Wondrous Oxford: Delightful Discoveries

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The Bridge of Sigh’s at Oxford University

When I went to Oxford on Monday, it was with practically no preconceived notions.  But if the National Gallery was the Gallery of Disappointments, Oxford became the Emporium of All Thing Glorious.  It’s a virtual treasure trove of delightful shops, buildings, and a magical (FREE!!!) exhibit of my darkest bibliophile fantasies.  I was having so much fun I ran out of time to buy stuff, so another trip will be happening shortly.

Upon disembarking our bus on High Street, with no map, and only two destinations in mind (The Great Hall of Christ Church College and Alice’s Shop), my friend, Hannah, and I decided our best bet was to follow a young man in a black cape who looked like he knew where he was going.  And bless his heart, he led us right into Oxford University.  The first little bit was spent wandering and oohing over the gorgeous architecture whilst simultaneously searching for a tourist information office to buy a map.

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Handel’s original conductor’s score of The Messiah.

But we found something better: a library gift shop!  And it turns out the library gift shop was in the same building as the aforementioned FREE exhibit.  We wandered through the cafeteria and…tad-a! The Magna Carta just happened to be there (one of the 4 copies still in existence from the 1217 reissue).  But that wasn’t all…we continued exploring only to find a room housing all sort of delious literary and culture treasures, including HANDEL’S ORIGINAL CONDUCTOR’S SCORE FOR THE MESSIAH!!!  The score used for the first performance in 1742, with Handel’s own notations. I have never been moved to tears by a document like that one moved me.  And to top it off, next to it was one of Jane Austen’s notebooks.  All of this was part of a special exhibition called Marks of Genius, featuring the best of the Bodleian Libraries collection.

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We were both in such awe, it took us until we got home to realize (after reading the pamphlet we took on the way out) that there was a whole other room that we missed completely!  Another reason to go back.  But boy did I feel dumb.  New travel rule: read the literature before leaving the museum, even especially if it is a surprise discovery!

That right there would have made the whole day worth it.  But we were just getting started.  Crossing the street we entered the courtyard of the Bodleian Library itself.  Turns out that you can only go in the library with a tour, and that they charge you for.

Boo.  As a general rule, I don’t like tour groups (there are some exceptions, special interest tours can be fascinating, but general museum tours I tend to find boring). I also have a philosophy that all libraries should be free to public, as I think books should be accessible to anyone.  But they didn’t ask my opinion, and they’d already given us a wonderful free preview, so we walked away.

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Taking it all in: exploring the courtyards of Oxford’s libraries.

Meandering up the street we finally found the tourist office.  Okay, there may have been a detour at a bookstore-but in all fairness they had a KILLER display of To Kill a Mockingbird and a promo for Go Set a Watchman, how could I not stop?  At the TI we looked at a map for Christ Church College and Alice’s Shop (conveniently across the street from Christchurch) and continued along our merry way down Cornmarket Street.

One of my favorite things about England is how they still retain the old, quaint names for so many streets, villages, and houses.  Cornmarket Street was a blast back into modern culture.  Gone were the independent stores.  This was chain store central, handy, I suppose, but nothing that made us stop.  I can go into a Gap store anytime.

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Visitor’s entrance to Christ Church College.

When we reached Christ Church, we paid our admission fees, only to find out after the fact that the Great Hall was closed!  We arrived in Oxford with only two destinations on the list and that was one of them. The Great Hall (Dining Hall), was a primary filming location for the Harry Potter films.  It also features a gorgeous stained glass window dedicated to Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carrol) and Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for his most famous work.  So something else to reserve for a later date.  I should stop having lists of “must sees.” England doesn’t seem that interested in my list or schedule!

We did tour the church itself (the only building we could actually go inside).  It was beautiful and had a lovely memorial to the students and faculty lost in the Great War and World War II.

Alice’s Shop, across the road, was right next door to a used and rare bookshop, so that was handy!  Alice’s shop is dedicated to all things Alice in Wonderland.  Actually, tomorrow Oxford is celebrating 150th Anniversary celebration of the book’s publication.  The shop itself is a former candy and shop that was frequented by the real Alice Liddell and her sisters.

