I’m in Peru!

(Lima, Peru)

I never thought that I would be blogging from Peru, but here I am!

It’s my first time in South America as well as my first time south of the Equator.  My lengthy stopover in Miami was also my first time in Florida, although I only stepped outside the airport for a couple of minutes.

The stopover in Miami turned out to be fun.  I arrived in the main terminal just as the World Cup knockout match between Chile and Brazil entered the 85th minute.  Along with about a hundred other soccer fans, I watched the extra time and then the penalty kicks that were necessary to decide the match.  Then, before my flight to Lima departed, I watched most of the Colombia-Uruguay knockout match…with another hundred or so soccer fans.  I don’t know if there is an especially large Colombian community in Miami, but I saw Colombian soccer jerseys everywhere there.  They are passionate (and well-behaved) fans – I wonder if their team can eliminate Brazil in their next game?

Happy Brazilian fans at Miami International Airport celebrate their team's victory (in penalty kicks) over Chile
Happy Brazilian fans at Miami International Airport celebrate their team’s victory (in penalty kicks) over Chile

Soccer is clearly a big deal in Peru too.  I had no problem finding the Netherlands-Mexico game on television (Hup Holland!), nor will I have a problem finding the Greece-Costa Rica game later today.  I might watch that one at a restaurant.

As it is winter in Peru, I don’t think I’ll have too many problems with the heat.  The daytime temperature shouldn’t exceed 20’C here or in the mountains.  In fact, the nighttime temperatures in the mountains will drop close to the 0’C mark.  There is a lot of humidity, however, even in this so-called “dry” season!

View from my hotel room of the rooftops and backstreets of Miraflores
View from my hotel room of the rooftops and backstreets of Miraflores

I arrived in Lima very late last night so I haven’t really seen much of the city yet.  The outskirts felt a little chaotic, with road markings being “guidelines” rather than something to be strictly observed.   This afternoon, I went for a walk near my hotel in the district of Miraflores.  It is a relatively affluent area along the ocean; the old centre of Lima is a few miles inland.

This is apparently the "Parque del Amor" in Miraflores (Lima, Peru)
This is apparently the “Parque del Amor” in Miraflores (Lima, Peru)

I walked mainly along the cliff-top park where Miraflores overlooks the coast.  There were a lot of surfers and even paragliders; it looks like a very popular place to take the family too.  I couldn’t help noticing that Miraflores has a very strong police/security presence.  In addition to a lot of police on the streets, there are a lot of private security employees at the various businesses and apartment complexes.

The group tour still hasn’t started but I’ll be meeting the other group tour participants this evening.  I don’t think it will be a long meeting:  we *leave* the hotel at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow morning for our trip to the Andes!


A New Kind of Travel (and some final clues)

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

In two days, I will be arriving at a new destination.  It’s special in many respects:  not only is it a new country for me, it is also a new continent.  Even so, I find myself thinking most about the format:  for the first time in my life, I’m going on a group tour for (almost) the entire trip.

Splendid ski lunch with friends - Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
Splendid ski lunch with friends – Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy

I grew up visiting Europe every few years with my parents.  By the time I was old enough to make my own travel arrangements, I had the confidence to deal with travelling in (European) countries with different food and where different languages were spoken.   After being directly immersed in Europe so many times, taking a group tour there would have felt limiting…maybe even a step backwards.

Walking away from the Giant's Causeway (Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland)
Walking away from the Giant’s Causeway (Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland)

However, when I started to think seriously about visiting my next destination, I felt somewhat uncomfortable with the prospect of doing it myself.  I wanted to have a safety net in case something went wrong.  Frankly, I also felt that I could use a break from planning every detail of every trip.  Between trips, I am generally planning ahead several months and taking care of details so that I can make the most of each trip (and keep my costs down).  I thought it would be nice to “coast” a little and just savour the moment.

Part of my discomfort was likely the result of negative media portrayals of this country in the not-too-distant past.  It hasn’t always been economically healthy either.  As it turns out, however, its economic indicators are stronger than at least one of the European countries I have already visited (alone) this year.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated here in 1914...World War I followed in due course (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated from this spot in 1914…World War I followed in due course (Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina)

While my apprehension may have been misplaced, I still think it will be useful to view travel through the lens of a group tourist at least once…and maybe determine if there is a future destination that would be best visited with a group.  If nothing else, I am sure that I will meet some interesting fellow travellers.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that I have kept this destination a secret.  In addition to the clues in my previous post, I can say this:

(1) The country is soccer-crazy but is not competing in this year’s World Cup.  I have no doubt that I will be able to follow the progress of “my” Dutch and Swiss teams.

