Saturday, April 04, 2015

Bus Trip to Galway (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Not Break the CD Into a Thousand Pieces)

I just want to sleep.

That's my sentiment pretty much every day at 6am, but especially when I'm in another country on vacation. I do not want to be awake.

Today's adventure is a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher, which are big and nature-ish and cliff-like and on the other side of the island. So we boarded a bus at 6:50 in the morning, bound for Galway.

I'm not great at sleeping in transit, but was tired enough that while I couldn't sleep, my attempts to stay awake by reading were pretty much useless. Not in that I actually fell asleep for any appreciable length of time, but more in that I'll have to re-read a bunch of things because it was all an incoherent jumble.

We stopped briefly in Athlone for some coffee, and then it was on to Galway by about 10am for a short tour of the city by a tour guide who, though very good at her job, was also at least an order of magnitude more awake than everyone she was dealing with.

Happily, Galway is relatively small and walkable, so running around the streets was pretty doable, even for a big large touristy group that is clearly a big large group of tourists. We were brought to a market street (appropriately, on Market Street) and were given the option of splitting off to either buy things in the market or walk around St. Nicholas' Church, which is big and very old and very made of stone. I wound up in the church (which had a huge number of memorial plaques and was getting ready for Easter services), while Marina and Alice headed off to the market. So good times for all.

After corralling the group, we boarded the bus again (minus two people, evidently) for the trip up the coast to the Cliffs of Moher with a few brief stops along the way to get out, walk to smaller cliff-like structures and take in the natural beauty of the place, mostly in the form of people taking pictures of it. Not that I was immune to that.

I assume this is from the future cover of an album of terrible smooth jazz I will make at some point.
We got a brief stop in a pub who clearly deals mostly with big obnoxious tour buses and continued to the Cliffs up roads that I'm really, really glad I wasn't driving on.

We were told, when we arrived, that we'd have two hours, and couldn't understand what we'd need all that time for.

As it turns out, we'd need that time for running around and looking at things. Which was incredible. I know that most of this has been repeated insistences that I don't have the ability to describe any of the scenery in anything close to a grand enough manner, and this isn't any different.

Look at this. This is nonsense.

One thing that this side-trip did teach us is that Skye was effectively deserted when we were there. It was awesome. Sure, there were some folks that we thought might break into our car and some awkward co-tenants at the B&B, but overall, there were just very few people. The Cliffs, on the other hand, have something like a dozen or so busloads of people, so while it's beautiful, there are just a ton of people running around doing things. Which is fine, but makes actually using the pathways a little slow and inconvenient.

Also, I've learned that my fear of heights seems to be based on whether the heights are man-made? I guess? I usually don't like heights at all, but as a city-dweller in a very flat part of the country, I'm more likely to encounter heights in the context of a building. For some reason, I was much more comfortable near the cliff edge. I have no idea why that should be the case.

We blew through our two hours and were back on the bus to Galway, and then to Dublin. At this point, the lack of sleep caught up with me and my attempts to stay awake to Dublin by listening to an audiobook were foiled; I drifted in and out and was absolutely baffled by the time we got to Galway. The trip back to Dublin was three hours, but it was three hours with the same four songs on what I assume is just a collection of traditional music that we'd had all day. We got off on the north bank of the Liffey and I swore that if I ever heard another about ripples in the rockpools I would set fire to something.

We crossed over into Temple Bar, which was orders of magnitude more lively. Street bands, pubs full of people, and general chaos. First things first, we went and bought the bottle of Talisker, then found a Mongolian BBQ restaurant (which helped my mood immensely, as I was still in a foul state after the bus ride),  We stopped by one of the less-crazily-populated pubs as it felt like we were more or less required to, then hailed a cab and headed for the hotel.

And that's it. That's pretty much our trip. Alice will continue on to other destinations, but we're headed home. Both Ireland and Scotland were great, but I'm also really looking forward to vehicles being on the side of the road I'm accustomed to.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Everything's Closed

The cab driver was sort of wrong!

Mostly still right though.

Our day started with a walk toward the city center, and here I should point out that Marina and Alice put a lot more faith in my Cub Scout-level sense of orienteering than they probably should. Happily, there are a bunch of signs indicating where the city center is, so we figured we'd walk that way and hope that we ran into something. Tomorrow's an early day, and we'd been hearing that everything will be closed, so we figured it'd be a relatively early night.

