Beautiful beautiful Ireland

We only had a week in Ireland so were determined to pack a lot in.

We cruised over on the car ferry, which was a rather nice way to while away a couple of hours. After a night in a cute BnB in Rosslare we headed into Dublin. It rained a lot in the two days we were there!

Obligatory beef and  Guinness pie eating proved very successful, and there was sampling of said Guinness, as well an entertaining visit to the Guinness Storehouse where I got to pour my own pint (I think mine is the one in the middle). Most satisfying.

A more sobering visit to the Kilmainham jail gave us an in-depth look at Ireland’s struggle for freedom and the people who sacrificed their lives to obtain it. There is a heart-breaking letter on display from an 18 year old who was executed for being part of the Easter uprising. The letter was written the night before his death – all he wanted was to see his mum. So very very sad. It made Alcatraz look very tame to be honest.

We also managed to fit in a visit to Dublin Castle with its beautiful staterooms and Trinity College Dublin. The Book of Kells and the old library were well worth the long queue to get in. Incredible to see such an old and precious book, even if it was just a couple of pages open for viewing. (No photos of the book allowed sorry!)

 

Our next two days were spent driving cross country to the beautiful areas of Glasson and Ballina. On the way we saw a sign for a waterfall so headed down the tiny road and were rewarded with seeing a small but gorgeous torrent of water, and finding a place that did excellent tea!

Both  our hotels for these couple of days were by the water, firstly a beautiful lake  and then a river. Very quiet and a nice change of pace from the hectic pace of Dublin. Wayne played golf and I had a massage – bliss.

We then drove to Belfast for a trip highlight – a Game of Thrones tour! Entertained and informed by our crazy guide Brian, a seasoned extra on the show, we saw many of the places where iconic scenes were filmed and got lots of insider information on how things were filmed. Mandatory and  much fun was getting dressed up as Iron Islanders and having a go at fighting  with (very heavy and realistic )swords. Our kids were a bit worried that I was having too much fun fighting their dad!

Along the way we got  to cross the famed Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge (why do I agree to these things?) This was the biggest test for my vertigo ever. Several of our group decided not to risk it as it was a windy day but I knew I would be annoyed with myself if I didn’t attempt it. Suffice to say that it was one of the scariest things I have ever done! I had Wayne behind me, encouraging me to take bigger steps, or at least keep moving. I think I shook for an hour afterwards. I’m not sure that continually forcing myself to confront these situations is good for me but I am learning a lot about what I can to do if I have to, and it turns out it’s quite a lot. The Giant’s Causeway was much easier!

We finished our week with a walking tour of the ‘Troubles’ era in Belfast history. The other side of the fight for autonomy with devastating results that still scar the city emotionally of not physically today.Our guide had grown up through all the bombings and was a professional mediator with both sides of the conflict – could have listened to him all day. We wished we could stay longer in Ireland but the car ferry was booked, so we said our goodbyes and farewelled this wonderful country.

We loved Ireland, so dramatic, such sweeping vistas, delicious food  and friendly people. Another country to put on our ‘let’s go back’ list!

 

Tintagel to St David’s Cathedral

 

On our way out of Cornwall we visited Tintagel Castle (legendary birthplace of King Arthur). Windswept and grim, I again had to clutch onto a railing for dear life as we climbed up stairs carved out of the very steep rock face. Well worth the terror as we gazed out on the isolated landscape, read about the ancient castle built precariously on the clifftops and marvelled at the mountain goats skipping their way down the scary slopes.

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I rewarded myself with a very delicious cornish pasty and we continued onto Bath. We only had a very short stay here but Wayne here made good on his promise to buy me a decent camera as a belated birthday present, so we left with me clutching my new baby very excitedly.

We spent a couple of days in the Welsh countryside and took the camera for its first outing in St Davids. This little place is officially a city as it contains a beautiful cathedral. We spent the morning exploring that and the ruins of the neighbouring Bishop’s Palace. I really liked this peaceful place. There has been a Christian presence here since the 6th century and St David is the patron saint of Wales. Like so many other cathedrals, this was the heart of a vibrant faith community rather than a museum and monument to the past and I could feel the life and spirit inside as I walked through. I love this sense of being connected to the on-going narrative of my faith in so many different places.

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And then off to attempt a small stretch of the Pembrokeshire Coastal walkway. This of corse meant more cliffs . I managed to get a fair way along until the drops became too steep despite the distraction of the new camera and I decided that it was time to turn back. We did encounter wild ponies, hawks and seals so again worth the terror I think!

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In all a wonderful and refreshing couple of days – very different to Italy, but just as beautiful.

