Monday, March 28, 2011

The Luck of the Irish: St. Patty's Day in Galway!

Ireland was such a treat! I’ve really grown to love that country. Early on St. Patrick’s Day we met at the Santa Justa train station to take the bus to Malaga. From Malaga we flew to Dublin and then the last leg of the trip was the bus from Dublin to Galway. It was a very long day of travel. In fact, we could have done it faster from the US!

We were greeted in Dublin by several warm, Irish smiles. It really did the trick. The people are so friendly there. It was a nice break from Spain. While in the airport we made a pit stop for bagels, clearly a necessity. After bagels we boarded the bus to Galway and we were pleasantly surprised with free wifi! Could it get any better? It was easy to find our hotel once we got there, so we quickly dropped our bags off and headed out for a night on the town! Prior to celebrating Patty’s day like the Irish (drinking) we attempted to find some food to nosh on. Most of the restaurants we passed had closed early due to the holiday. We stumbled upon a pizza place with giant pizza slices resembling the ones from home. We ate our pizza standing on the sidewalk because the tiny restaurant didn’t have many places to sit. After devouring it we went across the street to a bar called The Front Door to begin our celebration.

Walking around town from the hotel to the pizza place was quite the experience. During my first trip to Ireland I learned how drinking is often considered a sport in Ireland, and it’s one the Irish have down pat. That being said, Patty’s Day in Galway was a mess. Generally speaking, I think the country can hold their liquor very well, so it was clear how much they had drank when it looked like all hell had broke loose.

The bar was packed. It was hard to find a spot to stand and talk. Everyone really seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was so much fun! After a few drinks at The Front Door we headed down the street to another bar, whose name I cannot remember. There was a decent live band, so that was a definite plus. Live music isn’t really big here, so it was great to hear some music and even better that it was in English! We walked around for a little while, but then I decided to go home. Unfortunately, I was (and still am) battling a cold. I wasn’t going to let it effect my Patty’s Day, though. It was a fun night and only the beginning of our trip.

On Friday we woke up to a delicious Irish breakfast (another thing Spain doesn’t do so well.) After breakfast we were picked up by our tour company and brought to the bus station. We had signed up for two tours and we weren’t sure which order they would be in. The first day ended up being the trip to the Cliffs of Moher. We loaded the bus (with an entire sorority and fraternity, may I add. There are some things I really don’t miss about college and that is one of them. Needless to say, it was a rough journey with these spoiled brats.) Our first stop were the Aillwee Caves, just outside of Galway city. I kind of feel like once you’ve seen one cave you’ve seen them all. It was cool, but not the highlight of the trip.

After the caves we made a short stop at some ancient burial grounds. It was super windy, so we took a quick picture and ran back to the bus. The next stop was the Cliffs of Moher. I had been looking forward to this for months! After seeing pictures online I knew it was something not to be missed. It’s about 7 km (just over 4 miles) of cliffs 200m high. It was breathtaking. We may have crossed over the fence to get some photos. Don’t worry, we stayed far from the edge and no one fell over. While I say that semi-jokingly, our bus driver warned us that a few weeks ago a German tourist got too close to the edge and fell to this death. That shocked some sense into us and our goal of looking over the edge didn’t seem quite as important any more.

There’s an old tower close to the edge that’s open to tourists. We climbed to the very top. The winds were whipping like crazy and it began to rain. For a short period of time it was nasty outside, so we spent our last few minutes inside. Billy, our bus driver, warned us of the penalties for being late and said that he would not wait for anyone. We made sure to get back to the bus on time, considering we weren’t willing to pay the 100-euro per person cab fare back to Galway! After boarding the bus we drove a short distance to a town called Doolin. We dined in a restaurant named Fitzpatrick’s, which put a smile on my face. I couldn’t help but think of my old roommate, Molly Fitzpatrick. We ate our Irish meals and thought of Molls!

After lunch it was almost a straight shot back to Galway. We made a very quick stop by the ocean. It was beautiful with these awesome rocks that looked like they belonged in a sci-fi movie and led right up to the water. Our last stop was Dunguaire Castle. It was closed, but we took a quick walk around the grounds.

After our full day tour and the previous night out on the town, we needed to relax a little before dinner. For dinner we went to McDonagh’s fish and chips. My high school classmate Ana McDonagh’s family is from Galway and used to own this fish and chips shop. I told her we’d be sure to stop by and check on how the new owners are running the place. After dinner we were all pretty worn out, so we headed back to the hotel for an early night.