(2)  It’s winter there!

(3)  German will be essentially useless and English won’t be nearly as widespread as it has been in my travels to date.

Ducks on Collins Bay (Kingston, Ontario) - April 2014.
Canada Geese on Collins Bay (Kingston, Ontario) – April 2014.

I may not be able to blog in real time on this trip, as I may not have WiFi access.  However, even if I do have access, I don’t know if I will have the time to blog.  The itinerary is packed with activities as we are only spending 8 days together (including arrival and departure days).   At the very least, I hope to post the occasional update on Facebook and blog about the trip extensively upon my return to Canada.

One final clue:  I think the photographs from this trip will be spectacular!

A Farewell to Ireland and a Hello to….?

(Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Since returning to Kingston, a number of friends have commented on the fact that I really seemed to enjoy my trip to Ireland. It’s true – and one reason is the fact that I didn’t have months and months to plan for it. The spontaneous approach paid big dividends, as I didn’t feel like I had already visited Ireland before I had arrived there. Overplanning can be a very real problem.

My rental bicycle on one of the many Inis Mór beaches, just east of Kilronan
My rental bicycle on one of the many Inis Mór beaches, just east of Kilronan

I don’t recommend a complete absence of planning, however. The time of year, the weather, local holidays and a host of other factors should still be considered when “being spontaneous”.  It also would have been nice to avoid Saturday travel in Ireland, so that I could have caught a live hurling or Gaelic football match.  In any case, I’ve enjoyed my Gaelic football DVD and I am sure that I will return to Ireland in the not-too-distant future!

You can't have too many pictures of the Cliffs of Moher (Ireland)
You can’t have too many pictures of the Cliffs of Moher (Ireland)

My visit to Ireland also helped me focus on what I want to do in the rest of my travel year.   While I won’t be returning to Ireland this year, I now have a pretty good idea about a trip that will likely take place in late November or early December.  It’s nothing that I anticipated at the start of my odyssey but it also won’t be a surprise to people who know me well.   It will definitely be a change from the sightseeing that has characterized most of my travel so far this year.

View of Dunluce Castle, from the outer fortification (Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland)
View of Dunluce Castle, from the outer fortification (Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland)

There is a lot happening between now and November, however.  I had a brief visit with some former work colleagues yesterday and I must admit that I’m really enjoying the element of suspense concerning my next destination (whether they share my enthusiasm for the mystery is less certain!).   I’m heading out on June 27 for a very different kind of trip and here’s what I’ve been telling people:

1)  I’m visiting a different continent this time:  it won’t be Europe or North America.

2)  I’m going there on my own but most of my visit will be as part of an organized tour.  It will take a total of 10 days, including travel.

3)  I’ve never visited this country before.

4)  I underwent a series of travel vaccinations over the past month, something that I haven’t done for travel since 1996.

As with Ireland, the decision to go on this trip was also relatively spontaneous.  I didn’t plan it until quite recently and I don’t think I identified it as a serious possibility when I first decided to take a year off for travel.   Perhaps as a result, I am really excited about it and am holding off on any more post-summer travel planning until I return.  I need to determine whether it is a type of travel that I want to explore further.

Intrigued?  Stay tuned – I leave in less than a week!

Farewell from Séamus the Irish Seal!
Farewell from Séamus the Irish Seal!


The North Side of Dublin

(Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland)

Maybe, just maybe, the north side of Dublin wasn’t going to be as squalid as “The Commitments” made it out to be.  It certainly started out fine:  O’Connell Street is a very wide boulevard with fast food outlets and souvenir shops similar to those that you’d find in any other European capital.

The O'Connell Bridge, leading to the north side of Dublin
The O’Connell Bridge, leading to the north side of Dublin

My travel schedule and the Gaelic football and hurling schedules seemed to be working at cross-purposes, so I didn’t make it to a live match.  To compensate, I ventured deep (by tourist standards) into the north end of Dublin to visit the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum.  The Museum is located at Croke Park (a stadium with a capacity of 82,300 spectators that is devoted to these uniquely Irish sports – see top photo), so I would at least get to see the premier Irish sporting venue.  Even better, the Museum advertised an extensive interactive section that would allow me to try these sports for myself!