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The final shop we found was an antique map and art print store.  Oh heavenly choirs, I could have spent hours in there!  As it is there is an antique map that is still calling my name.  I just have to decide if I want to part with that much cash in order to make it mine.  It’s a hand drawn 19th century map of Ireland, and it has Enistymon on it. I want it.  And Sunday is my birthday…we shall see!

By this point we were FAMISHED.  Hannah, being the excellent food guide that she is, found a cafe nearby with good reviews and local products.  The bonus?  It was in an old church!  Sadly though, we MISSED the window for lunch (to be fair, it was close to 5:00 at this point.  So we had to “settle” for tea and scones instead.  I don’t think we minded too much, especially since we got to enjoy our meal in the garden with gorgeous views of Radcliffe’s Camera (another library that’s for students, not visitors…)

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Afternoon tea at the Vaults and Garden Cafe.

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Radcliffe’s Camera

After quenching our thirst and hunger, I was charged up again, but sadly, Oxford was not.  By this point it was near 6, and everything was shutting down for the evening.  We took a scenic route back to the bus stop and then headed for home.  Riding the bus, my tummy full of scones and jam, I mentally compiled a list of things to come back for.

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Girl Explores London

Last week, after being in England for a full 6 days, I FINALLY made it to London!  Another dream come true on this trip!  The farm I’m staying at is only 40 miles or so from the city and close to transit lines, so I tried pacing myself, knowing I could return frequently.  I still covered a lot of ground though, and by the end of the day my feet and I agreed we’d done ourselves proud!

First stop: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliment!

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View of Big Ben and Westminster Bridge from the South Bank.

Technically, I saw a bit of Westminster (including the abbey) before arriving at this top destination.  It took me a bit  to find my way from Victoria station.

I was lucky enough to arrive a little before 8:00 in the morning, which meant I still had some beautiful morning light, and the streets were relatively tourist free.  Mostly I was surrounded by people in power suits bustling off to work.  My favorite time in a new city is in the early morning before the crowds take over.  It gives me an entirely different perspective of a place.

I followed the Rick Steves’ audio walking tour of Westminster, which is was a delightful introduction to London and full of interesting facts.  It was easy to follow, beginning at Westminster Bridge and ending at Trafalgar Square.  The only problem was that my day started so early that when I reached Trafalgar Square at the end of the tour, it was still over an hour before the National Gallery opened.  It was for the best though.  I was starving so I killed time by scouting down breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

When the gallery opened at 10, I was able to walk right on in.  One of the benefits of free museums is no queues!  Sadly that was the high point, as none of the 4 paintings I especially wanted to see were on display.  Due to a staff shortage many of the rooms were closed.  I was able to peer through a door and see my Degas from a distance, but that was as close as I got.  Rather than staying in the Gallery of Disappointments, as it’s now been dubbed, I left to take a stroll down the Mall to stake out a good vantage point for…The changing of the guard! 

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I had been on the fence for awhile about this particular British tradition.  Watching a bunch of men in fancy uniforms essentially punching in and out for the day in front of the palace didn’t seem like it was worth all the hype.  However, I had the time and was in the right area, so I figured why not?  I’d also read up enough to know that I could stand along the Mall between St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace to see the fanfare in street and not fight the ginormous crowds in front of the palace gates, so that’s what I did.

There were enough guided tours beginning to camp out along the street that I knew when I was in the right area.  I joined up with one of them that had a prime spot and waited for about 10-15 minutes next to a group of tourists from Mississippi.  Hearing that strong southern accent at such a British event tickled my sense of irony no end.

The parade itself was short and sweet.  We watched the horse guards retire and then the procession of the band heading toward the palace.  I got my pictures to satisfy my travel portfolio and I was done.  While seeing these men in their, admittedly impressive, uniforms was definitely a spectacle, I think I enjoyed the crowd watching even more.

With item two checked off my list, I strolled through St. James Park to catch the tube to…Borough Market. 

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Borough Market is London’s oldest and best food market, dating back to the 13th century.  Today it is a gastronome’s paradise, filled with food stalls selling anything and everything your pallate desires: seafood, nuts, pastries, meats, produce, cheeses, breads, ethnic foods, olives, wines, and more. The smells and colors and textures, not to mention the tastes (hurray for free samples!) are an assault on the senses in the best of ways.  Between sampling, photographing, and stopping for lunch, it was a perfect way to kill a couple of hours before moving on to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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This is one of my favorite shots thus far, taken while sitting on the lawn behind St. Paul’s.

