our favour as we found ourselves on the doorstep of Freshline Fisheries, a name I’d seen featured highly on TripAdvisor and which perfectly fitted my proposed brief for lunch: the finest fish n chips in Knysna.
At that it was. What a fabulous lunch!
Snoek cakes, battered hake, deep-fried calamari, grilled gurnard, Thai prawn curry, fat finger crispy chips. We mowed through the lot! With insult to injury being that the place isn’t licensed so the boys ended up having to hunt down Forresters brewery anyway to get takeaways to accompany lunch!
Fed and happy, we phoned our taximan from the morning to come and fetch us and were amused that he’d upgraded us from the morning’s Camry to a Mercedes – he must’ve heard about how well we’d run!
He took us home where we welcomed a long shower and slathered lotions and potions on our tired muscles to try stave off some of the impending pain that inevitably comes with such a test of endurance as we’d put ourselves through.
The sun was out and our patio sheltered from the rain so we were able to relax and bask in the sun and in the afterglow of our achievements.
All too soon it was the time that every Saturday brings. Rugbytime.
The boys had decided it was an event most suited to The Bell so at 4.30 we made our way down to get settled for the 5pm Lions vs Sharks game. We weren’t the only ones with that idea of course and our little pub was packed, bar one little table for 4 that suited us nicely, thank you!
We settled in and had dinner there as well before grabbing a take-out bottle of wine to resume our positions in front of our fireplace with a new card game to try, called Exploding Kittens, which was probably only marginally more dramatic than the mammoth achievement we’d accomplished that morning.
We woke up to a grey, wet and very cold Sunday, thanking our lucky stars that the Big Day prior had been so mild by comparison. It would have made a tough race even tougher if it had been as bitterly cold… And a proper “character building” exercise if it had been raining as well.
Hobbling to breakfast, we were seated in the cosy lounge to have our first course (fresh baked goods and hot drinks) while we waited for a table to free up. The leisurely pace was appreciated with my aching body making everything take a little longer than usual anyway!
We’d assigned the day to doing a bit of sightseeing and oyster-sampling and were not going to let a little damp weather spoil our plans. We were however going to happily let it delay them a bit, relishing the opportunity to light another fire and enjoy some couch time (and a new application of lotions and balms to soothe the muscles!)
A break in the drizzle prompted us to get moving and we drove around to the East Heads and explored Leisure Isle and its sliver of beach as well as a flash visit to the look-out point to get some snaps.
Content that we’d ticked the tourist boxes, we made our way to the Forresters Brewpub. Which was closed. As was the boutique where I wanted to get fun denim jacket we’d spotted earlier in the trip. And the waffle shop we’d earmarked for afternoon snacks. Clearly Sunday is not a big business day in Knysna!
We backtracked to Thesen Island which is always lovely and lucked out on the last table at a very festive restaurant called Tapas & Oyster. They had a live duo belting out classics and an army of servers bringing endless little plates of tapas to the tables, which made for a buzzing atmosphere.
It was a great choice. As not-a-fan of oysters, even I couldn’t resist sampling the interesting choices on the menu. We started with splitting portions of tempura oysters, oysters in garlic butter (sort of like snails usually are served) and an exotic oysters in tequila with a splash of chilli, a dollop of cream cheese and a whiff of caviar. All were delicious… But not enough for me to join the others in the final round of classic conventional oysters.  But I did try the crispy salmon California rolls which, with their layer of batter around the outside, was completely my speed.
It was a very pleasant afternoon indeed! … Which we closed off with watching the sunset over the horizon, creating a silhouette over the boats docked in the harbour.
Quite smug at our successful afternoon, we rounded off with a last few rounds – and a waffle! – in our local before taking a last bottle of red back to our cottage for a final fireside fritter.

Travelogue Italy 6: Pompeii & Vesuvius

POMPEII & VESUVIUS

22 June 2017

Even though Vesuvius is only a few miles out of Naples, we had decided upfront in the itinerary planning to rather double-bill it with Pompeii on the Sorrento leg of our journey.

We’d done little research from home, thinking it would be an easy one to arrange from our homebase when we arrived, but the receptionist at our hotel pipped it on check-in when she said (unprompted) that we needn’t book a tour as the local train service delivers you to the entrance to the ruins, where you can join a tour or get an audio guide.

