Travels

A drive around Sicily – Part 2

Did you know there are more Greek ruins in Sicily than in Greece?  Crazy, huh?  If you didn’t see Part 1 of our trip, we went to the Neapolis Park in Syracuse, where we saw a still in use Greek Theater and the Ear of Dionysius. That was only the beginning.

On Day 5 of our trip, we went to the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi), located just outside the town of Agrigento, an important city in the ancient Mediterranean world.  The Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an archaeological park that contains the remains of seven Greek Temples dating from the 5th century BC, including the Temple of Concord, which is recognized as one of the best preserved Greek ruin in the world.

Valley of the Temples, looking uphill towards the town of Agrigento

Valley of the Temples, looking uphill towards the town of Agrigento

Greek columns in Valley of the Temples

Greek columns in Valley of the Temples

Temple of Castor and Pollux, Valley of the Temples

Temple of Castor and Pollux, Valley of the Temples

Temple of Juno, Valley of the Temples

Temple of Juno, Valley of the Temples

Temple of Concordia, Valley of the Temples

Temple of Concordia, Valley of the Temples

The giant cacti at Valley of the Temples had graffiti all over them.  Kind of cool to see at first, but then we saw that the older the graffiti, the more dead that area of the cactus was, which was kind of sad.

The giant cacti at Valley of the Temples had graffiti all over them. Kind of cool to see at first, but then we saw that the older the graffiti, the more dead that area of the cactus was, which was kind of sad.

Our next stop was Selinunte, founded in the 7th century BC and once the most western of the Greek colonies in Sicily.  The archaeological park here contains 5 temples and the remains of the city walls.  We were actually able to crawl all over most of the ruins here, and being able to touch some of the carvings and walk inside a temple was incredible.

Temple E at Selinunte

Temple E at Selinunte

Greek columns at Selinunte

Greek columns at Selinunte

Stephen standing next to a piece of a column - to give you some perspective on size.

Stephen standing next to a piece of a column – to give you some perspective on size.

Temple C at Selinunte

Temple C at Selinunte

Overlooking the sea at Selinunte

Overlooking the sea at Selinunte – you can see the remains of the city wall surrounding the temple-

This image would have been on the top of the temple, and we saw similar images in the archaeological museum in Syracuse.  To me, it looks very Mayan, which makes me think of the whole collective unconscious idea.

This image would have been on the top of the temple, and we saw similar images in the archaeological museum in Syracuse. To me, it looks very Mayan, which makes me think of the whole collective unconscious idea.

We had some time to spare before we needed to check in to our hotel in Palermo, so we took a small side trip to the medieval town of Erice.  We had gotten an Italian sim card by then, so we mapped the location and set out.  We turned off just before reaching Trapani and started up this…hill.

Seriously you guys, this road was insane.  It was just over a lane wide, but meant for two way traffic.  There were no guardrails, no lane markers, and consisted almost completely of switchbacks.  Some of the turns were so tight, we couldn’t quite make the turn and had to back up a little to get around it.  When you looked down the hill, all you saw was a drop off.  Luckily, most people evidently knew better than to take this road, so there was little traffic – I think only one or two cars passed us heading down.  Oh, and an elderly man on a moped with a dog on the back.  Both of us got a good laugh out of that (wish I could have gotten a picture!).  Once we reached the top, we found out there was a cable car we could have taken up the hill from Trapani…oops!

Looking up the hill at Erice

Looking up the hill at Erice

The town overlooks the sea

The town has a commanding view over the sea

Torretta Pepoli, built on the hillside under the Balio Towers in Erice

Torretta Pepoli, built on the hillside under the Balio Towers in Erice

We were smarter when we left Erice, choosing to go down the opposite side of the hill, where the road was wider and there were actually lane markers.  We both breathed much easier.  We arrived in Palermo around 5pm, checked into our hotel, and wandered out to find a place to eat.

And got lost in the wrong part of town.  More on that later.

The next day, May 1, was a holiday, so the only thing I was really interested in seeing in Palermo (the catacombs) were sure to be closed.  Instead of sticking around in Palermo, we went on to our next destination, Milazzo.  It was nice being in a smaller town again, and I’m sure the fact that it was a holiday helped, because the town was ssssllllllooooowwww.  No traffic, no noise – oh, so very nice (I’ve become so spoiled!).

Because it was a holiday, we didn’t do much.  In fact, the main reason we stopped in Milazzo was so we could catch a ferry the next morning to the Aeolian Islands, where we had a kayaking trip booked.

And that will be the next post, because it really, truly deserves its own post.  So stay tuned for Part 3!

Panorama at Selinunte

Panorama at Selinunte

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A drive around Sicily – Part 1

We just got back from a 10 day trip in Sicily, where we drove around the whole island, saw some amazing Greek ruins, and did a kayaking trip with the most amazing host ever! How about some stories and photos?

