Highs and lows in London

Tudor gate at St. Bartholomew the Great.

Not surprisingly, it rained for much of my time in London, and when I went to open my umbrella, I discovered that the high winds in Portsmouth had not just blown it out, they'd pretty much completely killed it. Once my umbrella went in the trash can, it quickly became clear that I wouldn't be able to get by with just my raincoat, but fortunately, on a rainy day in London, you're never far from a place selling umbrellas.

I surveyed the rack outside a tourist shop, scanning the tourist-geared umbrellas with their twee patterns. I did not want a umbrella with a twee pattern. I hate being outside in rain enough as it is; I don't need my umbrella to make some lame attempt to cheer me up. I scanned a bit further, and found a nice black umbrella, wrapped tight in a case. I paid, exited the shop, removed the plastic, and encountered one of the lowest points of my travels, right up there with the food poisoning. When I unwrapped the umbrella, I discovered that it was not, in fact, plain black, but instead boldly emblazoned with "I Y London."

Gaaaaah. It felt like a moment in some sort of London-based sitcom. Except now I was either stuck with this touron umbrella for the rest of my trip, or I would have to buy a new umbrella. I couldn't quite stomach buying a new umbrella when I had a perfectly functional one, but I found myself using it only in the absolute worst rain for the rest of the trip, starting with the Shakespeare and Dickens London walk I went on.

The walk felt long and slow to develop to me, partially because I was not about to bust out old "I Y London" in front of all those other tourists, so I spent much of it trying to burrow deeper into my raincoat, but mostly because the presence of actual old buildings at the beginning of the walk were few and far between. After the easy history of Portsmouth, I wanted to see some semblance of history, not just leave everything to the imagination. Fortunately, the buildings got older as we got near Farringdon tube station, most notably the Tudor gate at St. Bartholomew the Great, a very cool church I wanted to come back and explore later but didn't quite make it to.

Main entrance to the Old Operating Theatre Museum. Yes. Really.

After the chilly walk, I worked my over to Bankside, first heading to the Old Operating Theatre Museum, perhaps the oddest and creepiest museum I've ever been to. You reach it by climbing a ridiculously narrow spiral staircase, sure the whole time that there is no way this is the main entrance. Through a door into a shop that looks like a dollar store has vomited all of its slightly science-related objects along the wall, and it is clear there is indeed no other entrance. Hand the woman at the counter your 5 pounds 80, and walk up a little ramp to a dark, wood-beamed garret, filled with hanging herbs, apothecary's tools, and display cases crammed with all manner of medical obsolescence.

Herb Garret.

In the 18th century, this space was indeed used an apothecary's shop. Beyond it, after you pass a few more display cases detailing important advances in surgery, simple things we take for granted like anesthetic and sterile instruments, is the main attraction, a 19th century operating theatre that lay forgotten in the roof of a church for many years — the cause of the unorthodox entrance. I'm not sure what was creepier, realizing that medical students would crowd into the theatre to watch surgeons perform grisly surgeries without anesthetic, or the fact that such a large space could sit entirely forgotten and undiscovered for so long.

Old Operating Theatre. Yes, the operating table is made of wood.
Got germs?

After the operating theatre, I still wasn't quite done for the day with crawling around in strange places — I had one more ship to check out on the trip, the replica of the Golden Hind, the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world during Elizabethan times. After HMS Victory, the Golden Hind was shockingly small, and didn't have nearly as much to offer by way of exploration or explanation.

Replica of the Golden Hind.

Still, it was interesting to think of Drake and his men circling the globe in such a tiny ship, though, and downright preposterous on the gun deck, which couldn't have been more than four feet high. I crab-shuffled my way along, wondering how the men could have possibly fought the guns or slept down there without succumbing to claustrophobia.

After the Golden Hind, I went to the nearby Anchor Bankside for an early-dinner pint and steak and ale pie that ranged somewhere between mediocre (filling) and downright bad (crust). It was quite a letdown after the pubs of Portsmouth, but at least it did kill some time before I went over to St. Paul's Cathedral for Evensong. I'd seen a lot of cathedrals during my first two times in England, including St. Paul's, and didn't really feel like yet another cathedral tour. At the same time, I remembered the soaring space of St. Paul's from my first trip and wanted to revisit it in some way, so I decided to attend an Evensong service — open and free to tourists.

