November 5: Galway/Connemara

Today we did a good bit of driving,  just taking in the sights and enjoying the landscape.  We tried to stay on more rural roads, close to the coast. 

We saw random ruins (houses,  castles,  churches,  etc)

. . . happy (I choose to believe,  lol) animals . . . 

. . . the beautiful black and brown sand beach at Fanore (The river that empties into it creates these beautiful designs in the sand) . . . 

. . . a random church on the side of the road . . . 

. . . the church of Cashel, (which we thought had served as the inspiration for the church at Kilmarkedar that we visited yesterday.  We now think it was a DIFFERENT church of Cashel) . . . 

. . . the cemetery behind the church of Cashel (which is up a steep narrow one lane gravel road; the road is fairly new.  They used to carry the coffins up by foot,  on their shoulders.  There is a grave of a young man from Ireland who served in the US Marines and was  KIA in Vietnam) . . . 

. . . and some great scenery,  including very rocky areas with huge boulders on either side of the road . . . 

November 3 & 4: Cobh to Tralee to Shannon

We left Cobh and worked our way over to Tralee. We did not take the scenic route over, because I really wanted to drive the Dingle Peninsula and figured that we would have enough time in the afternoon.

A glitch with the cell phone (turns out that the unlimited talk and text is ONLY to other Vodafone phones, so we ran out of credits to call our hotels). This was an issue, as we had to call our B & B to get the address the day of our arrival. We took care of the phone, and then got to the B&B.

Something happened when we made the reservation, and it went through for only one person. We have been trying to keep our lodging for this leg of the trip at $50 – $60 per night, which when you split it two ways is very reasonable. She wanted $85 because there were two of us. She was very nice about it, it was a miscommunication, but we did not want to pay that much. We cancelled the reservation through Expedia, and found a hotel that offered twin beds (which she was unable to do) and breakfast for $69. For short notice on a busy Friday night, we were fortunate to find it. 

By the time we sorted it all out, it was too late to enjoy the drive in daylight, so we really didn’t see or do anything on the 3rd.

On the 4th, we set out early for the Dingle Peninsula. I have often heard it is the most beautiful drive in Ireland, and it did not disappoint! We had a couple of spots of mist and rain, but most of the time that we wanted to explore, we had dry weather and blue(ish) skies.

We stopped several times to take photos; on one of our stops we came upon the beach where they filmed some of the scenes for Far and Away in 1992. It starred Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, and there is a plaque on the beach commemorating the scene.

We saw the Gallarus Oratory, which is a stone beehive hut (clochan) that is over 1200 years old. It was likely used as a place of prayer, and was built with stone only, no mortar. In spite of its age and lack of mortar, it remains waterproof. Amazing!

We next visited Kilmarkedar Church, which is a ruin of a Romanesque church from the first half of the 12th century. There is an alphabet stone and an old sundial stone there, as well as a graveyard. Some of the graves are within the last 20 years or so, so it is a living cemetery.

We finished the day at Durty Nelly’s, a well-known pub in Shannon. Dinner was good, and we are now ensconced in our hotel room,  planning on what we want to see and do tomorrow.

Scenes from our drive around the peninsula . . . 

The town of Dingle . . . 

Stained glass from a small church on the side of the road . . . 

The beach where they filmed Far and Away . . . the wind was ferocious today, so you can see the size of the waves. It reminds me of the Black Rocks in Marquette, Michigan when Superior decides to show her brawn!

The Gallarus Oratory, and Kilmalkedar Church

Scenes from Connor Pass, as you drive over the mountain on the peninsula . . . 

October 31 – November 2: From Edinburgh to Dublin and beyond

On the 31st, we had a Halloween party to attend (kid friendly, late afternoon). We had a nice time, and started our good-byes.

We packed as much as we could that night, carefully weighing our suitcases so that we didn’t go over. We had 25 kg each that we could take; I planned to take the two smaller suitcases in my name, Kelly the larger one in hers.

