Friday, September 30, 2011

Back to Procida

Our explorations of the Naples area with the family had already included a half day trip downtown to check out the Naples Archaeological Museum, a drive around our home in Campi Flegrei, the Amalfi Coast trip, and a day trip to Herculaneum was coming later in the week. We were leaving for our week in Tuscany shortly, so as our final day trip choice, we picked taking the ferry to the island of Procida. Nathan and I had visited Procida for the first time in July, and we both loved it, so I was excited to return...and Procida did not disappoint the second time around. I love the smallness of the island, the vibrant colors, and the "local" feel. We walked around the Marina Grande area and over the hill to Marina Corricella, where we watched boaters row about, using umbrellas perched in their boats as shade. Then up, up, up the stairs to a nearby bar for the obligatory gelato stop, and back down to the marina, where we caught a bus to the other end of the island, Marina Chiaioella. This end of the island was purely residences and beaches. Businesses consisted of lidos (pay beaches) and a couple of restaurants serving the beach patrons...and us for a decent lunch right on the beach, watching the waves against the clean, light sand beach. This end of the island has a land bridge over to another island, Vivara, all of which is now a limited access, nature reserve. Getting to and walking around Procida is the fun part, but boy is it hard to get off that rock! Both last visit and this one ended with a bit of trouble and delays. This time around, we'd wanted to return to Pozzuoli, the port nearest my home and an easy, quick metro ride home. With the Pozzuoli boat cancelled and the next one over an hour away, we decided to take the boat leaving soon for the Naples port. This gave us the opportunity to see a little more of downtown Naples, including the Galleria Umberto and it's iconic, glass roof, then catch a tourist bus to the airport, where Nathan could easily pick us up on his way home from work.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Amazing Amalfi

Can you see the slim, ribbon of road hugging the cliff?
We had only a few days to explore the Campania region, and that had to include a trip down the Amalfi Coast. The coastal part of the drive begins after a little over half an hour of freeway driving from our house, and each time we make the drive, I'm stunned anew. The Amalfi Coast drive is consistently listed as a must-do, beautiful, harrowing, breathtaking trip. I would say the first half is quite pleasant, with a wide, well-paved road and plenty of room for your car and the mega-buses that swarm the region to pass one another. East of Positano, things take a turn for the worse - sharper curves, smaller road, seemingly more buses. There's nothing to do but grip that wheel and stomp on the gas pedal.

We always take our guests to Positano. It's far enough along the drive to get a feel for the entire drive, there are parking lots for the cars, pretty little shops for the tourists, clean-clean-clean town (!), and a few restaurant options on the beach. All in all, a beautiful stop. There are several other nice, pretty stops, but our favorite has been Positano. Uncle Ted and Aunt Lisa were interested in doing something I hadn't done before, so we headed to the actual town of Amalfi, a place I've really wanted to visit but instead, have only driven through numerous times, each time catching a glimpse of a gorgeous, yellow and green tiled Duomo tower. We parked right at the waterfront - lucky break finding a spot, and then about half an hour (okay, 14 minutes, but it was hot and felt like half an hour) spent in search of a parking meter pay machine that worked AND would take bills, not just coins. A little travel note for those visiting Amalfi: There is a new parking garage on the edge of town. It's on the east side of town, so coming from the western part of the coastal drive, go through the busy waterfront area and head out of town to see it on the left.

Amalfi is well worth the trip. I think Positano will remain my favorite due to a relaxing week spent there years and years ago (past memory association can be a powerful thing), but Amalfi has a more down to earth, Italian village feel. It's busy, it's full of tourists and businesses that cater to the tourists, but the buildings look like you expect an Italian village to look, with some crumbling, some peeling paint, some places that don't look so picturesque unless you're in a place like Amalfi, at which point it becomes picturesque mainly because of the Italian experience. Amalfi has the feel of a place where real people live their lives rather than a sterile, tourist only town.