This corresponded with what our friends from home – who had been there only a few weeks earlier – had told us, adding that the Rick Steves audio guide app was essential, so we’d already downloaded it in prep for our self-guided tour.

The hardest part of the whole plan was getting out of bed (it had been a very busy holiday with the very taxing Amalfi cruise the day before) and tearing ourselves away from the buffet – although Continental, it was a good spread of cheeses, cold meats and cakes, with a stunning view over a little orchard next door (lemons of course; there lemon trees on every inch of uninhabited land in this neck of the woods!)

We compromised and caught a later train, jumping on the 10.20 Express train, which had us in Pompeii in just over half an hour.

True to form on what we’d read, touts were hanging about at the gate, “helping” tourists to make the most of their visit; to access things that they wouldn’t get in normal tickets, to avoid the hours of standing in the queues at the gate, to save them loads of money with added-value packages. You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true.

We deftly sidestepped them all and headed straight for the gate – which couldn’t have been more than 50m away – booking tickets online as we moved in order to avoid the hours-long queue we’d be warned about.

There were no such queues but, with our shrewd last-minute purchase, we did go to the front of the Online Booking queue and were in the main gate minutes later.

We switched on the audio tour and let Rick Steves and his sidekick Lisa tell us all about Pompeii and how it had come to be.

Now inland, Pompeii (established in about 600BC by the Greeks) had previously (prior to the Vesuvius eruptions) been a coastal town, and a busy port in the early ADs since Rome controlled the Mediterranean so it was essentially one big trade zone. It was a strongly middle class town, that epitomised Roman life in its time.

We walked through the town, marvelling at the simple genius that the Romans applied so very long ago. Basic things like using broken pottery to make pavements that not only hid the plumbing that lay beneath and was functional recycling, but was also studded with chips of white marble that reflected like cats’ eyes at night to light the way.

They had stepping stone crosswalks so that pedestrians didn’t have to walk on the wet roads after they were flushed clean with running water each day (can you imagine that kind of municipal service now??) and the number of stepping stones also indicated the classification of the road with 1, 2 and 3 signifying one-way, dual carriageway and major road respectively. So practical!

Moving onto the Forum – the central town square – was the first real immersion into the fact that this was a town, living and breathing in the shadow of Vesuvius, the backdrop only 5 miles away.

Vesuvius had erupted in August 79AD, to the utter astonishment of a town that had no idea they were living on a volcano since it hadn’t erupted in 1200 years!

There must have been pandemonium as the volcano shot smoke, rocks and dust 12 miles into the air and the wind swept ash right over the town, falling like rain or snowflakes until it buried the whole place, with 2,000 of its 20,000 population along with it.

Oddly, it was the fact that the city was covered in ash that helped to preserve it, saving it from the various plunderers that ravaged the region as battles were had and empires rose and fell around it.

The tour was eerily “everyday life” and took us through a couple of homes, a bakery, a brothel and even a take-away outlet. Life didn’t seem quite so bad back then, especially the steam baths, with their heated floors and the aquaduct and pumps to ensure they had satisfactory  a water pressure. The Romans were very clever engineers and seemed to focus a lot of their energy on convenience and creature comforts!

The tour ended off with the set of amphitheatres – a small intimate one and another grander one that had a stage and scaffolding set up so is clearly still in use.

The Pompeii complex of ruins, being an entire town, can take as long as you want it to. We’d really enjoyed the commentary on the audio guide – we fully intended to use Rick Steves’ relevant chapters for our Rome sightseeing! – and found it quite comprehensive in covering all the things we wanted to see in a couple of hours.

This left us the afternoon for Vesuvius.

Easier said than done. The Pompeii tour had ejected us into (the modern) Pompeii town, so we were at a loss as to next steps. Googling didn’t help as the info we got all seemed quite contraditory, so we picked a side and headed off in the direction that corresponded with the McDonald’s golden arches signs, figuring that if we got lost, we could have a tactical burger and a regroup.

We didn’t get that far. We spotted an info desk a few blocks down and when we asked the chap for directions, he pointed at his van that was about to leave for Vesuvius and, since he had 3 seats left and it was about to leave, he lobbed off €5 each, which sealed the deal and we were packed in with the other 10 or so people headed on the same adventure.