Ireland is enthusiastic about its language, music and sports.  Irish schoolchildren are presented with ample opportunities to explore each of these elements of their culture…which, in this case, meant that I had to dodge rampaging groups of schoolchildren at the Museum.  Fortunately for me, they didn’t linger too long in any one place.  While they were commandeering the interactive area, I was learning how integral these Irish sports were to the national identity…and how they also provided an excellent “cover” for discussions of independence when Ireland was still completely controlled by the U.K.

The more conventional part of the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum in Dublin
A more conventional part of the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum in Dublin

While I carefully studied the history and the artefacts in the Museum, deep inside I really wanted to kick a Gaelic football and to “hurl” something,   Finally, after much dodging, I had the interactive hurling and football zones to myself.  First up was Gaelic football and an accuracy test.

A Gaelic football is like a soccer ball that has been crossbred with a volleyball.  My soccer teammates will be amused to hear that I had some trouble with the accuracy test.  Kicking the ball from my hands (as a soccer goalkeeper would do) turns out to be much harder than kicking the ball from the ground, at least as far as accuracy is concerned.  We’ll skip my specific results.

Suitably humbled, I moved on to hurling.  Hurling is like a cross between lacrosse and field hockey:  the stick is similar to field hockey but the ball is in the air a lot more and players must wear helmets and cages due to the wildly swinging sticks and rocketing shots.  The ball looks like a stitched leather tennis ball that doesn’t keep its shape very well.

Future hurling stars at the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum in Dublin
Future hurling stars at the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum in Dublin

Luckily for me, the hurling test was strictly for speed:  a radar gun had been set up to measure the velocity of your “hurl”.  I am sure that my technique was terrible; I acquired callouses after only a few swings.  However, my golf/baseball/ice hockey-influenced technique yielded some decent results…including a 94 km/h effort that I photographed for posterity (not that I’m competitive or anything).  Sadly, I don’t think a hurling career is in the works for me:  the short stick would undoubtedly leave me with serious back problems if I were to devote any time to the sport.

The pinnacle - and end - of my hurling career (GAA Museum in Dublin, Ireland)
The pinnacle – and end – of my hurling career (GAA Museum in Dublin, Ireland)

After leaving the museum, I stopped by the stadium’s sport shop and picked up a neat souvenir:  a DVD of the national Gaelic Football championship match.  My initial impressions:  these guys are crazy!  They must get concussions every other game.  Never mind my lack of kicking accuracy; the intense collisions (like rugby, they don’t wear any padding of significance) would stop my career in very short order.

I spent more time at the GAA Museum than I had expected; I really enjoyed the opportunity to do something a little more strenuous that walking or cycling.  While I took a quick look at some other North Dublin attractions, I wanted to make sure that I made it back to the National Museum of Archaeology before it closed.  I did, and now I can say I have seen the ancient bog bodies as well as the Cong Cross and the Tara Brooch.  The bog bodies were kind of creepy: these are 2000-year-old bodies that were preserved (more or less) in bogs until their discovery in recent years.   They are not for the squeamish!

I had a nice final dinner in a Dun Laoghaire Chinese restaurant.   I went for an appetizer of “Salt Chilli Crispy Shredded Chicken” and a main course of Lemon Chicken.  As in Cashel, the Lemon Chicken was almost Schnitzelesque in its quality.  This time, however, I have a photo to prove it.

Lemon Chicken at Yung's Chinese Restaurant (Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland)
Lemon Chicken at Yung’s Chinese Restaurant (Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland)

While still very much present, my cold didn’t really inhibit my final day in Dublin.   I’m happy with what I accomplished and at the same time am also ready to return to Canada.  My next post will reflect on my Irish trip and also drop some hints about my exciting next destination!

The South Side of Dublin

(Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland)

Part of my preparation for this trip was to watch “The Commitments”, a 1991 movie that captured the grimness of the north side of Dublin prior to the years of the Celtic Tiger.  In short:  the north end of Dublin is rougher than the south.  Incidentally, even if you disregard the rest of the movie, the climactic performance of “Try a Little Tenderness” is one of the most powerful musical moments I’ve ever seen on film.

My initial impression of Dublin on this trip was the main bus station: it is (barely) in the north end and I didn’t feel very comfortable there when I arrived.  Particularly given my viral situation, I thought it might be better to start off by visiting the “softer” south side on my first full day in Dublin.