It turned out I misread the start time of my London Blitz walking tour, so I had an extra 30 minutes to kill, which I did quite happily lounging in the shade on the back lawn of St. Paul’s. Yes, there were lots of pigeons.  Yes, I was singing “Feed the Birds” in my head the entire time.

I met up with my walking group easily enough at the appointed time.  The tour was through London Walks, and they have a variety of walks focused on numerous topics and/or areas of interest throughout the city.  Their guides are all highly qualified, and I had heard wonderful things, so I was very excited about this walk. I’m pleased to say that it lived up to the hype!  We spent a couple of hours walking around the City of London.  Most of the remnants of the Blitz are gone now with new buildings taking the place of the destroyed ones decades ago, but you can still see shrapnel scars on the exterior of St. Paul’s and there’s a lovely garden nearby in what once was a church that was destroyed during the air raids.  Now only 3 skeletal walls remain.

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Remains of Christchurch Greyfriars in The City of London. Now a garden, this church was destroyed by bombs during the London Blitz and never rebuilt.

London is full of war memorials and monuments to important people in it’s history, but there was one memorial we saw on our tour that touched me more than any of them.  It was the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park.  This little memorial was set up to commerate the selfless deeds of ordinary citizens.  Reading through the various plaques was quite touching, and many of them dated back to the late 19th century.  Especially moving were the plaques dedicated to children, some no more than 10 or 11 years old who died saving a younger friend or sibling from catastrophe.  I never would have found that park or memorial on my own, which is one of the reasons I find these walking tours such a great value.

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Touching tribute on the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

Following the walk I was able to go into St. Paul’s for their Evensong service.  While there is a fee for touring the Cathedral, it’s free of charge to go in for worship services, and I enjoyed sitting in that marvelous space (sorry, no photos allowed) and listening to the service. One thing I wasn’t aware of, not being Catholic, is how much standing and sitting is done during the service!  My aching feet, which had been literally pounding the pavement all day, were a bit dismayed that they had to continue to stand during a good portion of the evensong.  Still, it was a nice way to close my first day in London.

Coming up next on Rachie Discovers London: exploring the boroughs of Kensington and/or Hampstead, and possibly a visit to Westminster Abbey!


Great Craic: Pubs and Trad Sessions

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I can say, without reservation, that getting sick while traveling SUCKS.  I came down with a nasty cold last week on the day I went over to Kilkenny to spend a couple of days with my old college roommate and her family.  When I got back to Doolin on Thursday night, I felt like death, and so I missed out on the Doolin Folk Festival this last weekend.

Talk about a heartbreaker– I had been looking forward to this weekend for weeks, especially because the trad sessions at the pubs have become one of my favorite things about the area.  To be honest, if the tickets had been less expensive, I probably still would have gone, sick or not, but I didn’t want to spend so much money and not be able to enjoy the experience to the fullest.   Luckily, I still have the pubs, and since I finally seem to be over the worst of my illness (knock on wood) I’m trying to cram in as much great music as I can into my last couple of days in Ireland.

Doolin is famous for its folk music and trad (traditional Irish music) sessions.  All four pubs in the village feature live sessions nightly starting about 9:30.  That being said, I’ve found that the overall experience on any given night varies widely.  In the month I’ve been here, I’ve been to all the pubs, and the craic has ranged from “meh” to outstanding.  I have yet to figure out the perfect formula for an outstanding experience, though I think it’s largely subjective, based not only on the music, but also on the atmosphere and the crowd on that particular night.  It’s amazing to me how much a session, with the same musicians in the same pub, can vary so much just based on the crowd that night.

Quick tip for those wanting a more authentic trad experience: STAY LATE!!! I’ve noticed that a lot of the tour groups and day tourists leave after the first hour or so, but the later it gets, the better the craic!  At least that’s been my experience.

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Trad session at Fitz’s Pub.