And Amalfi takes the prize for most fabulous Duomo. Climb up the beautiful steps to a columned arcade and watch the play of light against the back wall, pay your bargain entry fee of 3euro and visit a quiet, serene cloister with it's arches reminiscent of Moorish designs, then head over to the small but lovely museum, holding such items as a 14th century, wooden Madonna and child, a 12th century, gold leafed and gemstone encrusted chalice, a large, carved silver altarfront from the 1700s, and an emerald and diamond cross, then go downstairs to the Crypt that looks like a fresco fantasy land and peer through the back of the altar to the place where the purported skull of the Apostle Andrew is kept (you only see a covered up hole, not the actual skull), and finally, back up to the gorgeous, tranquil cathedral that seems understated after spending time in the heavily decorated crypt. The history of the Duomo is astonishing in that the first basilica (what is now the museum) was built in 596 A.D. We almost didn't visit the Duomo due to the lateness of the hour and our parking ticket had run out. Thankfully, we decided to extend our Amalfi visit and get a new parking ticket (just in time, too - I reached the car as the parking police was about two cars away from mine with clipboard in hand) because to miss the Duomo would have been to miss Amalfi town.
Stealing Uncle Ted's caption: The Altar of the Air Condition

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Life Goes On

I happened on this scene in Rome and love the promise of a new life begun together against a backdrop of an ancient and faraway world.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bicycling the Borghese

We had a few hours before needing to leave Rome and settled on a Segway Tour through the gardens of the Villa Borghese. We'd visited the Gallery on our first day in Rome, so it was a fitting close of our trip to tour the gardens. Cardinal Borghese got his cardinal-ship in the 1600s because he was the Pope's nephew. He really was a cad of a man and had no interest in religion, but since Cardinals were rich and all, it was a good gig. And he became the patron of phenomenal artists of the day. His villa had a large vineyard, which he turned into the largest gardens that Rome had seen in over a 1000 years or so. They were redone in the 1800s, then purchased by the city in the early 1900s. Our Rome weekend coincided with the hottest time of the summer, with temperatures hovering in the high 90s, so a few hours among the shady, windy paths of the gardens, meandering by statues, a rose garden, a theater, gazebos, a pond, etc. was an excellent way to get off the hot pavement of the Roman streets. But the Segway guy wasn't set up. So we walked around a bit looking for him. I finally found a phone number and called, and he said he'd be there in five minutes. This being Italy, Nathan and I quickly translated this to 30 minutes, and we headed for the riscio stand (rickshaw). Twenty euros for an hour of careening through the gardens and loads of interesting things to see:
Man Walking a Giant Cat
This black & white dog kept herding a group of four on their tri-cycles. He got really upset when one of his charges broke away from the pack.
A little Goddess of the Hunt role-play

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rome Beyond the Vatican

After wandering thru and wondering at the Vatican Museum and St. Peter's Basilica, we headed south for the Trastevere neighborhood. Trastevere is a warren of small alleys, colorful buildings, and a relaxed vibe. Mostly car free, it's a place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the well beaten tourist path from the Colosseum to the Pantheon and on to the Vatican. We headed here for a walk around the neighborhood, then decided a rest in a pretty piazza was in order. We picked Piazza Santa Maria, ringed by a church and several outdoor cafes, and there we settled with apertivos and snacks. The large fountain in the center of the piazza provided our afternoon entertainment when a woman strolled up to it, took off her pants, and revealed a swimsuit-model worthy, black one piece. She proceeded to hop over the fountain wall, take a little bath, splash about, then exit for the next part of the show - drying her hair. Her inventive method was to swing her head back and forth, flipping the hair forward and back, until she eventually fell the ground and continued this swinging. We, along with the people at tables around us, had a lively discussion on (1) drunk, (2) stoned, (3) homeless, (4) not homeless, but too poor to afford water in her apartment, (5) hoping for an agent sitting a cafe to notice her, or (6) just a creative type. After her bath, she ran into some friends, who were street folk, so we think option #3 was the answer. Meanwhile, in another corner of the piazza, a beautiful bride and groom were having some wedding photos taken. Italian piazzas are one of my favorite things about Italy, and sadly, Naples sorely lacks these central places. While there are piazzas, they are either filled with trash, filled with traffic, tiny places stuck on the edges of buildings, or in general, just not like the beautiful, cafe-lined, people-watching piazzas found elsewhere. Rome holds forth with the best, most varied, and numerous options, and nothing beats an hour or two with a glass of wine, a lovely fountain and/or church, and the interesting people who pass by.