Arriving at the park, we were set free and given time to climb the path alongside the crater to get to its peak to peer inside and get panoramic views outwards. There are a few pitstop points along the way, where you can catch free guides that talk you through what you’re seeing. When we got to the first pitstop, the Italian group was just leaving and a German group was being gathered. Too impatient to wait, we started up the trail ourselves.

It’s quite a trek, but just because it’s unrelenting uphill, not requiring any skill or abnormal level of fitness. We managed to catch up with an English tour and the guide was a wealth of knowledge.

He told us that Vesuvius is said to be the most dangerous volcano in the world because it’s so close to so many people – with a couple of million people in Naples which is only 9km away and more than 600,000 people living in the 18 towns in the Red Zone (within 12km) of the volcano that will certainly be destroyed in the next eruption.

The threat is not just the volcanic ash, as was the cause of the devastation in Pompeii, but also the lava, heat and gasses that could have catastrophic consequences. The day after the Pompeii disaster the volcano erupted again, this time creating a cloud of ash, pumice and gas, which sped down the hillside so fast that nothing in its way stood any chance of escape. It was when this flow reached water and exploded that it decimated the people of neighbouring Herculaneum, and the resultant hot mudslide buried the town, turning to stone as it cooled.

Scientists watch everything very closely, checking temperatures, gasses, seismic activity, all the indicators and early warning signs so that they can give as much advance notice for evacuation, which is estimated at 72 hours (not accounting for the inevitable hysteria).

Fortunately though, Vesuvius didn’t erupt the day we were there. We were able to climb to the full 1200m tip and peer into the crater, where you don’t see the swirling cauldron of molten lava you might expect in movie. It’s a massive hole, with grey and black streaks where lava has solidified and, most scarily, steam coming out of crevasses to remind you that Vesuvius is still alive, well and will inevitably erupt again.

Also bear in mind that the cone of the volcano as we know it today is only a fraction of the original. From Pompeii we’d seen more clearly how mammoth the original volcano was; when it erupted it literally blew its top and left behind the active cone we were now standing on as well as a smaller one to the right hand side that is part of the caldera (the large cauldron-like depression formed  by the collapse of the volcano). Following the escalation of the outsides of the two to complete the full cone, you got a rough idea of how enormous that volcano was – and how scary that eruption must have been for all those people in 79AD!

Not that that was its last show. It’s erupted dozens of times since then, and had a handful of notable episodes in the last century, including a spectacular display in 1944 in full view of the Allied armies who had taken Naples a few months earlier and whose bomber planes were rendered useless. Mother Nature pulling rank, no doubt.

Our session with the guide had really brought the experience to life, but it was only when he gave specific instructions to rest of his audience that we realised we’d unwittingly joined a paid tour!

Nobody seemed to mind though, so we were on our merry way (in the opposite direction to the group) and headed down the trail to get back to our bus.

It turned out to be a good thing that we had the tour bus as the driver was good enough to take us all the way to the train station after he’d dropped off the full-price planned group at their respective hotels. It saved us another “where in the world are we? And where do we need to be??” situation!

The train we caught back was clearly not the Express as it stopped many times along the way and, although it did seem intent on attempting a landspeed record in the tunnels, took over an hour. Which was OK really as we had seats and we didn’t have to drive so after a long day’s trekking it was kinda nice to just sit for a bit.

And book dinner.

There was no way we could wait until Italy-o-clock to eat an elegant late-night Mediterranean dinner, so we threw caution to the wind and booked a 7pm at the lovely resturant we’d designated as our last hurrah.

A flash through the shower and a fresh set of clothes and we were ready for action again.

A bit too ready possibly, as we jetted down the Corsa Italia (the main road that ran in front of our hotel, the length of town and which our restaurant was at the end of) so hastily that, in fact, we were running early for our super-early dinner.

Fortunately, when life throws you lemons, you’re likely to be in Sorrento where lemons are plentiful. There was a little lemon orchard just before our restaurant and it was not only open for a looksee, but also offering lemoncello tasting.

The orchard was, as you’d expect, rows and rows of lemon trees and a few mandarin trees for good measure. Not a blade of grass though. It was weird; Sorrento had been much greener than any of the other places we’d been that were paved end-to-end, but it was all lemon trees on sandy patches. But the trees were full of fruit and the lemons grow HUGE so maybe they’ve got it right with doing the one thing properly.