An understated bar at the edge of the Temple Bar district in Dublin
An understated bar at the edge of the Temple Bar district in Dublin

Accordingly, I set a modest goal of commuting into Dublin and experiencing two things:  a tour of Trinity College (University of Dublin) and a visit to the National Museum (Archaeology).  Just in case, I also took note of the address of a favourably reviewed used record store.  These were all within walking distance of each on the south side of the River Liffey.

"The Temple Bar" in the "Temple Bar", Dublin: some of these people may be tourists
“The Temple Bar” in the “Temple Bar”, Dublin: some of these people may be tourists

Trinity College reminded me somewhat of the Ivy League schools in the U.S…and, of course, my alma mater Queen’s University in Kingston!  Despite being in the middle of the city, it was relatively quiet, green and filled with old stone buildings.  Our tour was led by a current student who had returned to Trinity to complete his doctorate.  Trinity has quite a history of architectural corruption and incompetence…with much of the corruption on the part of the school!  It also was the site of a late 18th century murder, in which the accused students were acquitted because it was just a “student prank gone wrong”.

It was great to get some personal insights into the school and to learn about some of its famous alumni.  In the field of literature alone, its alumni include Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker (“Dracula”).

The Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin
The Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin

However, the prize at the end of the tour was seeing the Book of Kells in the college’s Old Library.  This is a remarkable book from Europe’s darkest days when literacy was just barely alive and there was extremely little in the way of artistic expression.  It was prepared in about 800 A.D. by monks and consists of four gospels… but it is the presentation that is most remarkable.  It contains an astonishing and whimsical (crossing a “t” with fish?) assortment of calligraphy and vibrant illustrations.  To get an idea, do a Google search for “images” of the “Book of Kells”, or just check out this link:  http://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=MS58_003v

You will be amazed by what was created during such a grim time.

Interestingly, I found the preliminary displays to be more vibrant than the Book of Kells itself.  Because it is more than 1,200 years old, it is necessary to keep the book in a highly controlled environment with minimal light.  This understandably lessens the impact of the colours.  Two folios (consisting of two pages each) are available for viewing at any given time, but they are under glass and you cannot touch anything.  Of course, everybody else wants to see the Book too…with the result that you have only a few seconds to look at the pages before either the “marshal” tells you to move along or the crush of people forces you aside.

The Long Room of the Old Library (Trinity College, Dublin)
The Long Room of the Old Library (Trinity College, Dublin)

Upstairs from the Book of Kells is the “Long Room”.  It is, as you might expect, a very long room with a lot of very old books.  However, it also contains the “Brian Boru Harp”:  the oldest known harp in Ireland and the model of the harp that appears on everything in Ireland from government documents to bottles of Guinness beer.

I also visited the National Museum of Archaeology later in the day but somehow missed out on several of the most important exhibits.  Fortunately, I had some very successful record-buying therapy in not one but three separate used vinyl record shops.  I may have to devote a post to this once I am back in Canada.

I resolve to visit the north side of Dublin tomorrow and also rectify my oversight at the Archaeology Museum.

Journey to Dun Laoghaire (and the Unrelated Virus)

(Dun Laoghaire, Ireland)

Travel is not artificially separated from real life. Real things happen…and you can get sick. Unfortunately, my earlier suspicions were correct and I had a full-blown cold by the morning of June 10. This was scheduled to be a travel day from Portrush to Dublin, with a stopover in Belfast.

I dozed for most of the train trip to Belfast and can’t comment much on it. In Belfast itself, I had to decide whether to continue onward or to see a bit of the city with my backpack. Although I hate to miss an opportunity to see a new place, it really was better for me to get to Dublin (actually Dun Laoghaire) and rest. In fact, I slept for most of the trip from Belfast to Dublin too.

I’m staying in Dun Laoghaire (a town about 20 minutes by “subway” from downtown Dublin) to escape the high cost of accommodation in Dublin…as well as to experience life in a once-busy but now quiet port. Even when you can find reasonably-priced accommodation in a city like Dublin (in which rents were recently the fifth-most expensive in the world), there is a good chance that it won’t be in the most desirable part of town. By staying in Dun Laoghaire, I was able to wander freely in the evening and also have my dinner in (relatively) inexpensive restaurants that still offered good food.   This was important, as my sore throat and congested sinuses were begging for spicy Asian soups!

My B&B (the Ferry House) in Dun Laoghaire.  Yes, it's for sale!
My B&B (the Ferry House) in Dun Laoghaire. Yes, it’s for sale!