Happily, we eventually ran into the Trinity College gym! Which was not terribly exciting. But which was connected to the rest of Trinity College, which seemed to fit our goal of something that was both interesting to walk around and, more importantly, actually open. After some brief consideration of joining a walking tour (which we decided against in favor of standing within earshot of one for a few minutes), it occurred to us to check out the Library and the Book of Kells, because that seemed the sort of thing we were supposed to do as tourists.

Unfortunately, mostly every other thing was closed, so the closest we got to experiencing the majesty and beauty of the Library was in seeing the majesty of the line from across the courtyard. And that's sort of fine.

After a quick lunch, we did something that I'd been resisting. I know that earlier in this series, I'd mentioned that I've been trying to get over my aversion to being a super obvious tourist despite clearly being a tourist, but I'd resisted the hop-on/hop-off buses. Until now. Marina and Alice argued successfully for it (reasoning that among the things that were open, most closed early for Good Friday, so it made sense in terms of seeing things quickly and as a means of transport).

Cliche of riding around on a giant bus and staring at things aside, it actually served its purpose. If nothing else, it was a quick and easy background of a few of the locations we'd intended to swing by later in the day, along with constant reminders that everything was closed and that it was odd to stop at Guinness and Jameson and have no one get on or off the bus. Still, covered more ground than we'd have been able to on foot, even if we wound up more or less back where we started.

We walked around the things that were open by virtue of being impossible to close (the exterior of Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral), through what I understand is a very subdued version of the Temple Bar area and into a bunch of touristy shops (one of which we learned was open until 9, so we'd head back there for late-night-for-Good-Friday-I-Guess souvenir shopping after dinner).

We actually wound up staying out a bit later than expected. Before heading back to our hotel, we stopped in at a grocery store to find some water, some prawn flavored snacks and, behind the counter and unavailable to buy today because of the alcohol ban, the bottle of Talisker that we'd lost at the airport! Success! We'll have to revisit tomorrow after getting back from the other side of the island.

We headed home, with Marina and Alice again trusting that I knew where I was going. Surprisingly, I actually did (allowing for a short detour the long way around St. Stephen's Green.) Dublin is really, really walkable, and walking home allowed a lot of opportunities for getting to hear what appears to be some sounds from Space Invaders, which apparently is used for the "It's safe to cross now" sound at pedestrian crossings. I'm a fan.

The hotel bar is actually packed, as apparently hotel bars are exempted from the alcohol sales prohibition, so everyone who's staying here is currently down there.

For us though, it's late and tomorrow, we've got to be up at 5:30 to make it to the bus that will take us to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

And Turn Her Down the Rocky Road

Having left Talisker, the road out from Skye was significantly easier and quicker. Part of that is getting used to driving a car that's much nicer than what I drive at home on narrow roads on the other side while lumber trucks trundle along. Part of that was Alice and Marina's Co-Driving experience using our finely tuned "How's my left? How's my left?" system, which I really think is probably basically what happens during actual rallies. Part of that its that for the first time since we got to Scotland, it's actually nice out. And part of that is that we have a flight to catch.

We made good time getting off the islands and were able to stop a few times along the way. There are a bunch of little pull-off points on the way back, I assume expressly for the purpose of getting cleanly off the road while you gape at the majesty of the place. We swung by the Eileen Donan Castle, where a surprisingly large number of people were eating lunch in the parking lot and we made it to Fort William, where we stopped for lunch.

Potatoes, and because I'm a ridiculous tourist and this was our last meal in Scotland, I went with the haggis, which is fine. It's like sausage. I enjoyed it, but I don't know where this "This food is strange and alien" pearl-clutching attitude comes from. Or, rather, I don't know how to square the "but it's innards" attitude with the fact that hot dogs exist and are sold widely. Everyone calm down.

The rest of the drive was relatively uneventful. We went back past Loch Lomond, where we encountered traffic (due to a ridiculous lumber truck that was too wide for the road) and made it back to Alice's dorm.

Here's the issue. It was around 7. Flight's at 8:45, but Alice is going to run around Europe for a bit after this, so she needed to pack. I returned the car on my own (completely without the How's my Left? system to which I'd become accustomed) and ran back to Alice's dorm. Marina and Alice were finishing packing, and early on in the process, we'd decided to try to check one of our bags for the flight to Dublin, so that we could bring all the things we bought.

We flagged down a cab, had to stop by the car rental place to check on something because I'm a paranoid idiot, and headed off to the airport, arriving at about 8:20. Way, way later than we'd intended.

Baggage check in was closed.