Saturday morning we were up bright and early again. Our tour took us through the Connemara region with a stop at Kylemore Abbey. Our very first stop of the day was just outside of Galway. We stopped along the beautiful coastline for some photos. Our second stop was in a little town that only spoke Gaelic. I decided to check out the harbor instead, so I missed the Gaelic. Next time, right? The next stop was also short and was an old famine town. The towns around Galway are filled with poorly made stonewalls. I thought they were really pretty and I liked how the light shined through the gapping holes. I don’t know if these walls are characteristic of the area we were in because I don’t remember seeing them when Liza and I were there during the winter.

Our main stop of the tour was Kylemore Abbey and Gardens. It was originally built for a couple as their country home. Since then it has been passed through a few families and now it’s an abbey. It’s a beautiful estate. The gardens were slightly underwhelming, however, I imagine if we’d been a few weeks later when the flowers were in bloom that it would be breathtaking. The bad weather held off for most of the day, but towards the end of our time at the abbey it started to get gross outside. The lousy, dreary weather combined with Jack’s (our bus driver) soothing voice helped put me right to sleep. When we got back to Galway we rested for a little before another night out on the town.

Sevilla’s lackluster restaurant choices always lead us to Asian food while traveling. We found a very cute Thai restaurant online and got our Asian fill until our next destination. After dinner we went back to The Front Door, the bar we had enjoyed our first night out. On Saturday there was a DJ so we rocked on the dance floor until the wee hours of the morning. Well, not really, but it sounds good. We did get our grooves on for a while and then we decided to try the bar out across the street. I was amazed to see how nicely the women dressed for an ordinary Saturday night out. I don’t remember seeing that in the other towns in Ireland I visited. While we didn’t stand out, I think it’s fair to say we were underdressed compared to many of the other women. Most were dressed in fancy cocktail dresses and heels. I’m afraid that didn’t fit in my Ryanair sized carry-on. The bar across the street was lame. It was getting late and I was getting tired. We decided to head on home, but not without a stop at our favorite pizza place. Nothing like a little greasy food to help absorb all of the alcohol we had consumed. It might have been the best pizza I had ever had.

Sunday morning we were in no rush to get up. We had a nice relaxing morning. Jan and her sister who was visiting, Leslie, went to church in the morning. Julia, Briana and I wondered around town and did what we do best: shopping. I bought a pretty Claggagh ring. Supposedly they are originally from Galway. It’s the ring with a heart being held by two hands. If your heart is “taken” you wear the heart facing inward and if you heart isn’t “taken” yet you wear the ring facing outward.

After we met up with Jan and Leslie we walked around town and down by the waterfront. Galway is a very charming city and by far my favorite out of the four Irish cities I’ve visited. That afternoon we went to a very cute tearoom down by the water. I really like Irish and English tea. Can’t get enough of it! After tea it was already time to head back to the hotel to pick up our bags and go to the train station. Train travel in Ireland, and most of Europe for that matter, is so easy. Our train was direct and painless. Once we arrived in Dublin we hopped on the tram to go to our hostel. It was near the hostel Liza and I stayed at, so I led the way. It was a great hostel! I wish I had stayed there the first time I was in Dublin. We dropped off our bags and headed to the Temple Bar area for dinner and our last few pints. For dinner we ended up at a Mexican/Italian restaurant (again trying to hit up all restaurants that aren’t Spanish.) Right across the street was the famous Temple Bar. I delighted in my last pint of Bulmer’s (hard cider) and we listened to a fun live band. For a Sunday night the bar was packed! I would imagine 90% of the occupants were tourists. Either way, it was a fun night and a nice way to end our Irish St. Patty’s getaway.

The next morning we took the bus to the airport to fly back to Malaga. Once in Malaga we had to take the train back to Sevilla. I wish Sevilla had a better airport! Luckily, the train ride from Malaga to Sevilla is absolutely gorgeous. There’s this one stretch with huge cliffs with a windy river below. I’d love to take a day trip there. It looks out of this world.

Overall, Ireland was very successful. I fell in love with Galway and hope to return some day. I have another trip to look forward to in only 10 days—Amsterdam here I come!