On the morning of the 1st, we finished last minute packing and tucking. One of the things that we love in Scotland are these cheese and pickle peanuts (sounds gross, but oh so yummy!). Kamy had been looking for them for us, and found almost 40 bags of them. We finally figured out that if we were checking all three suitcases, we each could have still a carry-on and a personal item. So, we dug out my small backpack that I carry. It folds itself into its own small pouch, so when we are not using it, we pack it into one of the suitcases for travel. We filled it almost full with peanuts, and took it as a carry on. We’ll have to figure out something for the trip home, but I think we are working on a plan.

We got checked in early for our flight, no mishaps or misunderstandings. The 1 hour 15 minute flight was uneventful. We cleared immigration, and headed over to baggage claim. That’s where the “fun” began. They put the suitcases out, none of our three came out, and within five minutes, turned off the conveyer belt that sends the luggage onto the carousel. Ruh Roh. We asked a worker there how one would know if they have sent all of the luggage through, and she said if they have a time listed for the last piece of luggage, that means they are done. They had a time listed at our carousel. We went over to baggage claim office, and there were two others from our flight. It turns out that the plane was overweight, so they had to take off five bags. Three of the five were ours. We filed our claim, hoping to get the bags in the morning. 

Next on the list was a SIM card for my phone. We would be using a rental car, and would need to be able to use Google Maps for navigation, as well as be able to contact the hotels if we had any issues or questions prior to arrival, so we needed a phone number and data. $30 later, we have unlimited talking and texting for a month, as well as 5gb of data. The last item on the list was to pick up the rental car.

We rented from Budget, as it is a name we know and recognize, and of those names, they had the best price. We have a four door with a hatchback, manual transmission, unleaded gas. The cost was only $50 for the week. Fuel here is about $6.50 a gallon, so good mileage is a must. They offered us the collision insurance, we declined. Kelly had verified with her credit card company ahead of time that it would be covered if we paid for the rental with her card. The agent was really nice, and explained that we might want to double check with them to be sure, as there are a handful of countries that credit card companies usually exclude with this coverage. If we were to have an accident, whether it were our fault or not, we would be on the line for a €1500 deductible. Since we declined the insurance, they took over $1800 deposit on her card, which we would get back from the credit card company.

We got out and on the road with no difficulties. We drove to our hotel in Waterford. Most of the hotels we booked with Expedia, trying to keep the cost around $50 – $60 per night. This was a Travelodge.

Since our luggage had not arrived, we had nothing to take in, and had bare bones for the night. I had put all of my toiletries in my checked bag (which I almost never do). Kelly had hers, but no toothbrush. We used the shampoo and conditioner from the shower, and bought a cheap toothbrush to share for the night.

By the time we got checked in, got our groceries, and made our dinners (sandwiches), it was late, so we really did not go out and explore anything that Waterford had to offer. This part of the trip is really about enjoying the countryside, anyway, so we got in some beautiful scenery on the way.

We were up at 9:30 this morning, the 2nd. We had double checked with Kelly’s credit card company, and indeed, they did NOT cover Ireland. If anything happened, the deductible would come out of our pockets. We called the car rental agency to add insurance, and we had to take the car to one of their offices so that they could look the car over for damages, and have us sign new paperwork. The insurance would cost an additional $150 for the week,  or three times the cost of the rental itself. 

Since we were headed to Cork, we decided to do it at the airport there. We had breakfast at . . . I shudder to say it . . . McDonald’s. I NEVER eat at US chains when I travel, but it was just the most convenient thing to do.

The drive was beautiful, and after we took care of the car at the airport, we plugged in directions for a little farmers market that we had read about. It is held right outside the entrance to a large shopping center. We wandered through it, enjoying the sights and smells. So many of the stalls were food oriented, kind of like a collection of food trucks without the trucks. We bought a feta salad and olives at one stand, and are keeping them cold in the trunk of the car for tomorrow.