We went through security, which was speedy and efficient, but we couldn't check our bag. Which had a bottle of whisky in it.

I want to say that the security guys were reasonable. They had to confiscate it, but told us we'd be able to pick it up (or have someone pick it up) for a £20/day storage fee.

And I don't know. We were upset about it. I don't know why we were upset. But we were.

It's not like it's the money, really. It was an expensive bottle, one that I wouldn't normally have allowed myself to buy, but attempts to save it would have probably been more expensive than the effort was worth (that is, pay for one of Alice's friends to take a cab to the airport, pick it up, and take it back). It's not that. It's that we'd just done this thing that a few days ago had seemed like it might not be possible. We'd made it to Skye, through the mountains and the hail and the unfamiliar driving and we had done it even though we could have gotten a tour bus to do this for us. We'd rushed to get back, and it was tight but seemed so doable. And avoidable; the decision to bring it at all was a last-minute one based on a very rosy idea of how long it'd take to get to the airport.

It's silly. The bottle we'd bought was available at Binny's (though it was a cut that you'd have to ask them to order, but still, available). And it's not like we even drink, really. But for some reason, after the stress of the drive and the rush to the airport, it stung. It wasn't about the object; that's silly. And I'm aware that this sounds really, really dumb and that of all the things to possibly worry about or be disappointed by, this is way, way far down on even the most banal list of things-that-you-absolutely-shouldn't-worry about. It was a souvenir. It doesn't show up on any sort of hierarchy of actual needs I'm aware of, and of all the problems to have while traveling, I'd pick this one every time.

We got through security, we went to the gate and asked if there were anything they could do, but no. So we boarded the plane, we flew to Dublin, and we got off toward the line of taxis.

We found one, and it was great to be both on the left side of the road and not to be the one driving. We mentioned where we were headed, and the cab driver seemed astonished that we'd chosen to fly into Dublin.

"Tomorrow's Good Friday. Everything will be closed."

That hadn't even occurred to me, and so the first thing that we encountered upon landing in Ireland is that, as the one Catholic member of our merry band, I'd failed to foresee that.

Oh well, we're in Dublin and will see whether the cab driver was right about everything being closed tomorrow.

Hunt the Hare

So, a bunch of things happened. In the end, we're safe in Dublin, though it got a little close and emotional at the end. But let's start in the morning.

We woke up at around 8 and started getting ready for breakfast. Historically, when we've been staying somewhere that includes breakfast (which for the most part means toast and coffee and surly co-inhabitants of the inn), getting down to breakfast is not even sort of a priority. Here, we were in a legit B&B with a lovely innkeeper who we'd already sort of angered by showing up past check in (which is totally reasonable; she was very, very forgiving, and we were lucky in that aspect as the other option would have been to just not let us stay). She was cooking breakfast and she'd mentioned 8:30, so damn it, we were going to be downstairs at 8:30.

So, things that are different about this from our usual lodging experience: Home cooked meal in an adorable little dining room filled with home-made jams and marmalades.

Things that are the same: surly co-tenants.

Everyone just sort of kept to themselves, which is absolutely fine by me. I have never been one for talking to strangers while eating eggs, and I'm cool with having that be what happened.

We mentioned our plans to the innkeeper: head up to Dunvegan Castle (the ancestral home of the MacLeods, meaning mostly that if I were going to make a Highlander joke, I should have done it here), then head down to Glasgow to make our flight at 8:45pm. We'd have to miss going to a series of waterfalls called the Fairy Pools, but the map we had actually showed where the castle was and ignored the pools, so that's what we planned on.

The innkeeper disagreed, and I think I should note that her sentiment seemed in line with most of the other Scottish Tourism folks we talked to.

Unless we were MacLeods, she suggested, the castle's a castle. Do the Fairy Pools instead.

I like that people who are directly involved with Scottish Tourism and recommending things for wayward tourists are just very done with castles. I hope, at one point, that I'll be able to return the favor; I'll get someone walking up to me and asking me my opinion for where to go, and offering up a suggestion of what the Travel Book suggested and I'll get to say "You know what? Navy Pier's fine and all, but do something else."

We took her suggestion (and a map she made, which had all of the points of interest we wanted to see on it) and headed south to the Fairy Pools.

Another dinner-table-width road, but to be honest I'm getting kind of used to those, and this one was only four miles. And I think we were unprepared. We pulled into the parking lot and headed down a dirt path.

Well, mud path. It's been raining for days.