Decoration of a Side Chapel
The following day, Nathan and his aunt and uncle headed to the Colosseum and Roman Forum while I decided to visit a couple of the lesser known and visited sites. I hopped on the metro to go to the Church of San Giovanni Laterano and the nearby Scala Santa (Holy Stairs). This church was the first church in Rome and the place where Christians could first worship openly without fear of persecution. It is still, today, the church home of the pope, making it the Archbasilica, and the "highest" church in the Catholic faith, even higher on the ranking scale than St. Peter's Basilica. I really wanted to visit the Scala Santa next door. These marble stairs are supposedly the stairs from Pontius Pilate's palace in Jerusalem, the same stairs that Jesus climbed up and down on the day of his sentencing. Constantine's mother, Helena, a devout Christian and seeker of relics in the 300s, brought them to Rome around 326. Today, the stairs are covered with wood, but there are little peepholes to see through to the marble. Visitors can either climb some other stairs beside them or one can climb the actual Scala Santa on one's knees.

I thought, why not? I may not be Catholic and believe in the plenary indulgence granted by climbing them (way, way too complicated to explain here, so just use The Google if you want to know more), but I am Christian, so a chance to spend a little time in prayer and penitence was welcome. Except those wooden stairs HURT. For reals, hurt. And there were 28 of them! I know, I know, this was a chance to be all holy and think about Jesus being sent to Crucifixion and then carrying that heavy cross to his own execution site and being beaten and mocked. I did think about all that, but my knees were screaming. To top it off, the Catholic pilgrims have some sort of specific prayer for each step, which means they take FOREVER. I decided to just say my prayers a wee bit faster and scoot up, except I kept getting blocked out by the ones with longer prayers. Thankfully, the monks running the joint finally said, in English, "There are many people waiting to climb the stairs, so please climb faster." This announcement started a bum's rush to the top, for which I was so ever so grateful. And I think most other people felt the same as me, but were just too pious to actually show how much they wanted to climb faster, while I, on the other hand, treated it much like a Go-Kart racetrack, looking for any opening I could find to move on up. While other people were kissing the top stair in love and penitence, I was kissing it as thanks for that whole experience being over. I don't do so well in the holiness department.

To recover, I thought a visit to see the prison where the Apostles Peter and Paul were held would be a good stop. Plus, the Mamertine Prison is located right next to the Roman Forum, where I was to meet up with the rest of my group. I was really excited as I've wanted to visit this place every Rome trip and just haven't had the time. The cell is a hole in the ground, and prisoners were thrown through the hole and down into the cell. The prison was originally a cistern, built about 2600 years ago, then it became a Roman prison for V.I.P.s, and then a church built over the prison. The actual cell was interesting to see, but the tour was a huge waste of 7euros (which is normally 12euros, but I got a discount with my Roma Pass). The tour was over 45 minutes long, and instead of just getting to see the cell and hearing a brief history, there are three or four incredibly boring films along the theme of Water is Life. Basically, a bunch of silly, time consuming stuff done to justify a 12euro entry fee. And worst of all, after my visit was over, I was reading some more about Mamertine Prison and found that the information that Peter and Paul were held there surfaced in the 500s! The real info is that maybe this prison held one or both of them and maybe it didn't. A 5euro or less entry with a quicksee look at the prison cell and a little talk on the entire prison history would have been fab - especially since I had to look up on Wikipedia such interesting tidbits as this: a passage was built between the prison and the Circus Maximus and it was used to flush out dead bodies. Odd and a little hard to understand logistically, but an interesting piece of Roman history. Much more interesting than sitting in a room surrounded by large screens and watching water drip down them.