The tasting was a little less successful with a mouthful of very strong lemoncello, mandarincello and a nasty strong liquorish liqueur. All those on an empty stomach (yes, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast!) was enough to make me a trifle giddy!

By now it was dinnertime and we were relieved to see that another couple had beaten us to the restaurant so they were ready and serving. The pizza oven wasn’t hot yet though so we switched up our usual and had our pasta first and the pizza to follow. This was no time to be stuck on pomp and ceremony – we were starving.

Having eaten, we couldn’t help but stop in at the pub across the road… And Irish Pub called Shannon’s, to log our Guinness Index and review our day and plan the next.

En route home, we detoured past the market for Christian to buy the Italian leather work shoes we’d seen on the first night. I should have put money on it – he bought all 3 pairs!!

Travelogue Italy 5: Sorrento

SORRENTO & AMALFI COAST

20-21 June 2017

Having caught the ferry from Capri after a day of fun in the sun and the sea, we were desperately in need of a shower… And even more so after we’d trekked to our hotel.

Consulting Google Maps as we arrived in the port, we made the executive decision to walk to our hotel since it was only 800m away. Little did we know that, with Sorrento sitting atop a sheer cliff-face, the 800m walk was a 45 degree path that was at least double the distance since it wound back and forth!

We were grateful to arrive into the prettiest boutique town, which is Stepford in its perfection. With the horse and carriage clippetty-clopping on volcanic grey cobblestones past us on a pretty little piazza with gayly coloured flowers, (perfectly flat) Sorrento was a breath of fresh air.

Our hotel was a chip and a putt from there, neatly nestled in a quiet sideroad off the main drag, and its blue and white tiled hallway made us feel fresher already.

We checked into our room (the receptionist was astounded that we’d walked up with our luggage and whispered to me conspiratorially not to tell Christian that there is an elevator from the Port!) and had the long awaited shower – bliss! – before consulting The Fork for our dinner arrangements (since all that self-portering had left us famished!)

With an 8pm reservation in place, we took a whip around the town, delighted to see that the main street was closed off to cars so pedestrians were milling about, shopping, eating and unapologetically people-watching from the many bars and cafes that had their chairs laid out theatre-style facing the road. Judging by the number of pink sun-slapped faces, we assumed that this town was a favourite among the Brits and Scots.

There was also a wonderful market street running parallel to the main street, selling all sorts of wonderful locally produced wares like leather goods, linens and all things lemon (production of which the region is famous for). We would have to return after dinner when we were strong and focused enough to enjoy the experience.

We’d chosen our restaurant for its story. A new place, opened in 2017 by 2 sons to celebrate their father’s apparently illustrious career in waitering. The story, with the weighty name ‘Miseria e Nobilta’ had us curious enough to need to try it out.

We had the most delicious crumbed and deepfried mozarella fritta and croquettes to start, with a most unusual pork and beans pasta and a lasagne for main course, served with a (cold) garlic broccoli. Amazing food and very attentive service with the owners themselves handling drinks and table service.

Happy to have supported a new local business and happier to have been fed to bursting, we took a wander through to the end of town and then back again through the market.

I managed to get a fabulous handcrafted (in Sorrento!) leather bag with, coincidentally, a “C&C” logo punched on the silver clasp, for a bargain €20! And a less elegant, but no less classic bargain Italia supporters hoodie. Christian resisted any immediate purchase, but from the way he was earnestly haggling with the sales lady, I sense the procurement of a collection of leather work shoes in his future!

AMALFI COAST CRUISE

Christian had pre-booked an Amalfi Cruise for us so that we could see as much as possible in the single day we had to explore the massive coastline and all the little towns and villages dotted along it.

Somehow, we’d forgotten to bring our printed tickets but the situation was easily resolved by calling the Get Your Guide call centre, who graciously traced the booking and emailed us a digital ticket.

We met the tour bus at the designated spot – coincidentally outside the restaurant we’d eaten at the night before – and were transported to the Marina where our boat was ready and waiting (with several others).

We were seated at the front of the boat (with the young people, how flattering!)  and were soon jetting off down the coast.