And again, I'm not a good enough writer (or photographer) to really explain the scenery.  It's waterfalls and mountains and streams and a few little rock-bridges and you should go there.

It was absolutely gorgeous. Our shoes did not agree. We underestimated the amount of hiking required, and so my sneakers are in dire-but-stable condition at the moment. Marina's boots were pretty well coated (though more easily cleanable). So, we decided, let's stop at the nearest place where there's probably a restroom to clean up before we start our trip south.

And because we're in a magical wonderland filled with merriment, the closest place that we knew fit that description and was open to the public was the Talisker Distillery, the only whisky distillery on the island.

Side note: when we were delayed by the hail and the snow, there were a few things we were each a little sad about not getting to get to do or see. Marina was a little sad because if we flipped over into a ditch, we probably wouldn't get to buy some local-dyed yarn. Alice was sad because she'd been looking forward to the Fairy Pools (though until this morning we didn't have much of an idea of how to get to them). And I was sad because I'd gone to Scotland and was going to be leaving without going to a distillery.

But we'd bought yarn in Portree. We'd managed time for the Fairy Pools by cutting out the just-another-castle. And now we were going to Talisker! Everybody wins.

The next tour wasn't for a few hours, but we were able to walk around a bit, and there's a bit of an exhibition on how they do things in the visitor's center, so that was nice. And then, Alice and Marina convinced me to buy a bottle of Talisker to take home as a gift, but that we should really get going. So we did, we made plans to open it once Alice returned to Chicago in a few months, and were on our way.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Road to Skye: Part 2

It's a new day, and we're doing much better than last night. We stopped in for coffee at Costa and headed off to the Tourist Information Center, where we met a very nice woman who had never been where we're going and had no advice for how to get there. We'd heard there was a smoother, flatter road that went to a ferry in Mallaig, but the ticket website appeared to indicate that the early morning ferry was sold out, and that the first available ferry would be at 4pm

That's fine. Skye's roads aren't going to be any better, so I might as well get used to it. Part of the issue is that the car we were driving is significantly wider than the car I normally drive, so I don't really have a good sense of how far to the left my car goes. Also, the roads are generally pretty narrow, and there are huge lumber trucks that come flying down them as close to the far right of their lane as possible. 

So we worked out a system. Marina and Alice served as both navigators (in the sense of watching where the GPS was demanding we go) and an externalization of my sense of where the left of the car was. This was accomplished through the following exchange whenever a truck went flying by. 

Ryan (panicked): "How's my left? How's my left?"

Marina and Alice: "It's fine. Still fine."

Repeat for every truck. 

We headed off into the highlands, passing Glenfinnan, which had amazing views and also the bridge from Harry Potter (the Glenfinnan Viaduct, if you're into the proper names for things), which everyone was excited about. There's also a monument across the road topped with a statue of an anonymous Highlander, though to be honest I was too worried about my left, even when stopped, to learn more about that until later.

By "anonymous Highlander", I'm going to allow myself to make the obvious and overdone joke.
It's Christopher Lambert.

I should note that now that we were a little more confident in driving, the Highlands are just ridiculously gorgeous. These are almost certainly both the largest mountains I've seen to date and the closest I've interacted with them. 

We drove along, following the GPS, noting that the roads aren't really that bad. And then the GPS had a big straight line.

It had taken us to Mallaig, to get on the ferry.

That's total drive time if you go from Fort William to Portree by going an hour out of the way first.

This is why we shouldn't rely on the GPS. 

To be fair to Garmin, it's not like it's a bad assumption. There are usually ferries every half hour, and Mallaig is closer than driving up to Invergarry and turning to go through Kyle of Lochalsh and the Skye Bridge. But they only do that on the Summer Schedule, which starts Friday. When we'll be in Dublin.

Nothing to do but turn around, head to Fort William, and continue up through the more dangerous course. We were still able to use the GPS by putting in much smaller sections of highway (so, rather than Fort William to Portree, we entered Fort William to Invergarry, then Invergarry to Kyle of Lochalsh, then across to Kyleakin, because not doing so resulted in the GPS screaming at us to turn around and get on the ferry that wasn't running).

We actually made much better time going back. The roads were starting to feel like the Western Pennsylvania roads I grew up driving on. Aside from the "drive on the left" thing, it felt more familiar.

We managed to make it to Kyleakin, which apparently has otters. Or, at least, statues of otters and emblems of otters. So some connection to the otter.