We spent most of the rest of that day eating and drinking (two of my favorite things), and one of our stops included a piazza break at the Pantheon - what a view!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Museum Shock

Miscellaneous Ceiling Fresco somewhere in the Vatican Museum
Even the lobby stairs are gorgeous

Nathan & I get overwhelmed by "stuff." Nathan even more so than me, which I suppose is fairly normal. (And I can appreciate this attitude since we do hope to be living on a sailboat in ten years' time.). I face the question of "how much is enough" anew with every visit to the amazing, beautiful, astonishing Vatican Museum. The place is chock-a-block full, including the ceilings, walls, and floors. Just one single room in the Museum could easily hold a day's worth of touring, study, and reflection. Name a famous painter or sculptor of old, and their works are in the Vatican Museum. Look down as you walk through the dozens of salas (rooms/galleries), look up - mosaics, frescoes, paintings, inlaid marble, gilding...just the actual structure of the museum is a treasure. Then there are the sculptures, the artifacts, the paintings. What I don't know, and haven't been able to find out, is just how much of the holdings are not and have never been on display. Museum shock, my term for when one's brain can no longer take in the wonders of art and architecture, happens quickly at the Vatican.

There are 53 salas, not including the Sistine Chapel, and we were on a two hour tour on a day when crowds were quite literally, shoulder to shoulder. Our guide apparently had a nemesis in the Brazilian guide, because she kept saying to us, "Let's move on before the Brazilians catch up." And when they did catch up to us, well, we got to observe Italian facial expressions in action. My two previous visits to the Vatican Museum were not on a guided tour, and I have to say, I much preferred the tour, at least on a day "in season." I would like to return in the dead of winter and take some time to look around with fewer people, but there is no escaping the fact that with so much to see and appreciate, a guide to focus on the best of the best was invaluable. Plus, we got to wear those totally awesome headsets that have become so popular on guided tours.
The Liberation of St. Peter, by Raphael
Miscellaneous Sculpture that looks like she's wearing lipstick
The final stop in a trip through the Vatican Museum is the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel is beautiful, and stunning, and does have that famous, Hand of God image. But honestly, gorgeous and amazing frescoes are all over Italy, even here in Naples, and we get to see them without having scary looking bouncers shouting "Silence" and walking around threatening everyone. For me, the most interesting thing about the Sistine Chapel was the information we got about it's restoration and cleaning, done in the 1980s and 1990s. After the cleaning, figures and paintings came to light that no one knew were even there under all that grime. For example, as God reaches his hand out to touch Adam, over his shoulder is a circle in the shape of a brain with a woman and children in it. It represents that God is thinking about Eve and her children before creating them. Wish I could show you a picture, but you'll just have to Google it. Do you know why pictures aren't allowed in the Sistine Chapel? Because the Vatican found a private donor to fund the cleaning and restoration, and the funding agreement included royalties on all Sistine Chapel images. That's why the mere hint of lifting your camera in the Chapel has the bouncer types rushing over and threatening to toss your butt out. And you thought pictures weren't allowed because it's sacred - tsk, tsk, tsk. Visiting the Sistine Chapel is an incredibly moving and holy experience, really.

A little tip for your Vatican tour - sign up for the one that includes the Basilica. Those were already booked, so we missed out. The reason is not for the actual tour portion, which is probably quite nice, but because the few extra euros it costs is well worth the "Secret Door" shortcut in the back of the Sistine Chapel that goes into the Basilica. If you're not one of the people on those tours, then you get to exit on the opposite side of the Sistine Chapel and walk through miles of corridors to the Museum exit, which is located right next to the entrance. Not so bad except that means you're now outside the walls of the Vatican and to get back to the Basilica is about a mile walk around the wall and a potentially long wait in a security line to get back inside. This can easily eat up an extra 1-2 hours, spent solely in needless walking and waiting, which absolutely infuriates the efficient traveler in me. I harped on the that stupid door in the days leading up to our Vatican visit and for the rest of the Rome weekend. I'm still harping over it. No one ever actually said the words to me, "Shut up about the door. It was closed. The end." But I'm pretty sure they were all thinking it. So...The End. I am letting go. After I put together my picket group to hang about outside the walls with signs and chant "Open the Door, Open the Door."
Strip away the crowds and bouncers and completely over the top opulence - this sculpture, for me, represents what the Christian faith is really about. And, I can eat my words about the "Door" because the sculpture is in an obscure hallway that functions mainly as a pass thru as visitors make their way to the exit after seeing the Sistine Chapel and all the "real treasures" of the museum. We would have missed it completely had we gotten to go straight into the Basilica.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Just Some Stuff About Rome

Nathan loves Rome. To date, I've just been so-so about it. Possibly because I've had the chance to see a little more of Naples, while Nathan spends his time working, or at home, or traveling outside of Naples. For me, Rome is congested (ironic, considering we do live in the densest city in Europe), filled with tourists (while most Neapolitan sites are low traffic, high impact), and not filled with very friendly people. BUT, I may have to take back all my negativity about Rome.