Dun Laoghaire (pronounced approximately “Dun LEER-y”) used to be the terminal for most, if not all, of the ferries arriving from England and Wales.  However, most of these ferries now go directly to Dublin Port.  The only remaining service is the car ferry from Holyhead, Wales.  Dun Laoghaire’s tourist infrastructure is therefore a little on the old side, as there is understandably little motivation to build anything new for tourists.  My B&B, and I suspect many others, is a Victorian building with very high ceilings and the sort of design that would be impractical to build today.

The glory may be fading, but Dun Laoghaire is still a quaint place to stay.
The glory may be fading, but Dun Laoghaire is still a quaint place to stay.

A side-effect of staying in a smaller community is that you can get more personalized attention in the various shops and services.  I was able to get a quick (and free) consultation with a pharmacist as soon as I walked in the pharmacy door.  Apparently, I don’t have an exotic disease…but this particular cold virus has swept through Ireland and will likely linger for a week or so.   I’m glad I know that:  I will have to set reasonable expectations for my stay in Dublin, as I don’t want to deteriorate further and have a miserable flight home.  This means prioritizing:  if I’ve already seen or done something similar on this trip, there’s no need to see or do it again in Dublin.

Dun Laoghaire's East Pier in the evening
Dun Laoghaire’s East Pier in the evening

Even if I weren’t sick, it would still be important to pick my spots as I near the end of this trip.  No matter how beautiful a particular cathedral or painting may be, it won’t pack the same punch if you’ve already seen a dozen of them in the past week.  I suppose this is even more true if you’re travelling as much as I am this year:  I will really have to be careful not to get over-castled.

The "DART" pulls into Sandycove/Glasthule Station.  This is how I commute to/from Dublin.
The “DART” pulls into Sandycove/Glasthule Station. This is how I commute to/from Dublin.

Stay tuned for the details on how I decided to spend my time in Dublin – there are still a couple of Irish posts to come!

The Antrim Coast Sightseeing Marathon

(Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland)

June 9 was a test of my sightseeing endurance. Despite not being in peak physical condition (due to a worrisome sore throat and some other cold symptoms), I decided to maximize my tourist thrills and see as many sights on the Antrim Coast as possible…by using public transportation.  I set a goal of three:  the Giant’s Causeway, Bushmills Whiskey Distillery, and Dunluce Castle.  Could I pull it off and still make it for pre-dinner drinks at the Portrush Yacht Club?

Early indicators were positive.  “Hopper” bus pass in hand, I caught the first Route 402 bus and scoped out the latter sights on my way to the Giant’s Causeway.  Knowing the lay of the land was essential to success.

Frolicking on the Giant's Causeway
Frolicking on the Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway is bizarre.  The legend is that it was indeed a causeway built by a giant to link Ireland and Scotland.  However, tragedy and misunderstanding naturally entered the picture…and the causeway was destroyed, with only a small portion here (and a smaller portion in Scotland) surviving.  The geological explanation is less thrilling.  In any case, the cover art for Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” album is no longer a mystery.

The slightly scarier side of the Giant's Causeway
The slightly scarier side of the Giant’s Causeway

I rambled, photographed, and  moved on to some intense cliff trails.  No challenge was left unturned.  162 straight steep steps up?  Bring them on!  Exposed windy cliffs with no protective railing?  No problem!   A bus at 12:26 instead of the 12:36 I thought I had read?  That’s going to be tricky.  Nonetheless, with a full 2 minutes to spare, I caught the hourly bus and was on my way to the town of Bushmills and its namesake whiskey distillery.

More frolicking on the Giant's Causeway, but note the red-jacketed park rangers at top right.
More frolicking on the Giant’s Causeway, but note the red-jacketed park rangers at top right.

I’m not really a whiskey (Irish) or whisky (Scottish) drinker.  I don’t think I’ve ever had Bushmills whiskey before today.  However, I appreciate well-made products and didn’t want to make the same mistake we made in Orkney, where we passed up the opportunity to tour the Highland Park Distillery.  And so, within 10 minutes of arrival, I was on a tour with 8 strangers to see how the (famous?) Bushmills Whiskeys are made.

It was cool.  It was hot – almost unbearably so in the distilling room.  It was odd – could that goopy granola really become whiskey?  Indeed, how did they ever come up with the process in the first place?  And then we saw the bottling line – I was expecting to see Laverne & Shirley appear at any moment (and was trying to get their theme song out of my head).