After another round of grocery shopping (and the purchase of an electrical adapter, as mine will not work here), we found our way to our hotel. We are staying in Cobh, which is a small island in County Cork. Our hotel was built in the 1860’s. The harbor here is the second largest natural harbor in the world, and the hotel is such a cute place! Our room overlooks the harbor, and there was a big cruise ship here when we arrived.

Cobh plays a role in two boat disasters: they were the last port of call for the Titantic before they sank. It was also the site of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Our hotel served as a military hospital for the survivors that they found.

We got checked in, but still no luggage. They were supposed to bring it here and leave it. I called the airline, and they said it would be here by 7 this evening (it was, so since it arrived more than 24 hours late, we will be reimbursed €60 from Aerlingus for each of the three bags). We went for a walk, with Saint Colman’s Cathedral our first destination. It sits atop a hill, and we climbed a series of steps and ramps to get to it. It is still a very active church, with a large local parish. It is French Neo Gothic in architecture, being built in the 1800’s. It took 50 years to build it. It is beautiful inside, as well as out.

We walked down the main road for a bit, venturing in and out of shops. We both feel that we could stay in this town, and in the room that we have at our hotel, for a few days and be perfectly content.

Dinner was a nice meal in the bar attached to the hotel, and now we are relaxing and planning our day tomorrow. Our drive will take us by Killarney National Park, which I have been to before. It is a beautiful area, so we may visit there on our way, and tour Muckross House. We will decide in the morning. We are headed to the Dingle Peninsula, so that may be a drive we would prefer to make instead of the park.

Pics below:  Bobbing for apples, and enjoying the “doughnut” game at the Halloween party.

Our first Irish sunset . . . if you can see through the bugs on the windshield.

Our hotel room in Cobh, and the view of the harbor from the window.

The monument to the victims of the Lusitania.

Saint Colman’s, outside and inside . . . 

This is all beautiful mosaic . . . 

October 28 – 30: Edinburgh (subtitled Rest, Relaxation, and Time with Friends.

October 28: On Saturday, we watched Outlander most of the day. We are both avid Outlander fans, but neither of us has Starz. So, we started with season two while we are here. (We saw season one a couple of years ago). In the late afternoon, we began to get ready for a party. A friend of a friend (who is now our friend, it works that way) turned 50 and rented a venue for her masquerade ball to celebrate.  A friend picked up masks for us, but luckily we had each brought a dress, so we had something dressy to wear.

We headed over, and had a great time at the party. It is always interesting to see the traditions that different places when there is a party, and live music. No Hokey Pokey, no Macarena, but in addition to a couple of new-to-us activities, there was the boat song. I don’t know if it has to be this particular song, but we divided into teams of men vs women, sitting on the floor in our “boats”, with our legs spread in a “V” with the person in front of us in our “boat” sitting inside the “V” of the legs of the person behind them. 
We had to do rhythmic movements together as a team that simulated the boat rowing left to right, and then forward and backward. I am proud to say that the girls got their rhythm in order sooner, and our “boat” won. Lots of fun!

On Sunday, we slept in, and then made beef stew in the crock pot and watched Outlander all day. We got all the way through season 3 episode 6, leaving one episode to watch for Monday.

October 30: We got up a bit earlier today, and headed to Blair Castle in Blair Atholl, near Pitlochery. Blair Castle is the ancestral home of the head of the Murray Clan. The oldest part of the home dates back to the 1200’s, while most of the house was built in the 1700’s on. The first Duke was named in 1703, and the current Duke is the 12th.

The family has a lot of history in Scotland, both in favor of the crown, as well as those odd family members who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause. Many of the weapons housed in the armory that makes up the entryway of the home were used during the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

In the 1840’s, the family hosted Queen Victoria. They put together a private regiment for her protection. She was so impressed, she gave them a charter, and they still are in existence today. The Atholl Highlanders is the only private army in Europe today. They are about 100 strong, and admittance is by invitation only.