No more than about 15 minutes’ sailing in, we stopped for a swim in a sheltered inlet between a triangulated island and 2 rocky outcrops. We were told this was Isola Regale, owned by Sorrento guy who has built a villa, a church and a restaurant on his little island. The boat provided masks, kickboards and floating rings for us to use while flopping about like we owned the place.

Back on the boat, we sunned and lounged on the padded bow as we sailed along the Amalfi coastline, admiring the view and marvelling at how the houses and villages wedged into the cliffs ever came to be. It would be hard enough today with all the construction technology we have now, but how in the world did they manage it all in yesteryear? And how did they get anywhere, when their homes were so remote with what must be hellish walks to the nearest town!

Our first shore stop was the town of Amalfi, a charming little village constructed around a magnificent Cathedral and bustling piazza. Our hosts on the boat gave us each a prepackaged roll to serve as lunch-on-the-go during our couple hours to explore.

As a tiny little town (hard to believe once the commercial leader of the Mediterranean), we saw all of it in less than half an hour, which might have been less had the back end of the town not started ascending into the slopes of the mountain into which it was built (and might have been more had we had visited the paper and/or the compass museum).

Being midday, everywhere was busy and it was hot so we got an ice-cold Peroni quart and settled in the shade at the beachfront to have our lunch.

Initially unexcited by the prospect of the Caprese sandwich (mozarella and tomato), we were pleasantly surprised to find that it was really tasty, with a fresh and chewy sourdough style roll and pesto and the tomato to add some zest and mositure. It still could have used a slathering of butter, but that doesn’t seem to happen here. We’d yet to have butter served at the travel with the mandatory basket of bread – and when we’d asked, we were brought a bottle of olive oil. And there had also been neither salt nor pepper on the table anywhere for that matter.

Applauding the success of the simple traditional fare, we felt it time to try a “baba”, which is a sort of cross between a cupcake and a tall skinny muffin. From what we’d seen and read, the standard one comes soaked in rum (yuck) so Amalfi was the perfect opportunity to sample since they were known for lemon baba! (And all things lemon really; we saw a lemon the size of my head at one of the stands we passed!)

They were more elusive than you’d have thought. But we found a little bakery that had them and wasted no time in ordering one each… And a lemon cannoli each for luck. Both were beautifully fresh and light and, we surmise, excellent examples of these delicacies.

With half an hour left we braved the pebble beach, hobbling and hopping to the water like we were walking on hot coals! The swim was worth it though and we were a lot less sweaty getting back in the boat.

The skipper guided the boat along the shoreline, moving closer to show us things of interest, like a grotto, a natural rock arch, a really tall bridge (that crazy people jump off for fun), natural coves, bays and even a little waterfall, which he slowly backed into so the people at the back of the boat could touch the water.

Our next shore stop was Positano, which was on the shortlist of places we considered to homebase from. So very glad we didn’t!

A busier, fancier version of Amalfi, the little town – while very pretty and an architectural wonder wedged into the mountain as it is – was a bit devoid of character and felt to us, even as tourists, to be too much of a tourist trap.

Being much of the same, we did a quick whip around to make sure we saw what needed seeing and then spent a good hour sitting in a garden terrace restaurant that served over-prices everything and had terribly service… But had those fans that blow fine mist spray so was easily the coolest place in town.

Finishing off the visit with a cursory hobble into the sea, it was back on the boat for the sunset ride home.

The cruise was great… But we agreed that had it to do all over again we would probably have taken the bus tour which was quicker, cheaper and includes another town (Revello) and a sit-down lunch. Nevermind, we live and learn (from these #firstworldproblems).

Back in Sorrento – and after a heavenly shower! – we had our second dinner in Sorrento at an amazing restaurant called La Tavola Di Lucullo. Even with an 8pm booking, which is early by Mediterranean standards, the restaurant was very busy.

We ordered our water and (now standard) Margherita-to-share starter before even looking at the menu because we were starving, having survived the whole day on the hotel Continental breakfast and the Caprese roll (the Italians are certainly not afraid of carbs!!). So far we’d not had a bad – or even average – meal in Italy, and this dinner was up there among the best.

We had had aspirations of visiting Sorrento’s Irish pub to log the index, but the long day in the sun had us beat so we called it a day, responsibly saving something of ourselves for the next day’s trip to Pompeii.