Exterior of the Old Bushmills Distillery in Bushmills, Northern Ireland (photos were not allowed inside)
Exterior of the Old Bushmills Distillery in Bushmills, Northern Ireland (photos were not allowed inside)

Armed with all kinds of information about distillation, peat (or not), and sherry casks, we each received a free sample in the on-site bar.  I went for the oldest available option (12 year old single malt), reasoning that 12 must be better than 10 (with the 16 and 21 year old varieties deemed too expensive for the tourists).  It was smooth, it felt good on my sore throat, and I will never have it again because the 12-year old blend is only available for purchase at the distillery.

With the clock a-ticking, I abandoned a plan to go into town for lunch and instead grabbed a quick lunch at the distillery’s café.  I opted for the Steak and Guinness pie and (see photo below) it was surprisingly the best meat pie I have ever had.  Rich-tasting, with virtually no gruel-like filler, I wished that I could have more.  But no!  I had to catch another bus!

Steak and Guinness Pie from the Old Bushmills Distillery (Bushmills, Northern Ireland)
Steak and Guinness Pie from the Old Bushmills Distillery (Bushmills, Northern Ireland)

Dunluce Castle was an immense, opulent castle on a cliff overlooking the Antrim coast.  It provided unimaginable luxury, leisure and fine cuisine for those lucky enough to be received there.   However, a wing of the castle rather inconveniently fell into the sea one day.   This was the beginning of the end – before long, the castle was plundered and now only a huge haunting shell remains.

Dunluce Castle (the part that didn't fall into the sea)
Dunluce Castle (the part that didn’t fall into the sea)

I grabbed a handset for the audio tour and set out, madly clicking photos as I ambled, climbed, stretched and ducked through the ruins.  But there was a bizarre scheduling quirk, and the previously hourly bus skipped an hour…I suddenly had time to kill.  Noting that a guided tour was scheduled to begin in 2 minutes, I asked if I could go.  Even though I had already been on the audio tour, and no other people wanted a guided tour, I brazenly convinced the staff to send me off with a private guide for an enhanced tour that didn’t duplicate the audio tour.  I learned about a cave, secret passages, and all kinds of other stuff that other guests would not hear about.  Success!  Filling my final 20 minutes with a much needed “wee cup of tea”, I caught a bus back to Portrush with time to spare before my evening social engagement.

Nightfall on the West Strand in Portrush, Northern Ireland
Nightfall on the West Strand in Portrush, Northern Ireland

I will probably pay the price for rushing around like this…but it was fun to manipulate the limited bus schedule and other factors to create a whirlwind of sightseeing fun.  When combined with the previous day’s off-the-beaten-path tour by car, I think I’ve done a good job of travelling in this part of Northern Ireland.

My First Visit to Northern Ireland

(Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland)

After more than a week in the Republic of Ireland, I am now in Northern Ireland.  Northern Ireland belongs to the U.K. but the border crossing was a complete non-event as both countries belong to the E.U.  It was a long and epic journey:  Westport-Knock, Knock-Sligo and Sligo-Derry by bus; a shuttle bus from the bus station to the train station; a train from Derry to Coleraine and finally a train from Coleraine to Portrush.  It took more than 8 hours, with a quick shopping stop in Derry, but I enjoyed seeing so many different parts of the island in quick succession.

Derry (also known as Londonderry) was the first place where I had time to walk around a bit.  Its city walls are still intact and, as in Dubrovnik, you can walk around the old town on top of the walls.  I suppose it would have been logical to do that first.  But I had a feeling that the “Abbazappa” music shop in the old town would yield results…and I was right.  It was a motherlode of travel-appropriate 45 rpm singles and I am looking forward to playing them all when I get home.  It was bit of a frenzy, to be honest, and after paying for them I had to rush back to the bus station in order to make my connection.

Near the waterfront in Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
Near the waterfront in Portrush, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

The train trip from Derry to Portrush followed a beautiful route along the sea.  I’m staying in Portrush for three nights; it is a seaside resort town with a long history of welcoming travellers.  Thanks to the efforts of a friend back home, I was able to meet up with a family in Portrush for dinner.  They had never met me before but gave me a great welcome to their home town (as well as a great dinner).  The hospitality I saw in the Republic of Ireland is also quite apparent here.  Afterwards, even though it was almost 11:00 p.m., I was able to take some photographs of the shore (see this post’s “cover” photo) without any lighting difficulty.  These long days really fool you – it just doesn’t feel like it is time to wind down for the night.