So, getting back to how I got from “meh…” to “wowza!” sessions: I had been here for a couple weeks and had yet to hit a really good session, so I asked around and was told by several locals to look out for signs advertising Blackie O’Connell and Cyril O’Donoghue.  I was on the lookout, but it was still just by chance that I went into McDermott’s one Monday night and they were playing.

Between sets: Live session at McDermott's Pub with Blackie O'Connell, Cyril O'Donaughe and Foolin in Doolin.

Between sets: Live session at McDermott’s Pub with Blackie O’Connell, Cyril O’Donoghue and Foolin in Doolin.

Holy Amazing, Batman!  

This is one of the times I wish I shot video as well as stills. These guys are masters and are an absolute kick to see perform.  Watching Blackie on the Irish bagpipes is incredible.  How he makes such a complex instrument look so effortless, I have no idea, but I love watching him play.  And Cyril’s vocals are mesmerizing. HIs version of “The King’s Shilling” is probably my favorite song that they do (and they played it for me by request last night, which was all kinds of wonderful). I admit that I’ve become a bit of a groupie as I’ve tried to hit at least a couple of their sessions each week!  It’s always a delight.

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The piper and the fiddler.

Non-traditional music is also thriving in the area.  A week or so ago I went with a couple friends to a bar in Lahinch, another small village just a short drive down the coast.  That night we slistened to two Irish bands with completely different styles of music than the trad sessions. These groups had a folky-alternative-bluesy quality (how’s that for a description?) that I happened to love.  It actually reminded me quite a bit of the Seattle indie music scene, so it was almost like a taste of home–with a bit of a twist!

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The group “Mongoose” performing at Kenny’s Bar.

Live music has been a huge part of my travels, and I’ve been blessed to have some incredible experiences: a classical concert in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, featuring an amazing string quartet, a baroque concert in a church on the Piazza Navona in Rome, and now these amazing trad sessions in the local pubs of Doolin.  There’s just something about music that enriches my travel experience and enhances my appreciation of different cultures.  I can’t wait to enjoy more as I continue traveling!


Island of the Grey Dolphin

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Sunny skies at last!  Yesterday, after weeks of rain, wind, and choppy seas, the weather finally broke, and I had a gorgeous, calm afternoon to go out to the islands.

Because of my work schedule in the morning, it made the most sense to just do Inisheer, the closest of the three Aran Islands.  Mary Jo drove me down to the pier, and, at the last minute, I decided to splurge and add on a sightseeing excursion to the cliffs for the return journey.  Ticket in hand, I boarded The Happy Hooker for an afternoon jaunt to the island. It was such a glorious trip out there with the sunlight on my face and wind in my hair (though still cold enough to need my jacket and ear warmers)!

When we arrived at the port in Inisheer, we were greeted by Sandy, the resident dolphin. She was living in Doolin until they began construction on the new pier, and since then has taken up residence off Inisheer.  She was having a magnificent time playing in the waves created by the incoming and outgoing passenger ferries, and I loved watching her.

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Sandy, the friendly dolphin of Inisheer.

I had several hours to explore the island before the return to Doolin.  Upon disembarking we were presented with a couple of options for sightseeing: horse and cart tours, bicycle rentals, or your own two feet.  Now, I, being adventurous spirit that I am, and wanting to see as much as possible, opted for the bicycle rental.  I forked over the cash and was given a map, a bike, and proceeded down the road on what was probably the most miserable and painful bicycle seat ever designed by man.  I kid you not, the old wooden teeter totters at my elementary school were a luxury compared to that stupid seat.

It had also been about 8 years since I was on a bike, so I made a pretty comical image teetering down the road, trying to get used to riding with my camera equipment strapped to my back and my backside already protesting at the underserved abuse it was receiving.  I was half tempted to turn around and return the bike and ask for my money back, but my stubbornness (foolishness?) wouldn’t let me.

One of the problems with cycling as a photographer, I discovered, is that every time you want to take a picture, you have to stop, lay the bike down, take the backpack off, take out the camera, take the pictures, put the camera back in the backpack, put the backpack back on, and continue on your way.  My camera was too large and the lens way too expensive for me to just ride around with it on my neck.  In the end, with all the stopping I had to do, not to mention the hills where I had to walk the bike up, I’m not sure I gained any time by using the bike.  But there were occasional stretches of narrow, secluded roads that I could ride freely without worrying about pedestrians, horses, or vehicles, and it was a blast!