Goodbye Italy, hello UK

Bit of a shock coming from the balmy skies of Italy (although it was raining as we took off) to the grey and cooler welcome of Heathrow.

Loading our luggage into a hire car, we set off on our UK road trip, a month of covering a few few kilometres. We spent a couple of quiet days in Salisbury and its surrounds visiting a few distant relatives and getting used to no longer being part of a tour party. Back to being responsible for everything!

We finally got around to visiting the marvel that is Stonehenge. So much still unknown about this feat of engineering, but we do know it was not used for human sacrifice as people so often say! We made the decisions to become English Heritage members when we saw the cost of entry, which I highly recommend if you are going to be traveling in the UK for more than a week or so. It saved us a huge amount of money and also encouraged us to visit sites we may not have thought about ordinarily.

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A small detour to the well-preserved Dartmouth Castle was our first one of these sites. Small and fascinating with an excellent tea rooms to boot.

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Our first major stop was two nights in a  little fishing village in Cornwall called Mevagissey. A tiny town of stone rising up from minuscule cobblestone roads. No allowance for cars, or pedestrians. We watched  said pedestrians squeeze themselves into shop doorways to let cars go past on that theoretically two way road. (We got quite good at this one ourselves). Eventually we found our way up the hill to our accommodation looking out over the bay.

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The weather wasn’t great but the views and village were fantastic.

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We were in Cornwall to catch up with the boy, his girlfriend and her parents. They had managed to secure tickets to the Minack Theatre, so well-rugged up we set out almost all the way down to Lands End to one of the most unique theatres ever built. We were beginning to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn as we began to manoeuvre down  narrower and narrower lanes, no street lights or road markings and  with only one car following us. Suddenly we emerged into a packed carpark in the middle of nowhere – very surreal. We made our way down the steep stairs to see the theatre literally set into the cliffs of with the  Atlantic Ocean crashing beneath. It is a breathtaking sight.

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Built into the cliffs 1932 by Rowena Cade and her team of gardeners it remains a thriving venue for drama and music. We watching the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Society romp through The Mikado, with some brilliant changes to the songs where appropriate for 21st Centre England. Sitting huddled together drinking hot chocolates and hearing the surging surf in between the songs was a truly magical experience and well worth the long drive back.

Two days in Venice is not enough (part two)

We packed a lot into our second day in Venice. Starting with breakfast on the terrace of our hotel, looking out onto the Grand Canal, I thought I might cry at the beauty of this city. So different to anything I have ever experienced. I could have sat there all day but I’m glad I didn’t.

Venice is complicated. Obviously reliant on tourism but also being damaged by tourism. There were two enormous cruise ships looming while we were there. The problem with cruise ships is they dock, disgorge passengers for a day and then leave. They cause huge damage to the fragile buildings and eco-system but provide enormous income. Here’s a link to an interesting Guardian article published a few days after we left which sums it up very well. It’s hard  to work out the best answers as, like so many other people, we wanted to experience the magic that is Venice. How do you decide who can come and how many? At least we were staying a couple of days  and spending money outside of the set tourist attractions – I hope that’s better than staying on a floating hotel for a day, visiting St Mark’s Square and then leaving?

We spent the morning in the Doge’s Palace with the delightful Daniella as our guide. A passionate Venetian, she recreated the political and social history of Venice as we drank in the incredible art and scope  of this building. Was wonderful to cross the Bridge of Sighs after visiting the Cambridge one last year ( with its slightly less ominous tradition of crossing to sit exams).

Then off to Murano for a glassblowing demonstration and a chance to buy some of the beautiful glass on display ( some Christmas presents were sorted!).

The afternoon was spent at the beautiful island of Burano. Think of a laid-back mini Venice! Apparently Michelle Obama has been here – good choice by her. Brightly coloured houses with fabrics billowing over the front doors, tiny canals criss-crossing everywhere . Just beautiful. One of my favourite places in Italy.

Sadly the next morning was time to leave Venice and indeed Italy. I definitely want to come back and spend more time in the areas we fell in love with. We lingered over breakfast for as long as possible until we had to leave via speedboat. Wayne’s suitcase was precariously balanced on the top of a pile of others. I was convince it was going for to fly off into the sea! But we made it safely to the airport dock and far too soon were sitting on a plane to the UK. A whole new series of adventures to come.

Two days in Venice is not enough (part one)

We came across from Rapello through Verona. I liked Verona very much although passed on the option to eat horse or donkey ragu, instead enjoying an excellent seafood pasta.

After what seemed like forever we finally pulled up at the wharf and farewelled our faithful coach and awesome driver.