Mussenden Temple (near Downhill, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland)
Mussenden Temple (near Downhill, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland)

The next day, I met up with an old radio friend from my undergraduate days at Queen’s.  He lives in the nearby town of Limavady and offered to give me an off-the-beaten-path tour of the area west of Portrush.

"Downhill Demesne" - this was being used as office space during World War II, but has gone downhill since then
“Downhill Demesne” – this was being used for official purposes by the RAF during World War II, but has gone downhill since then

Among other places, we visited the “Downhill Demesne” and Mussenden Temple complex as well as the top of Binevenagh Mountain.  Binevenagh, in particular, is extremely difficult to find so it was great to have a local guide.  There is no way it could have been reached by public transportation.  Binevenagh also confirmed that the Republic of Ireland does not have a monopoly on steep and spooky cliffs.  The views were great – we could see all the way to County Donegal in the Republic.

View from Binevenagh Mountain of Magilligan Point and County Donegal
View from Binevenagh Mountain of Magilligan Point and County Donegal

As we hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, my friend and I had a lot of catching up to do.  Obviously, a lot happens over two decades, but it was more remarkable how little our personalities seemed to have changed during that time.

I enjoyed the tour but I think my guide was a little nervous at first.
I enjoyed the tour but I think my guide was a little nervous at first.

Next up on the itinerary are some of the more traditional sights on the Northern Ireland coast.  These will be a little more crowded but it’s not really high season yet.  I just hope the notoriously fickle weather cooperates – a couple of these places are really exposed to the elements!

Urban Life in Western Ireland

(Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)

This post’s title sounds like a very scholarly treatise.  However, I just wanted something that covered my otherwise undocumented experiences in Galway and Westport.

Galway is a lot of fun.  Up until the crash of the Celtic Tiger a few years ago, it was apparently a real boomtown.  Lots of evidence of that unprecedented prosperity remains and the attractive streets of the pedestrian-only zone are full of people.  There are lots of young people, too:  this is a university town and it is also known for something else that attracts young people (more on this in a moment).

An unusually quiet moment in downtown Galway
An unusually quiet moment in downtown Galway

I used Galway as a base to see attractions to the west and south.  But I also enjoyed my time in the city itself, even if it doesn’t really have too much in the way of specific tourist attractions.  An American who was staying in my B&B goes to Galway every year – just because he likes the vibe of the place.

I found a nice used book/music store in Galway called Bell Book and Candle.  Like many places in Ireland, this one had a talkative owner who was genuinely interested in where I came from and what I was doing in Ireland.  I even found some interesting 45s – my international music buying drought is officially over!  I previously mentioned eating Moroccan food in Galway – I also had a very spicy (and very good) doner kebab meal.  The proprietor was from Turkey and it appeared that the local Turkish population enjoyed eating there too.

This is how U2 advertised their Galway-area concerts, back in the day
This is how U2 advertised their Galway-area concerts, back in the day

The only time I felt a little uncomfortable in Galway was late in the evening on my first day in town.  I found a lot of the young people to be a little more aggressive and/or drunk than elsewhere in Ireland before or since.  This didn’t happen on any  other night.  Some research revealed the answer:  Galway is a notorious destination for “Stag and Hen Parties” (their words) and I happened to run into some pretty serious ones.

While Galway has almost 80,000 residents, Westport has just under 6,000.  Westport is proportionately more driven by tourism and seems to draw an older crowd than Galway.  Perhaps as a consequence, there is a lot of upscale dining here and it was a little more difficult to find restaurants that were frequented by locals.  But Westport is undeniably quaint and well-kept:  in fact, it has won Ireland’s “Tidy Town” competition on several occasions and also won a national Quality of Life competition.

Specialty shop in Westport.  I went in for the vinyl but came out with a book!
Specialty shop in Westport. I went in for the vinyl but came out with a book!

My main reason for going to Westport was to use it as a base for climbing Croagh Patrick – an imposing mountain located a few miles outside of town.  It would have been about a 4-hour round-trip hike, with much of the hike on loose scree.  Alas, it rained all day, winds were gusting in the 50km/h range, and the mountain was shrouded in clouds.  As I also would have had to bike to the mountain (an additional 45 minutes each way), I reluctantly gave up on the climbing plan.   It’s not a problem – hopefully I will be in this part of Ireland again someday and will have better weather.

