Tuesday, January 19, 2016

9/16 and 9/17 - Outward Bound and Tally Ho!

9/16 and 9/17 - Outward Bound and Tally Ho!
More pics here.

In the morning on  Wednesday 9/16, we drove from Davis to Walnut Creek. Ty dropped me and the bags at Bart, then took our car to Patrick’s, where it would live for our trip. Patrick generously donated his space in his complex to us and drove Ty back to Bart. We rode Bart for an hour to SFO, and that might have been the most diversity I saw on this trip (although parts of London and Dublin came close). The Bay Area is a truly amazing place. 

We flew SFO to Toronto, had a nice and reasonable layover there, then Toronto to Dublin redeye. Sadly this plane was smaller and less comfortable than our first flight and sleeping was tough. Once we landed in Dublin, we sweated through a slow customs line and raced to our next terminal, where we almost immediately boarded an Aer Lingus flight to London. We then took the tube in to Kensington to our hotel, arriving around 6pm on Thursday, 9/17.   From home door to hotel door took about 26 hours.


We were able to navigate the Oyster card system for the tube after talking to an agent and as always the London tube was easy to use, efficient and comfortable. It was nice to see the outskirts of London turning into the city as we rode in. Our hotel was not far from the Earl’s Court station and easy to find, on an adorable side street in Kensington. Despite being a pretty posh neighborhood (chosen for walking around safety at night, being relatively close to attractions in London and rugby, and hotel value), it was pretty diverse, at least in restaurants and markets. There was a Lebanese market we would visit often just down the street. I wish we had more time to explore the side streets, shops, and food in this area. Would definitely stay there again. 


Our hotel, the London Lodge, was the most expensive of the trip but reasonable for the city, accommodating, and comfortable. It’s built into the row houses of this neighborhood so felt somewhere between a hotel and a B&B. We had great breakfasts – very large continental included in the room price, and the staff were kind and helpful. The room was smallish but perfectly fine and the bathroom was great – including a great old tub for soaking. We had a nice view of the Kensington row houses out the window, and the neighborhood and hotel were quiet. I think it was a great value for the cost and a good location – out of the bustle of Earls Court station area but just a five-minute walk away. 

We did find the tip to stay awake until local bedtime helpful on both ends of this trip. We weren’t completely immune to the time change but the big city, being happy to be off a plane, and the general confusion about time zones over the last few days made it easier to stay awake. We took the tube down to the London Eye, where I’d read about a river cruise that I thought might be a nice introduction to the city and a low-key event if our bodies pooped out on us. We didn’t realize the London Eye was such a tourist trap – there were so many people! The Eye’s pods were decorated with flags for each rugby team nation in honor of the games, and the usual Red and White (Coca Cola owns the Eye) night lights were changed to the RWC colors.  While we didn’t feel the need to ride the Eye, it was fun to have such a large visual reminder of why we were here. 


The area around the Eye and cruise is in the South Bank neighborhood, which has restaurants, street performers, festivals, tourist traps (wax museums and tchotsche shops) and views of the great historic buildings along the Thames. We had touristy food at an international café and walked around while waiting for our cruise. There was a lot of hub-bub, and Ty noticed a food truck for a restaurant we’d had our eye on, reportedly the best burger in London. The idea of great burgers in London was funny to us – but we went back later and it was very, very good. 

The cruise was cold but gorgeous – at the tail end of sunset, with big blustery clouds changing from white to red and orange, then to grey and then dramatically lit by the city. We sailed past Parliament and Big Ben, under the Tower and London Bridges, past the Tate Moderne and the Tower of London, all narrated by a funny Brit who only we laughed at. Most folks were presumably non-English speaking, and/or were too busy taking selfies, to hear the bad jokes and constant admonitions to stay seated. After the tour we crossed over the river and took our obligatory pictures with Big Ben and his clocktower, and then caught the tube home. 


9/18 - London, Day 2 – Museum Day, or the Upside of Empire

9/18  - London, Day 2 – Museum Day, or the Upside of Empire
More pics here.

This day was devoted to the British Museum and National Gallery, which in my opinion must be the best travel deals in the world. You can see pilfered treasures from counties all over the world and famous artworks for free!