We flew into Catania on the East coast of Sicily. We had hoped to get a sim card for the phone when we landed at the airport, but couldn’t find them for sale, so we ventured into the city blind, with no idea where our hotel was. This was…a mistake, to say the least, as we quickly discovered, mostly because driving in Sicily was INSANE. I’ll say more about that later…. Anyway, we ended up turning on the roaming on our Finnish sim card, just to map the hotel and cache it.

We spent a day wandering around Catania, soaking up the warmth and sights of the city. I suffered a bit of culture shock, with all the buildings and people and cars and noise – seems I’ve gotten quite used to small-town-Finland life!

Roman Amphitheatre, Piazza Stesicoro, Catania Sicily

Roman Amphitheatre, Piazza Stesicoro, Catania Sicily

Graffiti seems to be a national pastime in Sicily...

Graffiti seems to be a national pastime in Sicily…

The next day, we took a drive up to Mt Etna, which looms over Catania. Mt Etna is the highest volcano in Europe, and remains quite active. It’s actually just been accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with an official proclamation scheduled for June, per Wikipedia. Unfortunately, the day we went, the clouds were low, and when we took the cable car up to the top of Etna visibility there was less than 20 feet. We had hoped to do an excursion to the top of the volcano, but the weather made it impossible. Still, we were able to walk around the Silvestri Craters at the main tourist hub, which were the source of lava flow in the 1892 eruption.

Mt Etna, towering over the city of Catania

Mt Etna, towering over the city of Catania

Silvestri Crater at Mt Etna

Silvestri Crater at Mt Etna

Next, we drove down to Syracuse and spent the afternoon wandering around the Old Town portion, Ortygia Island, which I completely fell in love with. It was a much slower pace than Catania, better maintained, and surrounded by the sea, which immediately made me happy. We saw the end of a wedding at the cathedral in Piazza Duomo, then chose a restaurant at random for dinner. Twenty minutes later, four people came in with American accents, saying they were with the Rick Steves tour. Twenty more Americans quickly followed. This little restaurant in Syracuse, and it’s the two of us, 24 other Americans, and a handful of Italians eating. Go figure!

Looking over Porto Piccolo in Siracusa, Sicily

Looking over Porto Piccolo in Siracusa, Sicily

Castello Maniace, perched on a promontory at the south end of Ortygia, Syracuse Sicily

Castello Maniace, perched on a promontory at the south end of Ortygia, Syracuse Sicily

Temple of Apollo, from the 6th century BC

Temple of Apollo, from the 6th century BC

We spent the night in Syracuse at a lovely hotel, then in the morning walked across the street to the Museo Archeologico Regionale, which houses statues, pottery, and other artifacts from the 5th century BC and earlier, from Greek, Roman, and Christian eras. It was stunning to see so many artifacts so well preserved. Next we went down the street to the Parco Archeologico Della Neapolis, which includes a Greek Theater, a Roman Amphitheater, and the Ear of Dionysius – a soaring cavern (76ft high) with amazing acoustics. Supposedly you can stand at one end and hear a whisper at the other end, 214 feet away, but everyone there wanted to yell.

The Ear of Dionysius, at the Syracuse Archaeological Park

The Ear of Dionysius, at the Syracuse Archaeological Park

Inside the Ear of Dionysius

Inside the Ear of Dionysius

Roman Amphitheater in Syracuse

Roman Amphitheater in Syracuse

Also in Syracuse was this Cathedral that looked quite interesting from the outside – it reminded me of the Church of Saint Joseph in Le Havre, France. However, when we went inside, we were surprised that it was essentially a concrete bunker, and everything above the ceiling of the second floor level was blocked. There was no light streaming in through the top, as we expected. Very strange…

Our Lady of Tears Shrine in Syracuse, Sicily

Our Lady of Tears Shrine in Syracuse, Sicily

Next we drove to Agrigento, where we strolled with the locals along what was apparently a promenade. Everyone was out in their Sunday best, seeing and being seen, arm in arm with husbands, friends, and grandchildren. And I forgot to put the SD card back in my camera, so unfortunately, no pictures…

I think that’s enough for now. Keep an eye out for Part 2 of our trip, when we go to the Valley of the Temples, Selinunte, and the medieval town of Erice!

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Sicily – A Sneak Peek

We just got back from a 10 day trip around Sicily, where we saw a huge volcano, tons of Greek ruins, and went kayaking in the Aeolian Islands.  I’m working on getting through the photos and doing a write up of our trip, but in the meantime, how about a little teaser?

In Catania, Sicily

In Catania, Sicily

Catania, Sicily

Catania, Sicily

Love these little guys!

Love these little guys!

Greek ruins in Agrigento

Greek ruins in Agrigento

Greek ruins overlooking the Mediterranean

Greek ruins overlooking the Mediterranean

Medieval castle in Erice, Sicily

Medieval castle in Erice, Sicily

On the island of Vulcano

On the island of Vulcano, in the Aeolian Islands

Kayaking in Sicily, photo by Eugenio at SicilyinKayak.com

Kayaking the Aeolian Islands, photo by Eugenio at SicilyinKayak.com

 

 

 

 

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3 days in Riga

Riga

Show of hands – Who knows where Riga is?