The family has done a great job preserving and displaying the history; it was a lesson in Scottish history as well. In World War I, the home served as a Red Cross hospital, and in World War II, it served as a school for children who had to be evacuated from Glasgow.

On the way home, we stopped in Falkland. This town was used as the setting for Inverness in the opening episode of Outlander. The fountain where Jamie’s ghost appears, as well as the boarding house where Clair and Frank stayed on their second honeymoon, are there.

We have one more day here, and while I am looking forward to the last leg of our trip Ireland, it is always bittersweet to leave old and new friends here. They take such good care of us whilst we are in their midst.

Scenes from a masquerade . . . 

The ball room, the armory, and the exterior of the house. There was limited photography allowed in the home (only the ballroom and the exterior). You will see the antlers on the wall. There are no natural predators left to cull the deer herd that roams the estate, so the hunting season is crucial to their survival and well being.

Here you see the fountain where Jamie’s ghost appears in the first episode of Outlander, as well as the place where Frank and Clair were staying (on the right). The lions on the fountain were stripped to their natural stone state during the filming, and then repainted.

October 17: Siena

After a WONDERFUL breakfast here, we caught the bus into Siena for the day. We knew we wanted to see the Duomo, and weren’t sure what else. Siena is built on a hill, and I just can’t do hills like I used to be able to. A combination of being out of shape and three and a half years straight of chemo, and stairs and climbing now take a lot out of me.

Once we arrived, we tried to get money out of an ATM. One of the cards that we have with us does not have a chip, and the money is in a savings account back home. Between those two complications, it has been hard to get money out. (I only mention this in case anyone is reading this blog in preparation for a trip here. You need to know this.)

On our walk to the Duomo, we came across the church San Domenico. Admission is free, so we went in to look around. The churce was built in 1226 in honor of Saint Catherine. It is not a particularly large church, and the exterior is very plain. However, inside is the morbidly fascinating preserved thumb and head of Catherine (authenticated, they say). I think it is pretty cool that someone who died over 800 years ago is giving a thumbs up for eternity.

We started to walk to the Duomo, but it is on the top of a high hill. We got information on which bus to take. When the bus stopped, he told us to take the “escalera electrica” (esclator). I got a bit frustrated, had a moment of feeling sorry for myself, and then found the escalator and we took it up. It was actually a series of escalators, and was a great way to get up. Frustration over. When we got to the Duomo, of course there is the moment of first sight that takes your breath away. We rested, took pics of the exterior, and had a snack, bought our tickets, and went in. The Duomo was built 1215 and 1263, and is Gothic in archtecture. Grand plans were made in the 1300’s to add on and make it the “largest cathedral in Christendom”. Sadly, the Black Death of 1348 killed 2 out of every 3 people in Siena. The town never recovered and became the city that planners had dreamed of.

The interior of the church is done in white and greenish-black marble, the official colors of Siena (long story, look it up). It is darker, not doing much with the use of natural light that was done so well at the Duomo in Como. However, the artwork is hard to beat. Works by Donatello, Bernini, and Michaelangelo are found alongside other well-known Italian artists. On the floor are 59 panels/works of art as well. In order to make the floor as visible as possible, most of the pews have been removed. Inside of the Doumo is a single room library, which houses manuscripts that were done by hand over 600 years ago. The walls and ceiling in that room are also spectacular!

After leaving the Duomo, we had a bite to eat at a bakery on the plaza, and headed back down to the Piazza (Plaza) del Campo. There is a lovely fountain there, and a four-columned square structure called the Capella della Piazza. It was built in thanks for the end of the Plague of 348, and also with the hopes that it might never return.

We sampled some amazing pestos and treats in a store, and finally arrived at our bus. No need for a bus or escalator after the Duomo; it was all (mostly) downhill.

We stopped by the supermarket and picked up a few items for dinner. We have begun planning the rest of our days here, with Florence next in our sights. We have been told and have found in our research that purchasing tickets ahead for the Ufizzi Gallery will save a lot of time, and there are no tickets left for tomorrow, so tomorrow will be a local day, with planning and ticket-buying to flesh out the rest of our time in Italy.