After our first breakfast (where I ate way too many croissants), we took the tube to Covent Garden station and walked through this upscale shopping neighborhood to the British Museum. I’d wisely thought to fit this in before the weekend crowds hit – so despite Friday being our first full day in the city we’d be inside. But I forgot that weekdays mean field trips! Tons of small kids in uniforms walking in lovely British lines – and they really were much less obnoxious than field trippers at home. 


The Museum is huge, and its contents unending, but we tried to see at least a little of each gallery. Sadly the Rosetta Stone is now behind glass, and nearly impossible to get to for people taking pictures without really even reading or appreciating what they are seeing. We did manage to read that the Egyptian hieroglyph for cat is the phonetic sound for “meow” followed by a cat symbol. Seems practical to me!


The other treasures are more exposed and less crowded still. We saw Korean pottery, Assyrian stone murals and gateway lions, Egyptian mummies, Roman jewelry, Samurai armour, Greek facades and statues (the Elgin Marbles may be returned to Greece by the next time we visit), West African masks and swords, an Easter island statue, a modern wedding dress made of traditional bark cloth from the pacific islands, and more. This was the only day of rain in London for us, and we were inside missing it. 


We stayed most of the day, missing the lunch hour and racing to the National Gallery before it closed. We walked briskly through the theater district and I was sad we didn’t have time for a show. Or rather energy – I could tell we’d be tired every night! Ty didn’t see much of Trafalgar Square because a Malaysian tourism festival had set up shop with a large stage and many tents. We decided to skip this to see the artwork – it was also quieter, warmer, and less crowded inside. 

The artwork was stunning, and we discovered that normally-dispassionate Ty has a serious bone to pick with Renaissance art. Tired and not THAT artsy, we made a game of re-captioning famous works with more honest titles (“starving artist begrudgingly paints his landlord’s discordant family a bit too honestly”) and creating our own critiques. I’m not sure I’ve laughed harder. We also found pieces to enjoy and appreciate – but I’m not sure we would have stayed long enough to find them without Ty’s hilarious angry critiques. 

We walked over to Piccadilly Circus, which is an odd mixture of spruced up Victorian architecture and blazing LED bill boards –a  bit like Mary Poppins and Times Square had a car accident. Another tourist center, this was a great people watching place, since so many of the major boulevards intersect here, and there is a nice fountain to sit and take it all in. 

With the day mostly over and our bodies tired and hungry, I made a pitch to splurge on dinner. I knew I wanted to eat good Indian food in Britain, and I guessed, correctly, that though early on, this was both the time and the place for a nicer dinner. We booked a late seating at the Bombay Brassery, a highly reviewed Indian restaurant that luckily was not far from our hotel. We enjoyed cocktails in their lounge and slowly realized the restaurant was based on the British “country clubs” in India – which we’d also seen remnants of in Thailand. Having just read a novel based on the exclusionary racism of these clubs and their patrons, I felt just a bit guilty about this whole idea – until the food came. It was amazing, the dining room was beautiful, and I decided to just submit and enjoy the upside of empire. Thanks, rest of the world, for your sacrifices! 

9/19 - London, Day 3 – Flea Markets and Rugby: Shoulder to Shoulder Day

9/19 - London, Day 3 – Flea Markets and Rugby: Shoulder to Shoulder Day
More pics here.

The RWC game we would be attending was at Twickenham Stadium in Richmond, a suburb around 40 minutes from London. We had a long morning to enjoy before we started down for the game, so we decided to get up early to avoid the crowds at the Portobello Road antique market in Notting Hill. I was curious to see what a British antique fair would be like, hopefully find some gifts, and show Ty this semi-famous part of town.  At 9am there were already more people than I’d like – but by the time we left around noon, it was wall to wall people (which we’d experience again later at the game). I found some fun gifts, and in an antique shop I found a treasure for me: wooden batik fabric stamps – both new (read: affordable) and used (read: expensive). I have a few new stamps that I found in Berkeley and was happy to find new intricate patterns, as well as a larger used stamp that was 1/3 the price I would have to pay at home. 

We had a nice stopover in a hipster gin bar (the Portobello Star) that I’d read about. It seemed appropriately British to trade in our bourbon cocktails for gin, and they had a menu that read like a book, plus their own home brewed gin. We enjoyed a rest and a drink, and then headed home for lunch – leftovers from Bombay Brassery on our hotel bed while watching another rugby game!