It’s in Latvia.

Who knows where Latvia is?  🙂

Stephen and I wanted to take a quick long weekend trip this month.  Sounds easier than it is.  Since we live 3 hours from Helsinki, getting to and from the airport and waiting to board is half a day each, which would really cut into the whole idea of a weekend trip.  So I started looking for flights out of Turku, which is just an hour south of us.  The only direct flight I found (we might as well drive to Helsinki, between the flight time and the connecting time) was to Riga, Latvia.  Our other two options were to take the overnight ferry to Stockholm, or just going to Helsinki for the weekend.  I’ll probably be doing Stockholm a couple of times this year, so we said, What the heck, let’s check out Riga!  Latvia is pretty much due south of Finland, across the Baltic sea, a quick and easy 1 hour flight.  Love it.

Riga has an amazing skyline.  As you approach from the west, the various spires of the city rise from the River Daugava.

Riga Skyline at Sunrise

Riga Skyline at Sunrise

The historic centre of the city (Vecrīga) is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (check one more off my list!) due to it “retaining its medieval and later urban fabric relatively intact” and because of “the quantity of its Art Nouveau/Jugendstil architecture, which is unparalleled anywhere in the world, and it’s 19th century architecture in wood.”  And the Art Nouveau buildings were, indeed, impressive.

IMG_7460IMG_7455

A lot of buildings, however, have deteriorated, and green mesh covers a large amount of building facades to keep them from crumbling and falling to the ground.  The buildings need a lot of work, and the trick is finding someone to buy the building who has enough money to renovate and refurbish.

This building had a fire, which destroyed the top floor (you can see some of the destruction through the top floor windows - there's supposed to be a roof there...

This building had a fire, which destroyed the top floor (you can see some of the destruction through the top floor windows – there’s supposed to be a roof there…

The building also has numerous broken windows and a crumbling facade.

The building also has numerous broken windows and a crumbling facade.

On Sunday, we had a fabulous tour guide who showed us around the Central Market for a food tasting, then took us on a tour of Art Nouveau.  He was Australian, but had lived in Riga for 5 years, and was amazingly knowledgeable about the buildings, history, and lifestyle of Riga and Latvia.

Central Market, Riga Latvia

Central Market is in the foreground. These are massive former Zeppelin hangars that have been repurposed to house vendors and goods.

Our Latvian Food Tour included a rundown on what Latvian’s have historically eaten – lots of smoked meats, lots of fish, lots of pickled and preserved food.  Things needed to make it through a frozen winter.  They also use a lot of caraway seed and dill, so we had two lovely cheeses with these ingredients.  And pickled pumpkin!  It was so good!

Before our tour on Sunday, we decided to check out the Latvian Academy of Sciences.  The view from the top floor is supposed to be amazing.  However, even after I checked the hours on the website, we were turned away when we arrived.  We were told it was a winter holiday, but when we told our tour guide that, he had no idea what they were talking about. “There’s still a lot of Soviet era mentality here, and they probably just decided to close for the day, just for the hell of it.”

Latvian Academy of Sciences.  Both of thought it looked like a mental institution out of a horror movie!

Latvian Academy of Sciences. Both of thought it looked like a mental institution out of a horror movie!

I told Stephen I envisioned boiling clouds and lightning striking the building, for some reason.  He said it looked like the building from Ghostbusters, and I think he's right!  So I did some editing to make this a little closer to my vision.  :)

I told Stephen I envisioned boiling clouds and lightning striking the building, for some reason. He said it looked like the building from Ghostbusters, and I think he’s right! So I did some editing to make this a little closer to my vision. 🙂

For dinner Sunday night, we went to 3 Pavāru, a Modern Latvian restaurant recommended by our tour guide.  The food was good, nothing “strange” (I had foie gras and perch, Stephen had fish soup and quail, and we shared creme brulee for dessert), but we both loved the bread course they served us.  They brought the  bread out, then started pouring all these different sauces on what we thought were our placemats.  I’m not usually one for taking pictures of my food, but I found this fascinating:

Dipping sauces included pesto, hummus, and several other sauces I can't remember!

Dipping sauces included pesto, hummus, sesame oil sauce, and several other sauces I can’t remember!

St. Peter's Church and House of Blackheads

St. Peter’s Church and House of Blackheads

On Monday, we took the train to Sigulda, a small town about an hour away.  Sigulda is known as the “Switzerland of Latvia” and is home to the bobsled track used for Latvian luge and skeleton training.  We had hoped to pilot our own bobsleigh down the track, but they’re only open to the public on weekends.  Instead, we walked through some of the Guaja River valley and saw some castle ruins.  We also found love padlocks on the bridge over the Guaja River!

Love Padlock on the bridge over the Guaja River

Love Padlock on the bridge over the Guaja River

Latvia has a rich and often violent history, and I’ve become completely fascinated with how both Latvia and Estonia lived during Soviet control and how they’ve done since establishing their independence in 1991.  But that’s a post for another day.