With Nathan's aunt & uncle, we went for a four day weekend. Staying right off the Piazza del Popolo was a new experience for us, and I loved the location. Right next to the Villa Borghese and it's lovely gardens, a short walk down a mostly pedestrian area and/or through pretty back alleys to the Pantheon area (where my favorite gelateria is located - Gelateria Della Palma), another short walk via a different route to the Spanish Steps, and there is a nearby Metro stop. The location made a huge difference as it meant we could walk outside of our hotel and not be immediately thrust into speeding Vespas, crowded streets, and shoulder to shoulder crowds.

We headed up on a Friday with reservations to tour the fabulous Villa Borghese that evening. We did make our reservation time, but I ended up traveling separately due to a couple of last minute issues cropping up. Nathan continued on to go with his aunt/uncle and meet our check-in time (several places we've stayed around Italy require you to provide them with your arrival time at least a day in advance - B&B type places, where the lodging does not have a staffed front desk). I wrapped up our issues and followed on - thank you, Trenitalia, for the EuroStar train that gets us to Rome in just over an hour - for a hefty fee, of course. It actually took me longer to get from my house to the downtown, Naples train station than it did to get to Rome and take the Rome Metro to meet up with Nathan and Fam.

We've taken to always purchasing the Roma Pass when in Rome. For 25euros, we get three days of public transportation (bus & metro), two free entries at our pick of any number of sites, and reduced entry at other sites. Clever Rome, though, has made the Pass good for three days, ending at midnight of your third day of use rather than a strict 72 hour activation. So, hypothetically speaking, if you arrive in Rome around 3pm on a Friday, buy your pass, and use a free entry for, say, the Villa Borghese on that same day, then the pass still expires on Sunday at midnight, so one has essentially "lost" possible use time on Friday. Something to think about for future visits.

The Villa Borghese is absolutely fabulous! And thanks to all those tourists that fill Rome, reservations are required. I hate reservations. For anything - museums, restaurants, etc. Especially on vacation. I like to be on a free and flexible schedule rather than constantly looking at a watch trying to ensure timing of EVERYTHING, from eating to walking to public transportation to time spent at other sites, is working out just so. It just makes me crazy when time is spent watching time rather than enjoying it. But anyway, good news is that since the Villa Borghese limits entry on a reservation only status, one can actually enjoy it's exhibits, such as my two personal favorites: (1) Bernini's sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, which shows Daphne turning into a tree just as Apollo catches her. The marble carving of her fingers turning to leaves is so delicate and light. To think it's sculpted from hard stone is inspiring, and (2) a painting by Raffaello entitled Dama (Lady) con Liocorno. What's a Liocorno you ask? It's a unicorn. And in this painting, a baby unicorn. What's better than a painting of a unicorn? One of a baby unicorn! Love it. Note to self: Get a baby unicorn. The Villa also holds a beautiful, Bernini sculpture he carved at age 11. Eleven! And we think today's kids are growing up fast.
View over Piazza del Popolo from Gardens of Villa Borghese

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gone Dark

You've probably figured out by now that when the blog goes dark, we're up to a big adventure. We've spent the last week in Bella Tuscany doing some cycling (boys), shopping (girls), hill town visiting, good food eating, and wine buying.

But, today, I'm going to digress a little bit on an event that disturbs me just a little, well, a lot. So the back story is that when we moved into our house 11 months ago, the Electric Man (seriously, that's what our landlord calls him) fixed our garage alarm and gave me one remote control for it. I promptly lost that remote control. I know that I dropped it on base and the next day, I inquired at every single one of the 8 places I'd run errands and added a few more stops, just in case. Nada. Or rather, niente. We just lived with it for awhile, which meant not setting the alarm anytime we left the house - a big no-no here and basically, the thing that would get us mocked and laughed at in the security office should we actually be burglarized.