Hasta pronto,

Monday, March 7, 2011

Belgium: the land of beer, chocolate, waffles and fries

As the title of this post may suggest, we spent a good portion of our weekend delighting in Belgium delicacies, namely the beer. Our trip started off without any problems. We even had a direct flight from the Sevilla airport to Brussels, which is always a bonus. The flight was uneventful. The only minor issue was the two women sitting in front of me watching the TV show Undercover Boss. Normally, this would have not bothered me at all. I enjoy catching up with the American culture I’m missing back at home. The only problem was that this episode was about the Cubs. I honestly don’t know if there’s anything else that would have bothered me more. I strategically placed my book over the computer screen to avoid having to watch it. Aside from that, the flight was eventless.

From the airport we took the train into the city. We got a little lost getting to our hostel, but finally made it there. We dropped our bags off and headed to dinner. We ate in this little neighborhood that reminded me of the Latin District in Paris. It was very touristy and filled with fixed price menus. We landed on one particular restaurant with an appealing fixed price menu and the perk of a free “welcome” drink. We later learned from a friend of mine studying in Brussels that these guys are paid to stand outside and try to rope customers in. They have even been given the name Mr. Spectacular. Belgium is also known for mussels, so we figured we’d give them a try.

After dinner we were anxious to try out a bar recommended by all of our various guidebooks and several other reliable sources. The bar, Delirium, ended up being right around the corner from the restaurant. They’re known for having over 2,000 different types of beer. Upstairs alone they had about 30 different types on tap. It was out of this world. They rotate them in and out periodically. Having no clue which to sample we turned to the bartender and asked for help. I wasn’t too keen on the first one I tried. Belgium is also known for having many different types of fruit flavored beer. My second beer of the night was an apple-flavored beer, which I’d highly recommend. Our first night at Delirium was certainly the highlight of the trip and even one of the highlights of my year abroad. We met 6 British fellows that insisted we join them for some drinking games. The first game reminded me of something I would have played in my middle school drama class. It was called something along the lines for furry bunny. You have to make rabbit ears (or more like moose ears) and the people around you have to make a corresponding hand gesture. The point is to try and trick your neighbors so that they mess up and need to drink.

The second game we played was a counting game. One person starts the game by saying, I declare a game of 21 beginning to my left (or right.) If they start by saying one the people in the direction they started the game proceeds with two. If they say one, two the order changes and goes opposite of what they said. If they say one, two, three the person directly next to them in the order they originally said is skipped. Maybe I’m not doing the best job of describing this, but it was really fun. In addition to trying to trick your competitors you also don’t want to end up with the last number, 21. Since it is a drinking game, if you end with 21 you drink. Shocker, I know.

The last game was my least favorite. Not only did it again remind me of middle school drama, but also it was like my middle school nightmare. It was called the Witch and it was all about remembering the order of saying something. I’m typically good at things like this, but it was beyond annoying. Our British friends were really into it nonetheless.

All in all, the night was a blast. The bar was great and reminded me of the type of bar you’d find at home. Sadly, we’ve found that Sevilla lacks this type of bar. I guess that just means one more thing to look forward to upon coming home!

Brussels didn’t really offer a ton to do. The one thing I was looking very forward to was going on a tour of the European Union (EU) Headquarters. I had missed the tour of the United Nations because my travels fell too close to the holidays, so I was set on going to the EU. Unfortunately, after a night of drinking, the last thing I wanted to do was get up for an early (relatively speaking) tour of the EU. I guess it will just have to wait until next time I’m in Brussels! When we finally mustered up the energy to leave our lovely hostel room we walked around and explored the city. We went to the Grand Place, a large plaza, which appeared to be home to several important buildings…couldn’t tell you what they were though. We also stopped by the famous Manneken Pis statute. It was slightly underwhelming standing at a merely 1.5 feet, if that. Either way, it was cool to see it!

For lunch to headed to a Thai/Vietnamese restaurant. That’s another thing Spain lacks: diversity of food. I do find it pretty amusing that when we go to all of these foreign countries we run straight for the Asian food. After lunch we met up with my childhood friend, Zach, who’s studying about in Brussels. He was an amazing tour guide and showed us around for a few hours. It was really interesting to hear his take on Belgium and learn more about the culture through him. Zach took us to the famous Chocolate Square. Supposedly, these stores were some of the first stores to really help make Belgium chocolate famous. The first store we went in was a place just to look since everything was out of this world expensive. The temptation got to us and in the next store we each bought a few little pieces of chocolate.