Riga Panorama from the top of St Peter's Church

Riga Panorama from the top of St Peter’s Church

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Seeking Warmth

Big surprise coming:  It gets a little cold in Finland.  Shocking, huh?  After a lovely but mild summer (the average high was in the low 70’s, I think), I felt like I never really, truly got warm.  I dreamed of a sandy beach with a warm sun and laying there all day in my bathing suit with occasional breaks for swimming.  I yearned to be warm.

I started looking at our travel options for traveling to a warm beach in December.  I picked December because it’s the darkest month – the perfect time to seek out some sunlight.  My requirements were a temperature of at least 80F, salt water that was not cold, and a place where I didn’t have to worry about anything, including walking to the bar to get my next drink.

I found that pretty much all of Europe was out of the question – there were parts that may be warm, but there was no guarantee.  I looked at the Maldives and Mauritius, but found most of the resorts to be just a tad out of our price range ($4000/week for hotel).  I did find one affordable, nice looking place in the Maldives, a small B&B type place on one of the non-resort islands that got good reviews, but after investigating it further, I found that alcohol is illegal on that particular island.  Needless to say, that one was definitely crossed off the list!  I figured the best possible solution would be the Canary Islands, but found that even there, the average temp would only be in the mid-70s – not warm enough for what we wanted.  We didn’t really want to fly west, to the Caribbean, because the flight was so long, but the only other option was Africa or the Middle East, which wasn’t really an option for us.

After briefly flirting with the idea of a cruise out of Miami, we ended up booking a trip to Riviera Maya in Mexico.  We did this mainly because we could connect through Dallas, and we could stay there for several days to see Family and Friends and do some shopping.  Plus, it broke up the trip some.  Of course, getting to Dallas still meant a three hour drive to Helsinki, a 2 hour flight to London, a 4 hour layover in London, and a 10 hour flight to Dallas.  (Quiz:  What’s the best part of a 10 hour flight?  The part where the pilot comes on and says, “We’ll be landing in less than 15 minutes.”)

While in Dallas, we ate Mexican food almost exclusively, with a break for one night of sushi for me.  We had a big party, did an early Christmas, stocked up on jeans and OTC meds and Twizzlers, and celebrated our 1 year wedding anniversary with dinner at Ruth’s Chris.  The weather in Dallas was great, in the 80s and sunny, and it was so nice to be warm!

1st Anniversary

1st Anniversary

Then, on to Mexico, where we stayed at an all-inclusive resort south of Playa del Carmen.

The resort was nice enough, and we enjoyed our stay.  The food was mostly so-so (the sushi was laugh-worthy, tiny pieces of fish on my nigiri), but the drinks were fruity and cold and they kept coming.  The resort didn’t actually have a beach – instead, it had a lagoon area.  We figured it would work out well enough – the water was still sea water, and it was on the coast, it was just that there was a natural sea wall of sorts that made the sea inaccessible.  However, we did miss having a real beach, so we know better for next time.  The room was nice, with a large shower and a whirlpool bathtub built for two that faced out onto the patio (which had a hammock – nice touch).

Part of the lagoon at the resort.

Part of the lagoon at the resort.

"Well, color me happy, there's a bathtub in here for two!"  (Movie paraphrase, anyone?)  Since we don't have a bathtub at home, I tend to actually use them when we travel, just for the luxury!

“Well, color me happy, there’s a bathtub in here for two!” (Movie paraphrase, anyone?) Since we don’t have a bathtub at home, I tend to actually use them when we travel, just for the luxury!

It was a great trip, and I got the warmth and sunlight I so desired.  Of course, it had to end at some point, right?  For us it ended at 7am Monday morning, at which point we spent the next 30 hours traveling.  (This is why we will not be flying home at all next year, the travel is just killer.)  When we left Finland, it was literally during blizzard conditions, and I think it snowed the entire time we were gone. We arrived in Helsinki to a car buried in snow, then had a small mishap on the drive home and ended up spending about an hour in a snowy ditch.  I was worried about the car battery after sitting in the freezing temperatures for almost two weeks, but it started up without a problem three times during our trip home…then died when we tried to move it out of the loading zone at the apartment.  It got us home, though, and we’re grateful for that!

This is what happens when you leave your car parked outside in Helsinki for two weeks in the winter...

This is what happens when you leave your car parked outside in Helsinki for two weeks in the winter…

Also…Monkeys!

There were wild spider monkeys on the grounds of the resort.  If you look just above the curve in the branch at the middle of the picture, you can see the monkey's face.

There were wild spider monkeys on the grounds of the resort. If you look just above the curve in the branch at the middle of the picture, you can see the monkey’s face.

Monkeys!  They were so adorable!!

Monkeys! They were so adorable!!

I’m playing catch-up with blog posts – I’ve been terribly bad about posting, I know, but with NaNoWriMo (future blog post alert) and Thanksgiving (future blog post alert) and the trip to Dallas/Mexico, I fell a little behind!  Look for more posts soon!