I finally fessed up to our landlord in the spring and told him I would pay for a new remote if he'd just send the Electric Man to the house. He said he had to have an old remote in order to re-program a new remote. We went around in circles that culminated with me just asking for the Electric Man to be sent over. And niente. Finally, in June, we had another electrical problem. For some, this might be a drag. For me, it meant I got to talk to the Electric Man face to face with the landlord there. The Electric Man said he might be able to get a new remote or he might have to replace the whole alarm, and we arranged for this work to be done sometime at the end of August. Which didn't happen.

Then the outlet that our A/C plugs into went out. During our recent heat wave (100 degree temps). When we had guests. As Nathan's aunt noted, Crazy Dog is not as dumb as we claim since it took him about 95 seconds to realize we weren't fixing the house A/C, whereupon he promptly retreated to the bedroom (with it's working A/C) and stayed there for the next several days. Today was our appointment for the Electric Man. Now remember, he was unsure that he could even re-program a garage alarm remote. And yet, he showed up at the front door today, with a remote in hand, that worked immediately. I don't even think there was any re-programming. It just worked. Ummmm, how is this supposed to make me feel more secure? How many other people are out there walking around with alarm remotes to my garage? Not that I think the alarm is actually going to stop anyone who really wants into the house, but still - any little deterrent helps.

This just goes to show that my landlord was on target back at our pre-lease signing appointment, when he told the Housing Agent on base, "They are Americans. They do not understand how things work here." That's a point that's been proven many times over in the last year!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Next Up

Ireland is over, and we're in the midst of a grand trip with Nathan's aunt and uncle. They've been here a little over a week, and we've fit in a trip to downtown Naples, four days in Rome, and a day on the Amalfi Coast. I'll upload some photos and more details in a few days. We're looking forward to some more exploring and bicycling through Tuscany [as in, the guys will bicycle while the ladies drive around to beautiful, Tuscan villages and leisurely conquer the region without breaking a sweat...unless our current heat wave continues - it is HOT here].
Piazza del Popolo by twilight

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Happy Birthday -

- to my wonderful husband! I'm going to take this opportunity to copy my creative friend Tina, over at The House of Bamboo and Avocados, with a few of my favorite Nathan pics:

...and one of my favorite things about Nathan is evident in the last photo. My engineer husband is patiently explaining how this stone circle lines up with the sun, despite the fact that his wife is (most likely) completely ignoring him and instead, studying the surrounding bushes for a possible leprechaun sighting. Thank you, DH, for being who you are - here's to another 50 or so shared birthdays.

My Favorite Ireland Photo

 Ireland 2011. The End.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ireland Tips and Such

