Category Archives: Europe

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 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.

Travelogue Italy 4: Capri

CAPRI

20 June 2017

The plan was to do a day-long pitstop in Capri island between our visits to Naples and Sorrento, since this famous playground of the rich and famous lay conveniently between the two gulfs of Naples and Solerno, at the end of the Sorrento peninsula. 

We’d booked our tickets to Capri at the port when we arrived, aso all that remained to be done in the morning was eat breakfast and check out before walking (back past Castel Nuovo) to the ferry.

We were surprised and delighted to see some hot fare on the buffet, which had all been strictly Continental until this point. There was a little bain-marie with 3 dishes and we served a spoonful of scrambles and a hearty serving of streaky bacon but passed on the green peas (!!) with little blocks of ham.

Just the jetfuel we needed to lug our suitcases across the Harbourfront to our jetty, where our ferry was ready and waiting for us to board.

The journey was pleasant (thanks to great air-conditioning mostly) and an hour or so later we saw the paradise coast of Capri.

We alighted at Marina Grande and followed the directions we’d found on the internet for a place to store our bags for the day. As luck would have it, the baggage store was opposite the other ferry terminal, where we’d be catching the crossing to Sorrento at the end of the day. For €3 each, it was cheap at the price to be rid of the bags for the day with the peace of mind they were safe.

It’s a small island so there is a finite list of things to do and it was easy to knock a few off right away to make our itinerary fit the day. We were able to lob off a whole coast by skipping their Blue Grotto in the North West (starting to feel like “seen one grotto, seen ’em all”) and the collection of forts in the North East, and decided to catch the bus to the farthest point and work our way back.

That took us to Anacapri. The ancient Greek prefix “ana-” means up/above, signifying that this elegant little village lies above the village of Capri (which is why we took the bus, to avoid further clarification climbing).

Anacapri is less famous than its counterpart and even drawing out our little tour couldn’t have taken more than half an hour and, having seen all 3 major sights in Anacapri, we took the famous Phoenetician Steps down to the Marina Grande, which had been the only access from Marina Grande and Anacapri until 1877 – quite a mission at almost 1000 unevenly spaced and sized stone steps!

It was thirsty work getting down all those steps – don’t be fooled, downhill is still hard work! – and swimtime was a good incentive to keep up the pace.

The beach was, as we were discovering to be the norm, a sliver of pebbles, with the usual half designated to side-by-side extortionately priced loungers and the other half a patchwork of sunbathers. As usual, being South African, we packed all our things into our bag, covered it with our towel (the trusty free-gift towel from Catania. What would we have done without it??) and kept and eye on it from the sea.

As much of a mission as it is to get in and out of the sea because of the blasted pebbles, it’s always nice to be in the water, cooling off.

And essential, since the next trick was to climb the path to Capri. It’s quite a steep and winding path to get you up the mountainside and again we were reminded that Google Maps doesn’t take altitude into account and not all 650m walks are made even! It felt like an epic achievement, but bearing in mind it’s the main path through Capri’s suburbs, this is (still) everyday life for a lot of people!

We’d timed it to be in Capri town for lunchtime, to not only get a bite but (probably more so) to miss the worst of the midday heat. We’d booked a pizza place on the edge of town, fancying it to be a little less busy – the town square, Piazza Umberto, is known as “the lounge of Capri” because all the restaurant tables and chairs blend into one –  and we were right. With a lovely view and on the edge of the chaotic little town, we enjoyed a salami pizza that took forever to come, but was delicious when it arrived.

All that remained for the afternoon was a visit to Marina Piccola, which was supposed to be the smaller, quieter beach, so we set off on foot to enjoy the winding panoramic downhill road.

Marina Piccola was smaller. It was not quieter.

With a section of (pebbled) shoreline servicing two channels of water with a massive boulder in between, there were people everywhere. Worse still, there were teenage boys goading others on the massive rock to jump into the shallow waters. I couldn’t bear to watch as 2 of them jumped in, fearing we were about to bear witness to these youngsters’ undoing.