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Ireland, part 2 – Dublin

After spending several days driving around Ireland, we spent four days in Dublin.  We did some shopping and sightseeing, and did a couple of day trips to the Wicklow Mountains and Newgrange, each about 45 minutes outside of Dublin.

The Wicklow Mountains are just a short drive outside of Dublin – you can actually see them from town.  Within Wicklow Mountains National Park lies Glendalough, the site of an old monastic settlement founded in the 6th century.  We took a walk through the ruins, then walked on the “sunny side” of the lake.  It was a gorgeous, clear day, and the sun warmed us, so that when we walked back to the car on the “shady side” we didn’t get chilled.

Glendalough

On the way back to town, we stopped in at Powerscourt Estate, which has a huge garden that includes Italian, Japanese, and Walled Gardens, a small lake, and a Pet’s Cemetery.  The manicured lawn and pruned flower beds lent a nice dichotomy to the wild beauty of Glendalough.  (Dichotomy became the word of the day, as Stephen attempted to use it as often as possible, just for show.)

Powerscourt Gardens

I took dozens of photos of the flowers on the estate, and I could easily fill a blog post with them.  Maybe I will.  But for now, I’ll just share this one – these little flowers were in the parking lot:

At some point in the last few months, I’ve gotten it into my head that I need to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can.  I live in one, or I guess, technically, near one:  Old Town Rauma.  And there’s another one nearby that I’ve written about before, Sammallahdenmäki.  We visited Mont St Michel when we were in France.  So now that we were in Ireland, I wanted to visit the two there.

One of the sites is Newgrange, an ancient temple and passage tomb constructed over 5,000 years ago.  That makes it older than Stonehenge and the Pyramid of Giza.  The passage at Newgrange is significant in that at sunrise, on the winter solstice, sunlight enter the lightbox above the entry and snakes upward through the passage to fully illuminate the inside of the tomb.  The tour includes a demonstration of this – the electric lights are turned out, everyone stands to the sides, and a single bulb representing the sun beams light into the tomb.  It was weak in comparison to the sun, we were told, but it still brought chills.

Newgrange

A couple of the satellite mounds at Knowth

Between Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth, and the many satellite mounds nearby, this area has a sizable collection of megalithic art.

The other World Heritage Site in Ireland is Skellig Michael, an island about 12km off the southwest coast where a monastary was founded in the 6th to 8th century.  While in Killarney, I contacted Owen, a friendly (is there any other kind?) Irishman who said he would be able to take us out the next day, weather permitting. “Call me back at half past eight in the morning,” he said. “We’ll see what the seas look like.”  I was simply dying to go, especially since so few people get the chance.  Unfortunately, when I called Owen in the morning, he said the seas were too rough to go out.  I guess that means we’ll just have to make another trip to Ireland!

As I mentioned, we did some shopping in Dublin, and rode the hop on/hop off bus to see some of the sites.  We stopped off at Kilmainham Gaol, did the Guinness tour (of course!), and saw Dublin Castle.  I also got to get reacquainted with an old friend:

Hello, old friend, how I’ve missed you!

One picture I didn’t get, that I wish I had, was what looked like a newspaper printing facility.  Viewed from the freeway, the entire back of the building was glass, and through it you could see the huge printing presses.  We passed by it several times, and each time I was fascinated, bu couldn’t take a picture.  I thought I might be able to find a good photo online, but I haven’t been able to find one that truly shows what I saw.  I did find out that it is the Independent Newspapers Printing Facility.  According to a press release from 1999, “the landmark design press hall will be an impressive 200 feet long and 57 feet in height.  It will be entirely surrounded by glass, showcasing the dark blue presses within as a piece of industrial architecture….  The building’s glass facade and commanding location alongside the Naas Road, will allow car passengers to watch today’s news being converted into tomorrow’s newspapers at a rate of 75,000 copies per hour.”  I really wish I could have found a better picture than this:

Independent Newspapers Printing Facility, Dublin. Photo from Bruce Shaw website – Bruce Shaw provided the quantity surveying and cost control services on the project.

I’ll have another blog post or two with some random thoughts and pictures, but that about sums up our trip.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather – we pulled the umbrella out once, for about half an hour, and we had plenty of sunshine.  Considering the summer Ireland has had, that’s saying a lot!

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Ireland, Part 1 (touring the countryside)

Stephen was in charge of planning this vacation, and he did a wonderful job.  We arrived in Dublin on Thursday, after a mere 3 hour flight, then immediately hopped into the car and drove out of town.  We spent 5 days driving through Ireland, each night a different hotel, each day a new sight.  He did wonderfully well in his planning!