This post is for anyone planning a trip to Ireland. It's my tips for a good trip. Eventually, on my Recommendations page, I'll add in our top recommendations for hotels, restaurants, and pubs.
  • Absolutely get a good driving map. The rental car one freebie is dead useless.
  • If you're arriving at the Dublin airport, take the extra time to get your map and SIM card before leaving the airport. It's easy, efficient, and saves time later on.
  • Consider getting a Heritage Card and/or the Heritage Island Explorer Guide - they give discounted or free entry to loads of sites. The Heritage Cards were 21euros apiece. If the Heritage Card wasn't accepted, the Heritage Island Explorer Guide usually was. The 2nd one isn't a card at all, but rather a booklet costing 6euros and covering both of us.
  • If you're a scaredy-cat driver or doubt you can manage driving on the left side of the road, don't even try it. But, your own car is the absolute best way to see Ireland outside the tour bus route. Pay the extra money to reduce your deductible. The full coverage insurance (required) has a deductible of about 1400euros (which is over $2000!). We paid 55euros more for the week to reduce our deductible down to 100euros. Well worth the peace of mind.
  • Stay at B&Bs. Ireland's are phenomenal. The rooms are sometimes a bit like Grandma's house, but so are the breakfasts. And we all know how good Grandma's breakfasts are. B&B owners are a treasure of Ireland. Without fail, we got the best dinner recommendations, pub music recommendation, and driving route tips for the next leg of our journey (usually not the route we'd planned to take, either).
  • If you like to stand around a crowded bar, jostling elbows with the masses, just go out to any old pub and have a blast. If you want to relax and enjoy the traditional music, narrow in on your target bar (ask any and all locals for their fav) and stop in before dinner to find out what time the music will start. Then show up about an hour early, grab your first pint, and enjoy the company of your companion at your front row table (don't forget to check with the bar staff to find out where the musicians set up; otherwise, you could find yourself in their chairs, relegating you to the back of the crowded room when they show up to play).
  • Don't like beer? Order a cider. Ireland is home to delicious, Bulmer's Cider, on tap at every pub.
  • We visited in August, Ireland's busiest tourism month. And yet, we didn't feel crowded. Except at Cliffs of Moher (see that blog post). Frankly, if you've seen big cliffs before, the Cliffs of Moher are no different. If you cannot leave Ireland without seeing those Cliffs, here's a little tip we found as we left the required, 8euro parking lot and headed north: There is a side road a few kilometers north where you can park. Then there is a trail across the street and between two fences that leads straight to the ocean. Take that and then hang a left - looks like there was a trail along the water. By our best estimation (we didn't actually do it as we were sick of the Cliffs of Moher by then), this trail should head south and eventually join up with the official Cliffs of Moher. Get the views without the crowds. But this is at your own risk, since I doubt there's any sort of fence or railing to keep you from plunging over the side.
  • Visiting Dublin and it's raining? Head to the Archaeology Museum. It's free with fascinating exhibits and no crowds.
  • Most well done "site" in Dublin has to be the Guinness Storehouse. It's one of the most well done sites I've visited as far as crowd control, mixing in interactive exhibits, and just keeping your interest.
  • Just buy the Rick Steves book. And the newest one, too. Really, break down and do it. It doesn't matter that you hate following a guidebook. You don't have to use it for your hotels and food. But if you want to do something like drive the Ring of Kerry, his guides are the best on the market. Otherwise, you're just going to drive around the country and not know what the heck you're looking at. In fact, the book is worth it just for the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula drives by themselves.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Written In My Heart

"When I die Dublin will be written in my heart."
James Joyce

We loved Dublin. The city holds the best that a big city can offer - an attractive city center with pedestrian zones for comfortable walking, cosmopolitan restaurants, pubs playing traditional music, a prestigious university, quality museums, efficient public transportation, a large public park...the list goes on and on. Our vacation was drawing to a close, so our last few days were all about relaxing. To that end, we booked into a fabulous, luxurious hotel (the Westbury) and spent our days walking the city center. Our hotel was right off of Grafton Street, a clean, pretty pedestrian zone linking Trinity College with St. Stephen's Green, a large, city park.
Our hotel's turn down service included crystal water glasses and slippers by the bed.
We couldn't skip all the tourist sites though. The Book of Kells, written and illuminated in the late 700s, was an absolute must. While seeing the pages (only two are on display) was worthwhile, the exhibit and the way it is set up is absolutely horrendous. Initially, it seemed the entrance guards were doing crowd control and limiting the number of people going in, but the time between entries was only about 5 minutes. With all the pre-viewing exhibits set up in one, tiny antechamber - and at least a half  hour's worth of exhibits to study - we quickly found ourselves battling for space among huge tour groups. Thankfully, living in Italy has prepared us for what it took to actually see the Book of Kells pages themselves. The illuminated manuscript pages were beautiful, but I have to admit that my favorite was a page out of the Book of Durrows, a book I'd never even heard of and created about 100 years before the Book of Kells.

We also visited Dublin National Museum of Archaeology, an incredibly well done museum. Marble, mosaic floors, ornate and brightly colored tile door surrounds, and iron filigree buttresses holding up the roof made the building itself almost as interesting as the exhibits displayed.