The island itself was breathtaking.  The sea was an intense blue green, and it literally sparkled in the afternoon sun; small fields were separated by miles and miles of stone walls and fences, and occasionally a horse or cow would peer over, looking for a handout.

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Making friends…

The island has several points of interest, including a medieval sunken church in the hilltop cemetery, a rusted out shipwreck on the beach, a lighthouse, and the ancient castle ruins.  All that, combined with stunning views of the island landscape, the Ciffs of Moher across the way, and the distant Connemara mountains, made for delightful summer afternoon.  By the time I turned my bike in I had just enough time to get fish and chips (sooo delicious) at the chipper near the pier before catching my return boat back to Doolin.

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Ancient castle ruins, Inisheer.

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Thatched white-washed cottage on Inisheer.

I was thinking that the return trip would detour to the islands, but I was wrong.  We went back to Doolin, let off passengers, took on other passengers, and then made the short trip up the coastline to the cliffs.  Now, the boat ride to and from the island was relatively smooth and easy, a couple of larger swells, but nothing compared to the choppiness of the last few weeks.  Boy, is it a game changer as you approach the cliffs!  I quickly learned why the cliff tours only operate in optimum conditions, because even on the nicest of days, it gets rough as you approach the rocky outcroppings.  It makes taking pictures difficult when you can’t stand without holding on to something, and even then keeping your feet can be tricky!

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I managed to get a few decent shots (and several more lopsided ones), but as we began approaching the large sea stack that houses thousands of nesting seagulls, I was hit with sudden seasickness, and had to go back inside the cabin.  I sprawled out dramatically across a row of seats in hopes of keeping my amazingly wonderful lunch where it was supposed to stay.  I succeeded, but sadly, no more pictures! I was able to crane my head a bit to see the sea stack through the window.  EW!!! It’s much nicer from a distance.  Thousands of birds make it pretty disgusting, and as the boat left and other people started to come back inside, I overheard a guy talking about being hit with raining seagull poop, so I figured it was probably just as well that I went inside.

Much to my relief, and to the relief of my fellow passengers I’m sure, I maintained my dignity until we got back to shore.  Alas, as incredible as it was to see the cliffs from that angle, I’m not anxious to give it another go.  Apparently even dramamine couldn’t hold it’s own against the powerful forces of nature!

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Cliff Walks

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The Cliffs of Moher: Distant view of O’Brien’s Tower and the Branaunnmore sea stack.

 

You can’t come to western Ireland without spending time at the Cliffs of Moher.  This was THE place I wanted to see on my first trip to Ireland, and it still remains one of my favorite places in the world.  So, when I’d been here 10 days, and still hadn’t made it up to the cliffs I was feeling a bit distressed.  Luckily, on Tuesday afternoon, the fates aligned and I had a clear and sunny afternoon off.  Mary Jo was kind enough to drop me off at the cliffs, and I spent several hours walking the trails and enjoying the majestic views.  Along with the Amalfi Coast, this is my favorite coastline in the world.  It’s staggering.

Spring flowers blooming along the cliffs with Branaunnmore in the background.

Spring flowers blooming along the cliffs with Branaunnmore in the background.

One of the amazing things about the cliffs is that you can literally walk right up to the edge.  There are various trails to use–some set back further from ledge and others that go right along it, so even those that are scared of heights can still enjoy the views but feel comfortable.  I used the safe trails until I got to the more interesting ones!

Fellow travelers watching one of nature's great free shows just north of O'Brien's Tower.

Fellow travelers watching one of nature’s great free shows just north of O’Brien’s Tower.

After a an hour or so of going crazy with my camera, I took a break and found a nice little grassy area on the edge of the cliff to sit and enjoy the scenery, 390 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.  Laying on my stomach, and leaning over the edge (sorry, no pictures of this as I didn’t want to take any risks with my camera) I watched the seagulls play on the wind currents and watched the waves pounding the rocks below, feeling the spray from the sea and the wind in my face.  It’s one of those moments you wish could last forever.

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Adventuresome travelers enjoying the cliff walks.