They were fine. We were off.

We got the bus back up to Capri and trotted down the path back to Marina Grande, which now seemed so much quicker that it was a familiar route.

The ferry schedule gave us lots of options, but we figured our day in Capri was done and successful so we might as well beat the rush, catching the 4pm ferry to Sorrento.

We got our bags from the luggage check and got on the ferry, which was so full we couldn’t even find seats together. Not a big deal though with only a 20 minute crossing to get us to our next instalment.

Travelogue Italy 3: Naples

NAPOLI

19 June 2017

We hadn’t even intended on visiting Naples, thinking we’d catch an overnight ferry or train from Palermo to Sorrento. We’d ascertained in the travel planning that Naples was the nearest airport to Sorrento, but it hasn’t been in the running… Until budget airline Volotea had their 5th birthday special and I managed to nab 2 one way tickets to Naples for €5 each!

So, there we were, in Palermo with a 7am plane to catch. We booked a taxi on the Sunday night so we’d be sorted for our 5.15 pick-up (Palermo airport is 40 minutes out of the city) and cursed our choices when we had to get up at 4.45 to get ready to leave.

As it turned out, we could have had another 20 minutes sleep because our driver was an absolute maniac – who probably could have taken flight himself at the speed he was driving! – and, thanks to clocking 145kmph on a few occasions? and aggressively driving right up to cars in front and flashing his brights at them, we were at the airport in what must have been record time. Thank heavens it was so early. I can’t imagine how hair-raising the chap must be in traffic!

Volotea turned out to be the greatest budget airline ever. I had had some difficulties doing our online check-in on Sunday (something about a payment type conflict, no doubt because of the international credit card) and dropped a mail to their customer care. They replied within minutes, explaining the problem, apologising for our inconvenience and having concluded the check-in for us. The plane left on time, was empty enough for us to have a row of 3 seats each and arrived at our destination early, with our bags already on the carousel by the time we got there!

Having done our research, we bypassed the taxis and caught the express bus to the harbour, which dropped us off 20 minutes later.

We then had to navigate around the famous landmark, Castel Nuovo, to get to our hotel in the pretty suburb on the other side. Having heard stories about Napoli’s reputation for its crime (always, as a South African, taken with a pinch of salt), we’d erred on the side of caution and avoided staying in the tourist centres, as we usually did for convenient access to the sights and amenities.

We were way too early for check-in, so dumped our suitcases (on instruction, in the corner of the entrance hall – where it would be safe. We’d never do that at home!) and went foraging for food.

It was a lovely morning so we got traditional Caprese Napoli sarmies and went to eat in the park, in the shade, with a view of the sea and the castle.

We’d googled for walking tours and planned to meet the Old City tour that met at the Castle but, while we lingered with our sarmies in the park, the group must have left without us because somehow we’d mixed up the times and the tour was actually 10.30 not 11.

We followed the route the tour was taking anyway, since it obviously covered all the basic must-see stuff. Although there was nothing basic about our first stop, the Piazza del Plebiscite with the ridiculously impressive San Francesco of Paola Basilica on the one side and the Palazzo Reale on the other.

Grandeur to the enth, the Basilica was originally planned as a tribute to Napoleon, but by the time it was finished in 1816 he had already been dethroned so it was converted into a church instead, dedicated to St Francis of Paola who had stayed in a monastery on that site in the 1500s. It’s massive. More massive than massive even, reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon with a portico resting on six columns and 2 ionic pillars, and a 53m high done beyond housing all sorts of priceless relics and altarpeices.

We wound our way through the Spanish Quarter and up Via Toledo and were thinking this was going to be more of the same – squares, churches, monuments, churches – until we stumbled across something a bit different to do.

We joined the afternoon Napoli Sotterranea tour, going 40m below ground to see what lies beneath the city.

The Greeks, innovators as they were, excavated below Naples (their Neo Polos or “new city”) 4 centuries BC to make cisterns to aid water supply and sustain their new city.