After a great indoor picnic and rest, we headed out for the rugby game. We took a tube ride to a train station, then a short train (nothing like train rides at home) to Richmond. We were surrounded by rugby fans – mostly French who’d chunneled over, but also Brits and Australians now rooting for Italy (really, rooting against France). We tried to find a pub in Richmond for pre-game dinner and excitement, but wound up in a tiny, quant Italian restaurant eating pasta with locals who didn’t really care about rugby. At least it was theme-appropriate to be eating Italian! We also stopped at the Richmond RWC Fan Zone. The organizers kindly created these places for locals to watch the games on giant outdoor screens, since most folks can’t afford the expensive ticket prices (but do have to put up with all of tourists flooding in for the games). The Fan Zone looked festive but chaotic – much like a county fair with giant screens showing rugby. We watched a few minutes of Japan vs. South Africa, not realizing that this would be the upset game of the whole tournament. 


Richmond is a nice suburb town along the river, which we’d hoped to walk through on our way to Twickenham Stadium. However the crowds and chaos were much more confusing than we’d imagined, and we opted to play it safe and take a shuttle bus straight to the stadium, where we were amazed to see such a giant venue dedicated to rugby. And so, so many fans! We popped into the gift shop for theme clothing and made our way to our seats. There were fans everywhere. It was unreal. 


The game was great fun. There was a laser show, national anthems, and the usual pomp and circumstance. Fans were dressed up and enthusiastic, but everyone was positive and friendly. There were more crying men than I was used to. The match was not particularly close (French is much better than Italy so this was expected) but not so much of a blowout that we didn’t enjoy the tension. The fans of each nation would break out in patriotic songs of their homeland to rouse the teams – of course France’s songs were louder and more common since most of Italy’s fans were not actually Italian, but it was a unique way to see the European identities as Americans! We were impressed by the incredibly orderly fans, how clean everything was, and how positive everyone was. We were told that beer is served at rugby matches because everyone behaves themselves – much like the reputation of rugby players themselves congratulating, hosting, and befriending their rival teams after matches. Apparently the same stadiums won’t serve beer at soccer matches. 


The Twickenham Stadium holds 80,000 people, and we heard attendance was in the 76,000 range for this game. We estimated that 74,000 of these fans came by public transit – and while we came at various times throughout the day, we were all leaving at once. Poor Richmond’s system couldn’t handle us. We filled the streets of Twickenham, making our way by foot the mile or so to Richmond and the train station. Everyone was singing, cheering, well-wishing, and generally enjoying ourselves, but as the trains filled up we became more and more congested, until we were shuffling slowly shoulder to shoulder, sidewalk to sidewalk through the streets. It was the most people I’ve been in contact with in my life, and the safest I’ve felt in a public setting. It’s hard to describe the sense of camaraderie we felt – I am not sure it really happens in America to this degree or with this many people. 

While it seemed the RWC did not plan the public transit exit strategy very well, they did at least put out porta-potties along the route, and some enterprising street vendors had food. Residents would watch us from their windows – we were mooned once (which brought cheers from the crown) and then frontal-ed (which brought jeers)! I’m sure we were a multi-national spectacle for the residences as much as we’d enjoyed the spectacle of the game. It’s hard to imagine another sporting event with so much love and respect and shared enjoyment. 

We did end up just standing for about an hour just one block from the station. We’d spend nearly an hour shuffling one mile before this. People were sobering up and grumbling a bit, but still nothing unsavory. Mostly folks were worried that we would all not make it on to the trains before they closed at midnight – but officials promised us the trains would run until we were all home. We made it from train to tube, and watched as international fans commingled with London local young people taking the same tube ride into the city for Saturday night partying. It was an interesting version of international relations!

9/20 London Day 4: “Rest” Day

9/20 London Day 4: “Rest” Day
More pics here.

Assuming we’d be tired from rugby, we didn’t have a lot planned for this day. We knew there was a USA game in the afternoon and decided to build our day around watching that. The weather was gorgeous and so we walked to Hyde Park to enjoy being outside and decompressing from the crazy schedule of the last few days. Blue skies, warm breezes, yipping dogs frolicking, youth football (soccer) games and families with strollers in the park – it was almost enough to make you forget you were in a major world city. We wandered around Kensington Palace but opted for the gardens over the indoor exhibits. 