Once we got into the shuttle to the rental car agency, I was a wreck.  I remained a wreck for the first several days.  First of all, driving on the other side of the road?  CRAZY!  It just felt so weird.  Making turns, especially – right turns across traffic, left turns while cars are coming from the left.  And the road width (narrow) didn’t make things any easier!  Stephen had to spend some time reorienting himself, and there were a couple of near misses with the left side mirror that had me flinching.  But he did amazingly well, and I was quite impressed.  I don’t think I would have done as well!

The other thing that struck me right away was that I have been living in a small town for entirely too long.  The amount of people, driving, walking, really set me on edge.  Everything was so busy and loud and congested, the roads and the sidewalks, and I just haven’t experienced that in…well, eight months.  Even when I drove through downtown Helsinki a couple of months ago, I wasn’t so overwhelmed.

Okay, enough about that – onto the fun stuff!

We started out driving south down to Kilkenny and stayed the night there.  We stopped in at a pub called Paris Texas, where we enjoyed pints of Kilkenny Ale – quite tasty.  We also witnessed an Irishman ordering a pint of Coors Light.  Go figure.

Kilkenny Castle, built in 1195 and restored to it’s late 19th century decor.

Our next stop was Waterford, where we took a tour of the factory.  The tour was quite good, following the process from the original blowing of the glass through to the cutting of the design.  The people working in the factory were an added bonus – they were more than willing to talk to the tour group, answer individual questions, and explain things in more detail.  That may have actually been the highlight – the craftsmen actually talking to us one on one.

A craftsman cutting the design on a piece of Waterford Crystal

Traveling west now across southern Ireland, we spent the evening in Blarney, a tiny town with two inns and four Chinese restaurants.  We woke to a beautiful full moon outside our hotel window – does it still count as being a blue moon if we didn’t see it until September 1?

We walked the quarter mile to Blarney Castle, enjoying the fresh dewy morning and lack of crowds.  We spent some time exploring the castle on the way to the top, where we were only about the 10th in line to kiss the Blarney Stone.  The guys who work there have it down pat – I wonder how many times a day the Holder says “Lie on your back, grab the bars, scoot back, lower down, there you go.”

Me, kissing the Blarney Stone! Which means I will now write like crazy, blessed with the gift of eloquence…right?

We took a nice walk through the grounds, passing by Blarney House and the Stable Yard, then explored the caves under the castle some.  I’ll tell you – this was quite possibly my favorite part of our trip, and I’ll be writing more about that later.

Blarney Castle

Leaving Blarney, our navigation system decided that we needed to see some more “authentic” countryside, and took us on increasingly narrow back roads to Killarney.  Although I was stressed about where we were, especially when the GPS signal kept dropping out, we did have a fun time.  Here in Finland, we often complain about how slow the rural highway speed limit is (often 80kmh, with very wide lanes and shoulders).  In Ireland, on this back road one lane road with blind curves and no shoulder, we also had an 80kmh speed limit.  It was like a roller coaster!  Especially when you fly around a blind curve and find a sheep in the road…which happened….  (Don’t worry, it’s still alive to tell about it.)

On to Killarney, on the Ring of Kerry.  Unbeknownst to us, there was also a horse race in town the day we were driving in, and traffic was a nightmare!  We were staying far enough out of the main town center that we needed to drive into town for lunch, and we stayed at the hotel for dinner that night, so we didn’t explore the town much.  But the next day we went out to Killarney National Park for a little hiking and sight-seeing.

Killarney National Park includes three lakes, four mountain peaks, and the Muckross Estate.  We stopped in at the estate to grab a map of the area, then took a nice walk to Muckross Abbey, a Franciscan Friary.  I was surprised at the number of recent graves in the graveyard there – even though the Abbey is a roofless ruin, there were graves as recent as this year.  It made me wonder what the burial guidelines were.

Muckross Abbey, in Killarney National Park, founded in 1448 as a Franciscan friary.

We walked back to Muckross House and continued on to Torc Waterfall, across the highway and up a short hill.  I had read that this waterfall wasn’t very impressive unless after a big rain, but I thought it was great.  There were several hiking trails that continued up the mountain, but I wasn’t aware Stephen wanted to do one.  So our little 2-3 mile hike turned into more of a 5 mile hike, up to the top of the falls and around.  A good little workout and beautiful views from the top made it worth it.

Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park

Our next stop was Limerick, north of Killarney.  Sadly, even though the view from our corner hotel room was beautiful, revealing downtown and three medieval looking structures, we didn’t do any sight-seeing in Limerick.  We did have dinner at a wonderful restaurant in town, Cornstore, which I later found out was part of a small chain.  Great food, nonetheless, and the wine we had was wonderful.

After a night in Limerick, we headed on to our next sight-seeing location, The Cliffs of Moher.  We were interested in them because they are The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride, but I also learned that they were featured in one of the Harry Potter movies (among others).  The cliffs rise 700 feet from the Atlantic, and the photos I took simply can’t compare to the real thing.

The Cliffs of Moher, aka The Cliffs Of Insanity!

Cliffs of Moher, with O’Brien’s Tower on top.