Dinner tonight was another quintessential Irish experience: take-out fish & chips from the local “chippy”.  The piece of cod was huge – check out how it compares to the fork in the picture below.

Fish & Chips to go in Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland
Fish & Chips with Salt & Malt to go in Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland

As in Galway, people in Westport were also very helpful.  In particular, I can certainly recommend the Waterside B&B:  excellent “VFM” (value for money) and excellent guidance for their guests.  They even took care of my laundry for me.

From Westport, I am taking an epic journey (5.5 hours on 3 buses, then a shuttle bus to a train station, and then another hour+ on 2 trains) to my next destination.  Among other things, I’ll be meeting some family friends as well as an old school friend who I haven’t seen in about 20 years.  I’ll also be seeing some more great sights on this very green island.  Stay tuned for the next “big reveal”!

A Musical Evening in Westport, Ireland

(Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)

It’s in practically every guidebook that covers County Mayo in Western Ireland.  Every backpacker you meet in the area talks about it.  Even the owner of my B&B here in Westport recommended it.  They all say the same thing:  you have to go to Matt Molloy’s Pub for some traditional Irish music.

Matt Molloy's Pub by day (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)
Matt Molloy’s Pub by day (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)

At one time or another, I played virtually every kind of music on my various radio programs at CFRC-FM.  However, I must admit that I didn’t play much in the way of traditional Irish music.  Even when I had a “world music” program, I gravitated towards music from South Africa and Brazil.  Nor did I ever (knowingly) play Irish traditional music with any of the bands I played in.

Nonetheless, I always appreciate live music played by skilled musicians who love what they are doing.  The type of music doesn’t really matter.  Nothing is more off-putting than going to a concert and seeing that the band doesn’t really want to be there.  It’s even worse when they crank up the volume to cover up their sloppy playing.

Even though I found it a little intimidating to walk into an unknown and crowded bar by myself, I went ahead and (yes) ordered a pint of Guinness.  It took a few minutes to pour it properly.  The bartender told me where the session would take place and I found a spot in the very small room.  Before long, I was chatting to a fellow traveller and musician from England who was interested in a lot of the same music that I was.  The environment facilitates this kind of contact:  in Canada, people tend to go to pubs in groups and not mix as much with other people.  Anyway, before I knew it, the musicians sat down at a couple of small tables and the session was about to begin.

Session at Matt Molloy's (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)
Session at Matt Molloy’s (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)

There were 5 musicians to start, with another one joining in after a few songs.  It wasn’t structured and there was no “patter from the frontman”…in fact, there was no frontman.  It seemed like everybody took their turn in selecting and starting a song.  Most of the songs were instrumentals but my favourites were the ones with words.  At first, it was strange to hear unamplified singing.  But this is how it would have been a century (or more) ago.  Once again, if you ignored the digital cameras, it was easy to pretend that we weren’t in 2014 at all.

Session at Matt Molloy's (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)
Session at Matt Molloy’s (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)

The musicians were having fun and the audience was too.  A significant number were tourists, but there were locals as well…several of them were friends with the musicians.  I was a little concerned beforehand that this would be an artificial tourist production but there really weren’t any concessions.  The musicians played what they wanted to play and were even teaching each other some tunes.  Nobody came around to pester you about buying more drinks.  And then we saw Matt Molloy!

Some of the crowd (and the bodhrán player) at Matt Molloy's (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)
Some of the crowd (and the bodhrán player) at Matt Molloy’s (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)

Through my radio work, I had heard of Planxty, the Bothy Band and (especially) The Chieftains.  Matt Molloy played the flute for all of them and has been with The Chieftains for 35 years now.  The Chieftains are probably the most famous traditional Irish band of all time.  As a result, Matt Molloy has played with The Rolling Stones, Sinead O’Connor, Elvis Costello, Sting, Madonna and many others too numerous to mention.  They’ve also been nominated for 18 Grammy awards (and won 6 of them).

Session at Matt Molloy's (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)
Session at Matt Molloy’s (Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland)

Molloy could probably make more money from his pub by increasing prices and employing the “hard sell” approach that you see in some other landmark entertainment attractions.  However, he seems determined to “keep it real” and still welcome tourists at the same time.  There was no cover charge either.  In the end, everybody goes home happy and the word continues to spread about this Westport landmark.