We found a pub in Knightsbridge to watch the USA game and reveled in knowing that Tristan’s tiny face was on the flyhalf’s jersey – we had “sponsored” the USA team buy buying a spot in the photo collage that made up their jersey numbers. USA lost, as was to be expected, but it was still exciting to see our home country represented. 

We made our way towards central London on foot, enjoying the beauty of these fancy neighborhoods and their gardens, with a stop at Harrods to wander the food courts. I have to say, 10 years ago such expanses of world-foods were a wonder. Nowadays it felt like a stuffy version of Whole Foods. Of course the bakery and cakes were stunning, and walking through Harrods in general is always a reminder of that other world the super rich live in. But I also appreciated in a new way how much food exposure we have now. Stacks of dates were cute but nothing new. Sushi seemed commonplace. Jelly Bellies? We have those at home! The California wines were nothing notable, in our humble opinion. We live in a really special place, and this was a good reminder. 


After Harrods we wandered through Green Park and to Buckingham Palace. Since we had no agenda for the day, why not see what all the fuss is about? It was pretty in a city garden sort of way. It was hard to imagine the crowds here for major royal events, but it was an interesting stop nonetheless. Also, we found ice cream in the park and enjoyed a cone. We realized we’d almost wound our way back to the House of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, and decided to visit those while we were seeing all the classic tourist spots of London. 

Being Sunday, and a working church, the Abbey did not host tours. However, the public was invited to the organ practice recital for that night’s service, and we decided sitting through organ music would be worth seeing the inside of the Abbey. It was fascinating to see a non-Catholic, non-cathedral hall of worship at this scale. Stained glass portrayed famous Brits who made notable contributions to society. Modern martyrs, including MLK, were iconized on the building façade. Once we were seated inside, I looked down and realized my folding chair was placed over the grave of David Livingstone. It felt much less like a house of worship for a deity, and more of a deification of England. Fascinating of course, but a bit strange. And then the organ began. Organ music, well, I just can’t love it. I felt trapped in the Phantom of the Opera score and yet spent the time fighting sleep (despite the thunderous chords, all the days walking had me spent!), and pondering where the organ and its player were (out of site, behind lovely screens), and what sort of strange old man was dedicating his life to this awful music. At the end of the rehearsal, the organist (highly decorated per the program) came out for his bow, and was surprisingly young and normal. I hope others were clapping for him – I was mainly clapping that it was all over. We took the long way out, wandering past the sarcophagi of lords, knights, sirs, and other notables of the Empire. 


Outside we wandered the Palace of Westminster (akak the Houses of Parliament), Big Ben, and other historic buildings, this time on the north side of the river and during daylight. They were stunning but inaccessible and the area was fairly empty. We tried to find a decent pub but no one was serving food, and we were starving. Little did we know that this off-timing of our hunger and public food availability was going to be a trend on this trip.   But we did find St Stephen’s/Queens’ Head, a foodless pub showing the last few minutes of a New Zealand match, and we sampled a new beer.  Since it was built in 1873 across the street from the government powerhouses, some famous people have enjoyed a drink at this pub, and we wish we remembered them. Maybe Oscar Wilde? Definitely Churchill. Some others like that (you know, because those two are really alike…).  Perhaps if I had eaten, I could have retained all this information better. It was, at least beautiful (see link above).

After the pub, still starving, Ty had a stroke of genious and we trekked across the pedstrian bridge over the Thames back to the ultra touristy South Bank, and the Bleecker Street Burger food truck that Ty had spotted on our first night. By the way, do not open that link above unless you have really good willpower or access to a fine burger. It’s going to cause cravings.