Like many people Venice is somewhere I have always fantastised about going. The concept of a seemingly floating city, the canals, the gondalas, the Grand Canal, the history. I was a bit worried that it would be a single idea destination – but the longer we stayed there (and it was sadly a brief visit) the more we fell under its spell.

We did the classic arrival in style via a James Bondesque speedboat to our hotel on the Grand Canal.

Old world and ornate but slightly shabby, it was a perfect place to set up base. We arrived in the late afternoon so only had time for a gondala ride on the first evening. You can see from one of the photos that we had a wee bit of a gondola traffic jam. Great fun and the perfect way to be introduced to Venice as the sun started to set. We peeled off from the group afterwards, had a pizza just off St Mark’s Square and checked out some of the amazing shops in the ever narrower side streets. It was just about closing time so we knew would would have to come back later.

Really regretting having to use my phone camera as Venice is a photographers’ paradise.  The combination of the buildings and that famous luminosity of the light takes your breath away.

 

 

 

A vineyard with serious history

The beautiful villa where Machiavelli was under house arrest, spending his time writing , fuming and plotting – now a wonderful vineyard. The house still has much still intact from Machiavelli’s time including some magnificent furniture. For us it was a chance to absorb yet more history, check out some local wine, sample some local food, and relax in the perfect afternoon sun. Not quite sure how I am going to go back to my ordinary existence!

(A very random aside. Those of you who are Black Books fans will appreciate my photo of the cheap and dusty wine! )

From Pompeii to Capri

A sensory overload already and we have only been here a few days. 

Early start onto the coach that will become very familiar over the next little while.

First stop Pompeii. A stunning day with Vesuvius looking peaceful and benign. Impossible to imagine it smoking and roaring. Today several million people live in neighboring Naples and more than 600 000 on its slopes. The trade-off for beautiful fertile soil is the possibility of another eruption. Not sure I could do it, but when the inhabitants of the region were offered relocation  in 2003 , very few people took up the offer. 

Today fortunately it slumbered on as we walked the streets of Pompeii. Theatres, shops, brothels, houses, public baths, a bustling city silenced forever; now full of curious tourists bringing an odd new life to the streets. Most of the heartbreaking plaster reconstructions of the bodies are out on loan but we did see one desperate frozen figure, head forever buried in his arms. Only too easy to imagine the terror he must have felt. 



Feeling fairly somber we headed to catch the ferry to Capri. A world apart from the tomb of Pompeii, the wharf at Capri was packed beyond belief with sunburnt and  over-tired holiday-makers returning home (some issue with the boats not sailing due to the weather, and no idea of on the part of the officials as to how to solve the ensuing chaos). Pushing our way through the crowds, in genuine danger of being pushed into the water, we clambered with relief into our open air taxi.



My own relief was short-lived when I realised we were heading up to Ana Capri, over the crazily high viaduct ( you can just make it out in the photo below, taken as I muttered ‘you have got to be joking’). Wayne reassuring me I would be fine, I reluctantly got in the car, feeling sick to my stomach.I don’t have any control over when my vertigo will strike (although I can pick when it might happen) it’s quite like a panic attack and very scary.  Fortunately for me the adrenaline rush won over vertigo. If we had stopped anywhere on the mountain I would however have been a quivering mess! Hopefully the hurriedly snapped shot and the video below give a little idea of the trip we would end up making several times up and down the road. 
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Our hotel was beautiful (arriving in one piece was a bonus) and it was a delight to jump into the swimming pool – the first of our entire trip! Gorgeous views out over to the mainland.

Capri itself was a chaotic and beautiful mix of crowds, traffic insanity, sophistication and style. Scooters, buses, three-wheeled trucks, cyclists and pedestrians all competing for the same spot on roads designed for a much less busy time.  Super yachts thrown casually into ocean moorings, designer labels sold from tiny ancient shops – I expected to see models and movie stars round every corner. We were enchanted and vaguely bemused and decided we couldn’t  imagine living here.

 Over the course of our two days we explored the island, avoided getting run over, did some shopping, ate gelato and wandered around in the rain. The sea around Capri is a combination of the most beautiful shades of blue that I could not get enough of as we enjoyed a cruise around some of the grottos and the Faraglioni despite the weather packing in. 



Then up the hill on the funicular for more spectacular vistas.



I even managed to stand right up against the railings (briefly) when we visited the Gardens of Caesar Augustus. As you can see by my smile, today was a victory over vertigo! Might seem like a small thing but I’ve had to stare down vertigo a few times this trip. The alternative is to stay down at the bottom of these climbs and miss the view, and I am determined to not resort to that!

All too soon we were throwing our bags back on the ferry and farewelling this enchanting island. Once back on dry land we were soon heading up to Umbria.