We were beat after a full day of walking around and headed back to the hostel to get ready before going to dinner and another night at Delirium. Our first night at Delirium was so much fun that it was hard to live up to it the second night. That night we tried out the downstairs part of the bar. They had mostly bottled beer. I tried a raspberry beer, which was good, but not as good as the apple from the night before. We called it an early night since we needed to get up and get going to Bruges the following day.

The next morning we were delighted to see the hostel offered Speculoos. Speculoos is a Belgium delicacy that Zach recommended we try. It’s similar to the consistency of peanut butter, but it tastes like ginger bread. From breakfast we were off to our next destination: Bruges!

Bruges is only about an hour train ride from Brussels. It’s an old, beautiful town. We had a very easy time finding the hotel and we were off to explore the city. We were anxious to go to the brewery, but our map reading skills (or lack thereof) set us a little behind. Luckily, in our quest to find the wrong number 11 on the map we ended up close to the chocolate museum.

As I’m sure you all know, I love chocolate like no other. However, I continuously find these museums to be a little disappointing. This was in particular was not anything special. Many of their displays were little Lego people. At the end of the museum there was a short chocolate demonstration. That was probably the most interesting part.

That night for dinner we tried out a restaurant in my guidebook. It was almost completely lit by candlelit and just a charming little place. I opted for the ribs. I cannot remember the last time I had ribs, but these were delicious! My mom laughed when I told her I went all the way to Belgium for ribs. Supposedly they were a house specialty. Who knows, maybe ribs are popular there, too! After dinner we tried out a few of the local pubs. I tried some peach flavored beer, which was right on par with the apple. Very tasty. We decided to end the night at a disco that wasn’t too far from our hotel. Their music selection was appealing and also quite amusing. It ranged from Elvis to Lionel Richie to more recent stuff. Let’s just say I got my groove on.

The next morning we climbed the belfry, the large bell tower in the main square. It was quite the climb and semi-challenging considering there is just one tiny stairwell for people to go both up and down. I did a little social experiment on my way down and noticed it was only the Brits and the Japanese that said thank you when I stopped so they could pass. I won’t mention who didn’t say thank you, but let me just say it didn’t surprise me one bit.

After lunch and the belfry we successfully found the brewery! The tour was interesting and our guide had a very dry and sarcastic sense of humor, which made the tour amusing. At the end we got a sample. I can’t say it was the best beer of the weekend, so I left most of mine in the glass. After the tour we walked around the city a little longer before calling it quits for a break at the hotel. Coincidentally, the hotel aired several TV stations in English! Hear that Spain? It was great to relax and watch some of our good ol’ American favorites.

For our last meal in Belgium we wanted to end on a traditional note. We picked a touristy, yet traditional restaurant in the main square. I had mussels and we all enjoyed reminiscing about our weekend in Belgium.

The next morning we went to the grocery store to buy some Speculoos. From there it was time to head back to Brussels and then catch a train to the Ryanair airport which was conveniently on the other side of the country. We had flown a different (code for reputable) airline in so we were able to go directly to the main Brussels airport. In a typical Ryanair fashion, the airport they fly out of was miles away from Brussels. After reading several people’s suggestions online, we bought our tickets for the airport bus online. We didn’t have a problem finding the bus, but we did have a problem getting on.

I was worried when I saw a huge swarm of people angrily waving their tickets around the bus. I took a deep breath and prayed this wasn’t our bus. Sadly, it was. We walked into a crowd of maybe 30 people yelling, trying to get on the bus and showing the bus driver their tickets. Uh oh. This was one of those things that I’d fully expect in say Spain or Morocco, but I wasn’t expecting to have to push my way on to a bus that I already had a ticket for in Belgium. What I think had happened was that the bus driver didn’t let the people with tickets on first and then began selling tickets to anyone that wanted them. So that meant that the people who had previously purchased tickets, like us, weren’t able to get on the bus because the bus driver sold more tickets to people that were just standing there. Thanks a lot, bud.

Luckily, we were able to get on the next train, not without elbowing a few people and yelling at the bus driver may I add. Luckily again, we got there with plenty of time before our flight. Going through security was a bit of a pain. They took Briana and my Speculoos despite me arguing that it wasn’t a liquid. With a stroke of luck they sold it at the duty free store in the airport, so in the end our Speculoos made it back to Sevilla.

Our weekend in Belgium was a fun one, but after copious amounts of beer, chocolate, waffles and fries I think it’s going to have to be awhile until I return.

Hasta pronto,