Here is Ty’s official British Burger Report:  
The burger did not disappoint.  We first decided to eat sensibly, splitting a burger and fries.  However, this burger was the shit! The meat was perfectly seasoned and juicy (i.e. pretty fatty).  The melted cheese and house special sauce topped it off, and our half burgers went down quick.  It did not take much discussion before we ordered a second burger.  Juliana had made friends with a local couple who were also heartily enjoying their burgers and talking up the experience we were about to have, while we were waiting for our food to emerge from the hipster food truck.  The locals wanted to know what we thought of the burger and it was a bit awkward eating it in front of them. [Note: Juliana didn’t find this awkward at all. Either because she has not problem snarfing food in front of voyeuristic strangers, or because she was that happy to finally be eating dinner. Also, I don’t like burgers, really much at all. This was a damn good burger. I miss it. And who doesn’t respect a guy who takes a basic sponge bread bun, and combine it with dry-aged rare-breed grass feed beef AND plain old artifical American cheese? That is true high-low dining right there.]

We decided (or rather, I convinced a reluctant Ty) that Covent Garden wasn’t THAT far away, and I really wanted a cocktail instead of beer. The map showed a little martini glass symbol in Covent Garden and I thought such an area might still be open on Sunday night, unlike most of London apparently. After a mere 15 minute walk, we found the actual Covent Garden, a former large scale market turned retail center. There were plenty of people wandering around, although most of the shops were closing up. There was a beautiful display of what appeared to be clusters of white balloons in a two-story atrium, with gently pulsing lights sprinkled throughout. It felt like a cloud had descended into the building and made the whole place feel less commercial. 

We did find a lovely bar/restaurant and had a final cocktail, and looked forward to bed. Until I noticed on the map that China Town wasn’t THAT far away! I remembered walking through circa 1999 on an adventurous spring break trip with Emily and wanted to see it again. So we circled back again towards Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, and wandered through London’s Chinatown. We got egg custards at a late night bakery. We walked and walked and walked some more. Eventually we found our way home and collapsed. Our rest day had not been restful, but had been rewarding. We’d rest in Ireland!

In case you think London doesn’t require a trip of it’s own, here’s the impressive list of things we didn’t get to, …Old Spitalfields Market (where there’s a brick and mortar Bleecker Street burger shop!), London Museum, Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern, theaters/shows, the red deer living in Richmond Park, and of course all the places within a day trip of the city.

9/21 Shannon, Doolin, and the Burren

9/21 Shannon, Doolin, and the Burren
More pics here.
Road trip leg 1 map here.

On Monday we took our last tube ride back to London Heathrow and had a fairly uneventful flight to Shannon, on the west coast of Ireland.  Shannon does have a few direct flights to Ireland and is nicely situated if you wanted to see the south or west side of the country. From here we would road-trip up the west coast to the northern edge of the island, then back across the middle of the country to Dublin for our flight home. There are also flights from SFO to Shannon now, something to consider if traveling primarily to see the countryside of Ireland. 

Despite our best efforts, the car company bamboozled us for insurance, and that combined with pretty heavy air sickness made for a rough couple of hours for me. None of which helped Ty get comfortable with taking the captains seat in a right-hand drive car! We picked up our tiny little Skoda – although it had four doors so it wasn’t tiny by European standards! Ty wisely took a few practice laps around the rental car lot, promptly running over a curb on the first turn, (which wasn’t very lappable, poor guy) and then we headed out. 

Our first stop was the well-marketed Bunratty Castle, just a few kilometers down the road. I’d hoped we could get a few practice miles in before driving through the big town of Shannon – although Shannon is not a big town and the highways wisely go around towns in Ireland anyhow. We also hoped to grab lunch and check off seeing a castle before driving out to the coast. 

The castle is small but well preserved, and has been refurbished on the interior. They have built a historic medieval village around it, as well as the requisite tourist stops. This made for easy lunch but high entrance fees, and a bit of a smarmy feel. So we ate lunch, walked around the perimeter, and left. I have heard the medieval banquette dinners are worth attending, but it felt a bit like Sutters Fort in Sac – fun for field trips and small kids, but not worth paying to see as an adult. 
We also started to get the feel of castles in Ireland: they are not the abodes of kings, but rather any fortified home or defensive building. They are still beautiful but founded in territorial disputes, not fairytale stories. 