To be honest (and it’s well documented), the cliffs are a little bit of a rip off.  The parking area is run by the same people who run the visitor center, and they charge 6€ per person to park.  This includes access to the visitor center and the museum (and bathrooms) inside.  There’s also a “tower” on one side, called O’Brien’s Tower, built in 1835 for the tourists who were already coming to the region.  Getting to the top of the tower is an additional 2€.  The views are not that much better, and the platform on top is not very big.  A single spiral staircase causes some major traffic jams, as the 10 people wanting to go down must wait for the 20 people who are coming up onto the platform, which holds about 8 people comfortably.  Worst 4€ we spent on the trip, hands down.  Regardless, the Cliffs were amazing to see – I just wish we could have figured out where to park and hike in (since the cliffs themselves are public land).

I was surprised, during the first couple of days of our trip, at how many American accents I heard, in Dublin, Kilkenny, and Waterford especially.  Then I found out why.  The week we came in, Ireland saw an influx of about 40,000 Americans.   Why?  The Notre Dame-Navy game was being played in Dublin that weekend!  As an added bonus, we listened to several hours of college football (and explanation!) coverage on the car radio.  It warmed our poor, college-football-homesick hearts.  The best part was Mike (from Mike and Mike) trying to explain tailgating. “So, this game, which lasts 60 minutes, actually lasts for 3 hours, and beforehand everyone gathers for 5 hours of drinking and eating?”  Heehee!!  We even got to watch a little bit of the game while we were in Killarney…until the locals decided they had had enough and changed it to Gaelic Football (youtube link).

Thus ends our tour of the Irish countryside.  After taking a walk along the cliffs, we drove almost directly due East back to Dublin, where we spent the next four days.  That’s the next post!  In the mean time, please enjoy these video clips of the Cliffs of Moher:

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Blessed by Holy Water in Tallinn

The church bells are deafening, ringing out across the city, announcing, “It is time.”  Time for what, I don’t know.

I’m standing directly in front of onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia, trying to decide if I want to join the crowd in pushing my way up the steps and into the door.

It’s good I was hesitating.

Priests appear, green robes flapping in the wind, arms straining to hold the crosses erect.  Five, six, seven priests, coming down the steps, in pace with the knell.  Behind them are perhaps a hundred women, heads covered in scarves, purses clutched in hands in front of them, backs bent with age, making it easier to watch their feet so as not to trip down the steps.  The crowd is energized, cameras whipping up, shutters whirring, people running across the street to get closer, to get The Shot.  There is a moment of awe as the procession rounds the corner and is gone – did we really just see that?  What an amazing opportunity!

I’m to the side of the church now, watching the other side, wondering where they are walking to, if they are just going around the church and then back in.  Should I wait, camera ready?  But the bells have stopped, the crowd is pushing its way back into the church, a massive tidal wave gaining in volume and height.  I sigh, brace myself, and join the flood.

It takes five minutes to climb the twenty steps, push through the double doors, the lobby, and the second set of double doors into the nave.  It is a disappointment – thirty feet wide by ten feet deep, nothing incredibly exciting.  I wonder if the church can even hold the number of people I passed who were leaving as I was coming in.  I head back out, telling my friends I’ll be across the street.

I fight the crowd back out of the church, cross the street, and find the front of the parlaiment fairly empty.  Ah, space.

Klong-Klong-Klong.  I whip around as the bells ring out again.  To the left of the church, crosses and fluttering robes appear.

I am now the one racing across the street, getting The Shot.  The church officials pass, the ladies with covered heads and clutched purses.  The processional stops in front of the church, Priests on the steps, women on the street.  Water flies, and the crowd is blessed.  Snap-snap-snap – I don’t bother looking at the screen, checking the histogram, I just shoot, trying to get the water flying, trying to capture the experience.  Photos never do it justice.

The street we are on is a through street.  A woman in a Mercedes is aggravated, inching her way up, waving people out of the way, honking her horn.  The lookey-loos move aside, but is she aware that the biggest part of the crowd is elderly, local women, currently still in the middle of some sort of religious ceremony?  She honks again.  Perhaps she doesn’t care.

I find my friends.  “We’ve been blessed!”  They were hit with holy water.  No head scarves or clutched purses or bent backs, but no less awed by the experience.

(Did you see my first blog post on my trip to Tallinn?)

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A Trip to Tallinn with the Ladies

My friend Pam had a friend come for a visit, so we decided to do a Girl’s Trip to Tallinn, Estonia.  It’s just a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki – of course, it takes three hours to drive to Helsinki from here!  Tuesday at noon four of us piled into the car, drove to Helsinki, and picked up Kim at the airport.  Five women and their luggage in one car – we were quite impressed with ourselves (and our car!).

Before driving out to the Satama (dock), we made a brief stop at Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki.  This church is built into the rocks and has a beautiful copper ceiling.

We arrived in Tallinn about 9:30pm, took a 5 minute taxi ride to our hotel in Old Town, then walked up to the town square to have a drink.  The evening was lovely, and I was already in love with the town.