Our final stop on the tourist track was the Guinness Storehouse. I don't even like beer, and I found the Storehouse fascinating. We spent hours and hours there, checking out each of the five floors that wind around a central lobby shaped like a pint glass - ingenious! In 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9000 year lease for a four-acre brewery at a cost of 100 pounds down and 45 pounds per year...including water rights. Clever, clever man. Whoever manages the Book of Kells exhibit should take a trip to the Guinness Storehouse. There must have been thousands of people there, and yet flow was excellent and felt uncrowded. Every display is interesting, made so by interactive exhibits, huge barrels visitors walk through with funky ads or videos displayed on the walls, a huge waterfall, screens with headphones to watch old Guinness commercials - every single aspect of the "museum" has been well thought out and presented. The crowning glory is the Gravity Bar at the top (the foam of the pint glass, so to speak), with a 360 degree view of Dublin, enjoyed while downing the Guinness pint that's included with entry fee. Guinness tastes different here.

In Dublin, we just spent a lot of time walking, enjoying the architecture and sampling the huge variety of food available to us. Dublin is definitely on our "watch" list now since there is a direct flight from Naples to Dublin in only two hours - an easy and enjoyable weekend trip!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Neolithic Tombs, Megalithic Art

Our final day  before turning in the rental car and hoofing it around Dublin, we stopped in at Bru na Boinne, located about 45 minutes north of Dublin. In one word, phenomenal! Bru na Boinne is an area of Neolithic mounds, thought to be burial tombs, but no one really knows. As our guide for one of the mounds pointed out, people were buried in cathedrals up until fairly recently, but cathedrals aren't burial structures. So these places could have been burial mounds, or worship centers, or calendars, since they're aligned with the sun, or some other use we can't imagine.

The Boyne Valley surrounding Bru na Boinne is home to over 40 of these mounds, of which visitors can tour two. The fantastic Visitor's Center is where all must begin. Visits are by guided tour only, and entry is limited, so we left Galway early in order to make sure we got tickets, this being August and all, and visions of the Cliffs of Moher dancing in our heads.

Our first tour was to Knowth (rhymes with mouth), the largest of the mounds, dating to 3000-2000 BC, and built with 127 carved stones (called kerbstones) at it's base. These stones represent 1/3 of Western Europe's megalithic (big stone) art, and in 5000 years, only three of the stones have gone missing. Only three! Combining the carved stones around the rest of the Boyne Valley, and 2/3 of Western Europe's megalithic art is right here. Knowth has a bunch of smaller mounds surrounding it, but the main mound has two passageways thought to have once been aligned with the spring and fall equinoxes. The sun would have lit the passageways, ending at separate burial chambers where basins held cremated, human remains. The site was later used for Celtic burials, then fell into disuse for a couple of thousand years, before becoming a settlement first by early Christians, then the Normans. The passageways became altered over all that time. At Knowth, we were able only to walk into a room created near the edge of the great mound, where we could glimpse down one of it's main passageways. Visitors, can however, walk on top of the mound and get a great view of the smaller mounds surrounding it.
A peek down one of Knowth's passageways
The slab over the kerbstones is modern, installed to protect the megalithic art.

Next up was our visit to Newgrange, built 5000 years ago, 500 years before the Egyptian pyramids and 1000 before Stonehenge. It was then the largest man-made structure in Ireland for the next 4000 years. Newgrange's mound has a white quartz stone decoration on the front of it (which has been restored), an impressive, carved stone at it's entrance, and visitors get to walk into the mound and down the passageway, which is aligned with the sun on the winter solstice. On that day, the sunbeam stops exactly at the central chamber, which has three recesses where stone basins are located. A standing stone circle once encircled Newgrange, with dimensions that exactly match other stone circles in Scotland and Great Britain. I found all these fun facts so interesting - how many years did these early people watch and measure the sun's movement before building the mounds? With an average lifespan of 26-29 (for women and men, respectively), did it take generations? Did the carved symbols mean something, or was it just something to doodle, like I used to do on my Trapper Keeper? Were those cremated remains sacrifices, natural deaths, enemies? So many questions, and clearly, so much knowledge they had, especially in engineering. My final fun fact is pretty impressive: The mounds are so well constructed that in 5000 years, no water leaked inside them. Now that's building something to last!
Entrance to Newgrange's passage
Standing at Newgrange and looking out over the countryside, two more mounds are in view, just sitting in the midst of farming fields.