We took beautiful winding roads out to Doolin village, on the west coast and around 1.5 hours from Shannon. Ty took to most of the right hand driving quickly, and having country roads to learn on was a good way to start. They are narrow but generally lower speeds and not crowded. And in this part of the country they aren’t surrounded by rock walls (we would experience that special form of high speed claustrophobia soon enough). The day was lovely and the countryside everything we expected it to be: rolling hills, quaint towns, green everywhere.  We found Doolin, which has expanded considerably since I came in 2001, but which is still quaint and charming. I believe it was around this time that we noticed that Ireland does not, apparently, use street numbers in its addresses. I believe Dublin and it’s suburbs might be the exception, but we never had an address to search for in west or north-west Ireland, just country road directions and the name of the lodge in case we had to pull over and ask for help. Thankfully there just aren’t many roads to choose from!

Doolin sits at the sea down the road from the famous Cliffs of Moher and is also a regional hub for traditional music.  There are four sweater shops, one music shop, one café, and four places to get dinner (all pubs), but dozens of guest houses, hotels and B&Bs. Most importantly, one of the hotels has laundry service (and the nicest staff, from Hungary, who helped us with our laundry). 


That first night we went down to the shoreline at the west edge of town, where I bee-lined for this amazing corner of coast that I’d wanted to show Ty for years. The Burren (more on that later) gets exposed here at the water’s edge, and where the rolling grasses stop, the rock tiers out to the water in exposed ledges. The seawater crashes against the edge, while the fresh water trickling down from the hills carves unique patterns into the limestone. The rock splits in geometric patterns and long, straight lines. In some spots you can hear and feel waves crashing underneath you, even though you are 10-20 feet above the sea. It’s one of the most special places I have been, and I’ve wanted to come back for 14 years. Watching the sun set through dramatic clouds over the water, feeling the wind of a storm coming in from the sea, looking back at the rolling green hills and the Cliffs of Moher cascading down the coast from us – and knowing I’d been able to finally bring Ty here – was a highlight of the trip. I let out a particular breath I’d been holding and reveled in the moment. Then we scurried back up the shoreline to the car park as the rain started falling! 

Doolin was where we had the most rain in Ireland, but it still wasn’t much. Maybe 30 minutes of rain, and then beautiful sparkling grass, fresh air, and even a double rainbow. It was really magical. It was now getting dark and the shops were closed, which means there’s not much else to do in Doolin but head to the pubs. We went to Gus O’Connors, the most obvious pub on the main road (half a block long) in town. I remembered instantly the money-covered walls, and flashed back to being in this pub in 2001. It was warm, crowded, and full of Americans – we met folks from at least 6 states. There was a karaoke couple singing ballads – apparently this is the early dinner entertainment in Doolin. 

We tucked in to the expected Irish stew, and an unexpected goat cheese salad that was fantastic. I learned you only get 3 choices of whiskey and no wine or craft cocktails in Ireland. I discovered I really liked Powers whiskey, which is not a high end brand but was closer to our bourbon than an Irish whiskey. It would become a stand by for me on the trip – I found that a hot toddy was a great cure for motion sickness! I also discovered I didn’t have the stomach to drink a 20 ounce Guinness every day, as my sweet mother in law had encouraged me to do (she gave me travel money for my birthday for just this purpose). We ended up sharing the Guinness most days, especially since for Ty, the only beer choices were Guinness, Carlsburg, and Budweiser!

There wasn’t much music seeming to happen at this pub, but some tourists we’d met said the better food was here, and the better music was up the road. We headed up to Fitzpatricks, where we found a room full of retirees mistily singing old Irish ballads along with an even more retired guitar player. We were a bit worried this was not the lively Irish music we were looking for, but decided to stay a bit anyhow. The next set was a true Irish session, with two harpists, a mandolin, a fiddle, and several more instruments on rotation. One of the harpists was Cath Connelly (only later would we realize she as a Connelly could be a distant relative of Ty’s mom’s family) from Australia, and was touring Ireland with most of the retirees we’d found singing, who were on a group Celtic Christian pilgrimage. They were a lively and emotional group – no doubt from spending all their days pondering the deep spiritual life in these stunning places. I think they needed to decompress after all that reflection – there was a lot of giggling and girly cocktails around. 

We ended up in a corner booth with some of them and had a great philosophical discussion with Libbey from Melbourne, who discussed the differences in Anglican/Evangelical/Catholic perspective and practice with us, and encouraged us to listen for God’s speaking on our trip. We are instructed to email her what we’ve heard once we are back. All this while listening to amazing music and drinking whisky and beer in a tiny pub in a tiny town on the west coast of Ireland.