The Duomo’s front exterior:

October 23 – 27: Catching Up

23rd:  We had two whirlwind travel days, followed up with the beginning of our visit with friends in Scotland. Hence, catching up . . . 

On Monday, we headed to our day in Assisi. I am not a religious person. I am more spiritual, but find value in many teachings. One of the figures that I admire, based on what I know of his life, is Saint Francis of Assisi. His prayer, which begins “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . . “, is one of my all time favorites.

So, we caught the first bus at 6 AM, and ended up at the train station in order to take a bus from Siena to Assisi. We arrived in Assisi mid morning, and began the hike up to the hill to the basilica founded in St Frances’ name. It is a very large complex, with an active monastic order living and worshipping there.  The basilica is not as elaborate as many, but beautiful nonetheless. It is painted with many frescoes inside, but allows no photography.

We explored the upper and lower levels, and then went on to other areas that we wanted to check out. The church of Santa Chiara (St Clare, a contemporary and religious partner of St. Frances’), was closed when we arrived.  Many of the churches there closed at midday and reopened  around 2. We wanted to go down to the lower level of the town and see the Cathedral of St. Mary, so we took the bus. Assisi is a very very steep town and from top to bottom is quite a distance. We waited for the church to open, having lunch and the rare free WiFi connection.

We finished early in the afternoon, with three hours until our return bus, but really had nothing else that we wanted to see or do. We waited at the bus station, killing time by playing on our phones and people-watching.

Upon returning home, we reworked our suitcases to make sure that the weight was not over, as I have heard that Ryanair can be a real stickler, and we would be experiencing our first flight with them the next day.

24th: Another early day, with heavy heavy travel. It went like this . . . bus one from the B&B to Siena . . . bus two from Siena to the train station . . . train one from Siena to Firenze (Florence) . . . train two from Firenze to Milan . . . train three from Milan to Bergamo . . . bus three (by far the most crowded we have been on so far, had to push our way in) to the airport to check in for . . . 

RYANAIR: What can I say about this airline? Neither of us had ever flown with them before. At some point during the day, we realized that we had not checked in for the flight the night before.  It can be a pain to have to check in at the airport, but as we had to get in line to check our bag anyway, we figured we would just check in at that time.

The lines were not bad, and we got to the counter fairly quickly. We had arrived a few hours before our flight, but we wanted to get all of the details taken care of before doing anything else. That turned out to the a good decision. When we got to the counter, the lady informed us that we had to check in online and print our boarding passes, or pay a fee. If we checked in more than two hours ahead of our flight at the airport, it would cost us €10 each. If we waited until less than 2 hours before our flight, it would cost us a whopping €50 EACH! We let her know how unfair we felt that was, as many people who are traveling do not have access to printers. We told her that we were not upset with her, but that the company had a really crappy policy. She told us we should have read the fine print. 

We went to the area where we had to pay to check in, took care of it, and then had to go back to the baggage check in area. We got the same lady. She tried to tell us again how it was our fault, we told her to please just get it done. She checked the one bag that we wanted to check, stuck the baggage claim check to my boarding pass, and sent us on our way.

We next had to clear security; while we were in line, I was looking over the  boarding pass, which was in four parts. One part talked about making sure to have your visa stamp on the pass, which you got at the baggage counter. Neither of our papers was stamped. We figured it was because we did not need a visa. Fast forward to boarding: turns out we did need the stamp (which was not a visa). The lady at the baggage counter “forgot” to stamp our passes.  Luckily for us,  the lady at the gate was kind,  hurried,  and simply wrote “OK” on both our passes and sent us on to the plane.