The first cave shows how they carved out the caves in the “soft” rock, excavating small bricks for building houses and big bricks of the darker lava rocks for use constructing the roads and delivering them to ground level using a pulley system through holes in the ground that served as wells when the cavaties were filled. The second cave showed how the cisterns had ladders so that the water could be cleaned “pool guy” style with a chap who would sweep the well using nets, to clean of the dust from the cave and impurities that might have fallen in. After that it’s a series of very narrow tunnels where then water was funneled from one well to another – and a visit to one with water still in it.

These cisterns were drained in 1940 to make bunkers during WWII. The wells were sealed, floors paved and stairs built, allowed for 2000 people to stay in the cavaties for up to 3 days at a time during the raids.

There has been conjecture on how to continue to use the space functionally, so they’re trying out a Botanical project to see what plants can live sustainably underground. It’s 16 degrees and they’re given lots of water and UV lights for 16 hours a day to balance light and dark. There is varying success with the collection of samples, with Basil seeming to be the most prosperous (but I could have told them that, with my bipolar spurts of veggie gardening experience!)

Other ideas were an underground kindergarten (!) and an underground water transportation system with small boats or similar to carry people along the kilometres that the caves cover, but the space was too small.

After the aquaduct tour, we were taken above ground to a building that didn’t look like much more than a block of apartments from the outside but, on entrance to a ground level unit, were shown that this building sat on top of an ancient Roman Theatre!

42 families had unwittingly been housed on top of the theatre for the past 500 or so years when condominiums were built over it during a mammoth urbanisation surge in the burgeoning city. The family in this apartment had been using the theatre’s backstage area as their wine cellar, with its floor trapdoor almost comically covered by a sliding bed that retracted into the wall to reveal it. The cellar had been blocked off from the rest of the theatre until archeologists got hold of it and have now restored the rooms and tunnels to their former structure. The rest of the building is still inhabited as flats though, which is quite unusual, especially since some of their inner windows open into these archeologically revealed passages.

Since the underground tour was close to the meeting place for an evening walking tour we’d decided to do, we hung about in town and had a very premature sundowner in order to get off our feet for a bit.

Turned out that it wasn’t necessary as when we met at the prescribed spot, the tour guide arrived only to tell us that he wasn’t feeling well and although he was I’ll of health, he felt worse for letting us down. He offered to make it up to us with buying us a coffee, but that really would have been insult to injury.

It was 5.30 by now and we had been up since 4.30 and on our feet all day so we admitted defeat and went to the hotel to complete our check-in.

We’d had a completely wonderful and crime-free tourist experience in Napoli, but were still grateful for the hotel we’d chosen as it was in a block of gorgeous art deco buildings, sandwiched between 2 famous landmark castles, on the seafront. A very lovely and relaxing location to end off our day.

We were now very much commited to The Fork – not only because of the discounts, but because the solid recommendations so far gave us a neat way to slim down the options between the abundance of restaurants everywhere we went.

We booked a pizza restaurant to tick off the authentic Neapolitan pizza experience, which is a Margherita garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, to represent the colours of the Italian flag. This formulation was invented by Neapolitan chef Raffaele Esposito in honour of Margherita of Savoy and he’s said to be the first baker ever to add cheese on a pizza. Apparently one of its distinctions is that it must be made with San Marzano tomatoes, which grow on the volcanic plains to the South of Mount Vesuvius, and perhaps give it the sweeter taste to what we’re used to (sort of like the tomato sauce in tinned spaghetti).

Traditionally not a wildly exciting pizza variant at home, we’d ordered the Margherita to share as a starter and then followed up with seafood mains. Christian had his usual seafood pasta with clams and mussels and whatnot and I had an incredible Calamari al forno, which wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead of a sort of pasta bake, it was a large piece of octopus that had been sort of armadillo’ed and over baked. Delicious!

Fed and happy, we walked back to our hotel to call it a night in light of our early start to Capri in the morning.