See? I would not lie to you about otters.
The occupant of the ever-present Tourist Information Center advised that our plan to go up to Portree and then around the island to get to our accommodations in Dunvegan on the other side was fine, and agreed that driving on the side you're not used to is confusing. He also recommended that we drive out onto the Trotternish peninsula to get a look at a few of the sights, and then cut across the road that runs across the middle.

We drove up to Portree, bought some yarn, got dinner and continued on.

In the next post, adventures around the Trotternish Peninsula, and finally making it to Dunvegan.


I should, I guess, discuss the geography of what we're doing here. Skye is sort of like a big hand/claw sort of thing, with our point of entry being near the wrist, where the Skye Bridge connects it to the rest of Scotland. Off of the palm, there are a number of little peninsulas, with roads looping out to encircle them. There's a large-ish (in the sense that it was largely two-or-so lanes) road that connects most of the towns and much, much smaller roads that head off in other directions.

When we last left off, we were driving into Portree (going around the palm counter-clockwise), and I cannot overstate how exciting it was to be at something that's sort of like a destination. The roads in Portree were small, but for once, there were buildings and curbs to the far side of my car that I was so worried about, and not cliffs and rocks and the sea.

We managed to make it to a parking lot (A lot! Full of other cars! That weren't going ninety miles an hour on the side I don't expect them to be on!), learned that parking was free because we were still in the off season (as indicated by the ferry that didn't exist) and proceeded to tourist the hell out of the local shops. 

What followed was a flurry of commemorative magnets (of the bridge that got us onto Skye, which for us had gone from "fun side-trip" to "mystical promised land" after the realities of trying to drive several hours in a strange country set in) and skeins of yarn (dyed nearby, and potentially made from some of the sheep that I'd learned to dodge, though no one would guarantee that) and langoustines, which I really think that if you're going to serve, "Norway Lobsters" is a more exciting name than "langoustines". 

We had been advised to check out the western side of the Trotternish Peninsula, then circle back down, cutting across the road that bisected the landmass and continue on to Dunvegan, where we were staying. So we did that. 

And I can't actually describe what it looked like. I thought about trying, and a better writer (or even someone who wrote about travel more than once every four years) could do it, but I can't. 

It was silly. Let's go with that. 

We were able to get out of the car in a few designated pull off spaces (which were every few hundred yards, because whoever made this tiny road realized that a bunch of tourists are going to do exactly that). Past the Old Man of Storr, stopping at the Lealt Gorge (where we may have gotten paranoid about some other tourists seemingly hanging out next to our car a little too much as we were out looking at things) and up through to Kilt Rock, which had the actual rock, a few big signs about a dinosaur they'd found near the rock and a Scottish Terrier because apparently we were in a tourism ad.

The Lealt Gorge. Just off to the right, people looking at the things in our car.

We're staying at a B&B, so after leaving Kilt Rock we thought it would be best to get to Dunvegan before it was too late, in part so that we were able to check in, and in part because while the 1.5 lanes of road were fine in the daylight, we were very nervous about driving around in the dark. So we took the advice of the tourism guy from Kyleakin. We took the cross-peninsula road.

This was a bad idea.

As it turns out, the road across the peninsula is a less-than-one-lane road that's more of an asphalt hiking trail where there's really no point in having a turn if it isn't a hairpin. We were on the Quiraing, a flat-out gorgeous hillside that a friend who we'd consulted about the trip before going had hiked around and which was bounded on either side either by very steep drop-offs, sizeable ditches and just a lot of sheep. More sheep than I'm usually comfortable driving through.

Pictured: Terror

We made our way painfully slowly through the six miles of seriously narrower than most parking spaces terrain, looking up from time to time to take in the gorgeous views but for the most part terrified about what would happen if we hit a ditch, or that we'd continue to get lost and wind up on this dinner-table-width path in the dark. We made it, passing one other vehicle (a delivery truck for a brewery, which seemed to be doing fine), and wound up winding through a bunch of tiny mountainside roads that weren't on the map until we made it to the highway. 

Well, "highway".

Unfortunately, it was late. We sped on to Dunvegan where we were greeted by our mildly-perturbed but really astonishingly pleasant considering we were showing up an hour after check-in B&B host, shown to our room and collapsed from the strain of actually having made it here alive. 

I feel awful about showing up late, but we did it. We drove to Skye. And I didn't get us run over by a lumber truck. Or a swarm of sheep. Sheep travel in swarms, right?

Tomorrow, we get to do what took us two days in around six hours in order to not miss the flight to Dublin.