The plane took a westerly tack over the Alps enroute to Edinburgh. I was able to watch the sunset for over an hour, it was absolutely breathtaking! The moon was coming up in the same place, and I was able to capture the sun setting above the clouds over the Alps, with the moon in the same photo. All of the tension and frustration of the day drained away, and I just sat there, soaking it in, being in the moment.

25th: The Scotland part of the trip is very relaxing. Some days we just hang out at the house. As I write this, we are binging on season two of Outlander. On the 25th, we hung out at the house. 

26th: Today, Kelly headed out to hike a very strenuous hike with a friend of our host. I am not in shape to take this hike, so rather than slow everyone down, Kamy (our friend and host) took me up to St. Andrew’s. We stopped in Dundee so that I could tour the Discovery. This is a ship that was built in 1903 specifically for an Arctic expedition. Steel hulled ships collapse when they come into contact with ice, so this ship was built out of wood to withstand the pressure. The expedition did not reach their final destination; they got iced in. While some of the men did not survive, the ship and the surviving crew were rescued. The museum and ship were very interesting to tour.

27th: Today we are chillaxing at the house, bingng on Outlander. Tonight we have dinner with several friends, tomorrow a masquerade party for the 50th birthday of another friend.

The basilica of St Frances from the entrance, and then from the side where you can see the area where the monks dwell . . . 

The Chapel of Minerva, inside and out.

One of Assisi’s furry residents.  He had a bowl of food and water just a few feet away, and was very friendly!

This is inside the church of Santa Maria de Novella. There was a small church here, and St. Frances died just outside of it. Instead of tearing down the small church, they built a new church on the site of the existing church, and there is a small chapel in the bigger church to mark the spot where he took his last breath.

In this image you can see the sun setting over the clouds, the Alps with a couple of lakes, and the moon in the upper left hand corner.

And here the sunset over the clouds.

Visiting the Discovery in Dundee . . . 

October 21: San Gimignano . . . Kind of

Today was, well, another learning curve. By our NEXT trip to Italy, we’ll have this down pat. We misread the bus schedule for today (it is different on Saturday and Sunday) and thought that the earliest we could take a bus into town was 11:30ish. We were on that bus. We headed to the train station, as we had prepaid our train travel for five days, and didn’t want to pay any more travel expenses than necessary, so we were bound and determined to travel by train today.

San Gimignano is a small hill town not too far from here. It’s full name translates to “San Gimignano of the Beautiful Towers”, as originally there were more than 70 defense towers in this Medieval town. 14 of those towers still survive today. The town was originally part of the Francigena Pilgrimage route, but the plague of 1348 affected them as well. They became a “backwater” town, and the architecture never changed or grew.

By the time we caught the bus to town, the next bus to the train station, the train to Poggibonsi, and then the bus to San Gimignano from there, we arrived at 2 PM. We checked the bus schedule, and realized that we had only 1 hour to be back at the bus stop to get home before the last bus to the B & B. OK. We booked up the hill to the Duomo to see the frescoes. We arrived about 2:15, only to find a sign on the church that today, for some reason, they were closing at 2:30, last admission at 2:00.  What can you do?

We poked our heads into the exit and managed to sneak a couple of pics before the lady nicely told us that we were not allowed, so we walked back down the hill. We window shopped, walked over to a couple of scenic overlooks to grab a couple of photos, and bought our bus tickets back to the train station.

After waiting almost an hour for the final bus of the day which would take us back to the B & B, we did a bit of grocery shopping (hopefully enough to last us until we leave for Edinburgh), and were home about 6:30. Seven hours of our day for 45 minutes of enjoyment and exploration. At least the views from the bus windows were great! 

Dinner was pasta and salad, and was delicious! We save a lot of money by not eating out all of the time, and the jar of peanut butter that we brought with us gets a workout every day that we have long travel. Tomorrow we plan to spend the day here, getting organized for our final two days. Those days will be heavy travel days, so a relaxing day in preparation for that will be welcome.

The exterior and interior of the church . . . 

One of the surviving towers.

Views from the town 

From the front seat of the bus

Dinner . . .