You can actually hike all along the cliffs either independently or part of a tour.  From Doolin it’s about an 10 km walk, that can be done independently or as part of a tour.  And if you aren’t to keen on heights, there is a 1 hour sightseeing cruise that leaves from Doolin several times a day during the summer (weather permitting).  I actually went to do this yesterday but the water was too choppy so they weren’t running.  However, one of the benefits of being here for several weeks is that I can wait it out for a good day!  Stay tuned for pictures and a report on that adventure.

World Traveler Extraordinaire

World Traveler Extraordinaire

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Early Evening, Cliffs of Moher

 

 


Ireland, Day 3

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Doolin, Ireland

You should all be impressed that I have captured photos that make it look bright and sunny, because 70% of the time it’s been raining and COLD.  You know that scene in Sense and Sensibility where Marianne sprains her ankle running down the hill in the rainstorm and is rescued by Willoughby?  Yeah, that was me about 10 minutes before I took the above picture-drenched by rain and nearly blown off the road by gale force winds. Sadly, no handsome stranger on horseback though.  Darn it. There’s always tomorrow I suppose.

Despite the weather, I’m settling in nicely.  The jet lag prevented me from doing anything too ambitious on Saturday.  I must be getting old, as I don’t recall ever having a problem with jet lag before.  However, after a solid nights sleep, my internal clock seems to have reset itself, and I was good to go yesterday, which was fortunate because my first full day and I was put straight to work!

I’m staying with Michael and Mary Jo O’Connell at Seascape B&B in Doolin, County Clare. The O’Connell’s have been delightfully warm and welcoming, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the past two mornings serving guests breakfast at the B&B.  I love meeting other travelers and visiting with them.  It’s a wonderful way to connect with people on the road.

Killilagh church and graveyard, just up the hill from Seascape. The church dates from the 15th century, and the grounds were used as a cemetery until as recently as the 1980s.

Killilagh church and graveyard, just up the hill from Seascape. The church dates from the 15th century, and the grounds were used as a cemetery until as recently as the 1980s.

Doolin is small village on the west coast of Ireland situated just north of the Cliffs of Moher, with convenient access to the Burren and the Aran Islands, making it a popular tourist spot.  In fact, most of the village is made up of dozens of family run B&B’s, a handful of pubs featuring live music each night, and a few gift shops selling Aran sweaters and leprechaun figurines.  Despite its tiny size, its fairly spread out, with lots of farm and grazing land in-between, so it takes me some time walking through the main part of the village.  At least I know I won’t grow fat and lazy!

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View of the cliffs from Doolin. Ambitious hikers can walk the 7 km or so to the highest point (which can’t be seen from here). Others can opt to take a bus or drive to the top and hike back, or drive both ways!

The big tour busses come through town about noon each day, bringing lots of business to the restaurants before continuing on to the cliffs or Burren Nation Park.  According to my hosts, there are mixed feelings about this amongst the locals.  The restaurants do very well, but it brings nothing to all of the B&Bs, and tends to congest traffic, which is a problem for a village with only one main road that’s barely wide enough for two small cars to pass one another.

There are no grocery stores or banks in town.  The nearest market town is Ennistimon, about a 15-20 minute drive away.  I’ll be going with Mary Jo tomorrow to do a little shopping, and hopefully find an ATM!


Return to Me

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Exactly 10 years ago today, I left Ireland after a wonderful first trip to Europe.  That solo trip was a graduation present to myself, and the couple of weeks I spent traveling around Ireland left me with amazing experiences, and a deep love for travel that has never gone away.

Now exactly 10 years later, I’m sitting at the gate in Philadelphia, wearing the same brown Sketchers that saw me through the first time, and ready to return to the exact place I left from.  There’s a mixture of nervous anticipation, giddy excitement, and plain old fatigue coursing through me right now, and I suppose that’s only natural.

Wendell Berry wrote, “Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.”

I think those wildernesses come to all of us in life, in various forms.  Some are smaller and some are bigger, but the challenge is learning to enjoy the journey, and embrace the lessons it offers, even when the wilderness seems a bit daunting.

Well, dear readers, we’ll be boarding in about 30 minutes, and I still need to get some dinner.  Hunger is also a feeling that’s coursing through me right now!  My next post will be from the Emerald Isle!


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