Wednesday

We started the day by walking around Old Town, going into a couple of churches and walking along parts of the city walls, then headed to the Town Square for lunch.  We went to Maharajah for lunch, an Indian restaurant on the square, and the food was wonderful.  We were also thoroughly entertained with the Bollywood videos playing on TV.

After lunch we headed over to Hotel Viru for a tour of the KGB museum.  We started in the Hotel Lobby, headed up the elevator to the 22nd floor in groups, then walked up the stairs to the 23rd floor. “Is everyone here?” the tour guide asked. “It’s not a random question – a few years ago, a couple of you could have disappeared already.”

We learned about the Hotel, that it was built as an all-encompassing hotel, with everything a traveler could want – there was no need to leave the hotel.  Which was how the KGB wanted it – no foreigners roaming around town.  Our guide told stories about bugged rooms (One guy went to the bathroom and said, “They don’t even have toilet paper in here!” and five minutes later someone came along with some TP), Floor Monitors (old women responsible for keeping track of when people entered and exited their rooms), and life in Tallinn under Soviet rule.  It was a great tour, and the 23rd floor offers great views of town.

While wandering around town, I noticed some old women setting up tables with flowers and berries.  I approached one woman and asked her what kind of berries they were.  “Kaksi,” she said, and held up two fingers.  Well, 2€ is a small price to pay for an experience, so I gave her the money and took the berries back to the hotel, where we enjoyed them with our cocktails.  We asked our waitress if she could tell us what they were, but she didn’t know the word in English.  We assumed they were a wild strawberry, and she essentially confirmed that.

Thursday

Thursday morning we grabbed a taxi and went out to Kadriorg Palace (currently serving as an art museum) which, unfortunately, is currently closed for renovations.  We were able to tour the grounds, though, and walked out to the sea, where I was able to put my feet in the sand.

We headed over to Kiek in de Kok (which we were calling “kick in the cock,” but it actually translates to “Peep in the Kitchen”) and did a tour of the Bastion Tunnels that run beneath the town.  The tunnels have been hiding spots for various people through history, including punk rockers and homeless people, as well as serving as a bomb shelter.

Later we made a stop at the Photo Museum, where an elderly woman watched our every move (we figured she was one of the old hall monitors from the Viru Hotel!).  Later still we wandered down St Catherines Passage, and stumbled into an Old Dominican Monastery Claustrum.

Friday

We boarded the ferry Friday morning and were thoroughly entertained by an emergency helicopter evacuation practice.

In Helsinki, we stopped for a quick look at Eastern Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral before heading out of town.

We all enjoyed our time in Tallinn, and I would love to go back.  It was a beautiful city, and there’s a ton to do.  I have a couple of stories to tell about the trip…I hope to get them up later this week!

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Normandy France Day 7

Day 7 of our trip was June 6th – the 68th anniversary of D-Day.  We did the only thing possible – visited the Normandy coast.

We made a brief stop in Bayeux to see the Bayeux Tapestry – no pictures of that, as photos aren’t allowed, but it was extraordinary.  By itself it would have been impressive – a 230ft long embroidery, for goodness sake!!  But viewing it, realizing that it was made over a thousand years ago…incredible.

Afterwards, we headed up to Arromanches-les-Bains, where the artificial harbor was built in 1944.  Since this was the anniversary of D-Day, there was a big party – tons of people, lots of veterans, period costume and automotive relics.

Poppy wreath at the statue for Royal Engineers – “They shall now grow old as we that are left grew old, age shall not weary them or the years condemn…”

We also made a stop in Longues-sur-Mer, where the German Artillery battery stands.

Looking back at the artificial harbour in Arromanches from the German Battery

Next, we headed on to Colville-sur-Mer, where the American Normandy Cemetery is located.  We walked down to Omaha Beach in the rain and looked out to sea and up the hill, imagining what those who saw it 68 years ago were thinking.

Looking down onto Omaha Beach from the bluff

Looking up to the bluff from Omaha Beach

Omaha Beach

I’ve heard the cemetery described as memorable, touching, moving, beautiful, somber, heart-wrenching.  It’s all those things.  You cannot truly appreciate those words in association with that place unless you experience it yourself.  Yes, rows upon rows of white crosses and Stars of David, some with names, some without.  Thousands of people walking around in almost complete silence.  The weight of what you are seeing is immense.

We purposely stayed until the flag was lowered at 5:20pm.  There was a little old lady there, all of 4’1″, who was apparently a nurse in the war and being honored that day.  The man in charge of the flag lowering invited any WWII veterans up to help with folding the flag – there were nine men there who stepped up.  Next the man in charge asked for any other veterans to please help with the flag folding, some who might be “a little stronger” than the elderly men up there already.  It was a windy day, and that flag was snapping around like crazy.  The flag was lowered, and folded, and to be in that place, at that time, was something special.

The flag being folded

“Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”

“Their graves are the permanent and visible symbol of their heroic devotion and their sacrifice in the common cause of Humanity.”

 

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