It actually ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. The other tourists were restless at first, whispering, letting kids run wild, clomping around in heavy shoes, and even, in one case, wheeling a suitcase across the black-and-white checkerboard floor. But eventually those who decided Evensong wasn't really their scene wandered out, and not long after that the choir got to the featured song, "Lamentations of Jeremiah," by Thomas Tallis. It might sound like I'm exaggerating when I say it was the most singularly beautiful thing I've ever heard, but I can't remember ever being moved to tears by a song before. Certainly, it wasn't just about the music. Sitting there, I felt little in that cavernous space, the gild-detailed detailed ceiling far above and the mammoth chandelier providing much of the light as the gloom outside got even darker into evening, the prayer candles flickering out in front of me, the faint scent of smoke in the air, and that beautiful music all around. I realized there's something to be said for tradition in church, for a little pomp and circumstance, for Tallis in a magnificent church instead of Christian rock in a bland megachurch amphitheater.

Although I'd been dropping my bag in any number of left luggage locations to sightsee more freely, on this Wednesday night, I was completely homeless, due to take the Caledonian Sleeper to Edinburgh later in the evening. Fortunately, though, I wasn't without a relaxing space to retreat to — my first-class ticket on the sleeper train, necessary for a guaranteed private berth, entitled me to use of the Virgin Trains first class lounge at Euston station. This was the first time I'd traveled first class, anywhere, so it was fun to see what the lounge offered: ridiculously inexpensive drinks, mod chairs, a gigantic shower with L'Occitane products, and extra-flaky wireless internet access.

Virgin Trains first class lounge at Euston Station.

When they announced my train was boarding, I headed down, only to find out about the previously blogged Glasgow/Edinburgh switcheroo. I tried not to let it bother me while I was on the train, though — there wasn't really anything I could do about it until we were dumped out in Glasgow the next day. So I headed to the lounge car for a little whisky and a snack. As part of the train disruptions, they didn't have any hot food, so I went for an egg and watercress sandwich, which might be my favorite British food not involving fried cod, and a scotch whisky that one of my fellow lounge car-goers recommended. Interestingly, although as a tourist in Scotland I was always drawn to whisky with complex, authentic-sounding names I couldn't pronounce or get in the U.S., all of the actual Scottish people in the lounge car seemed to be drinking Johnnie Walker Black.

I sipped my whisky and chatted with two people who were originally from Aberdeen. As is, apparently, Annie Lennox. One of them asked me if Annie Lennox had made it "across the pond". I was like, really, Annie Lennox? The Eurythmics? Really? And yet, the British tabloids were filled with mystery celebrities, obviously important there, who had definitely not made it across the pond.

I left the lounge car fairly early —at best, even if I dropped right off to sleep, I'd be lucky to get seven hours. It would be worth it for the extra time I'd gain in Edinburgh (even with the Glasgow detour I still arrived before 9 a.m.), and the cost savings of my sleeper ticket versus a night in a hotel plus a day train. My sleeper compartment was tiny, but novel to me, a narrow bed on one side of the long wall, and a counter on the short wall opposite the door, part of which flipped up to reveal the sink. Unlike Amtrak's roomettes and bedrooms, these compartments are permanently configured for sleeping only. And although it took me awhile to drop off, lying perpendicular to the train's motion, I did get a decent night's sleep.

I can't help but think now, if some of the solution to the old, "the train takes longer," problem could be solved by well-timed sleeper trains. I realize that the Acela from Washington to Boston, at six hours and 45 minutes, isn't an option that's going to beat flying for everyone. But if they could take a normal-speed train, and maybe even slow it down some more, so that you had a nice nightcap at Union Station, walked on to your train, got eight hours of sleep, and woke up in Boston, well, you tell me how that wouldn't beat flying.

London pics are all part of the bigger London set. Caledonian sleeper pics are part of my trains and stations set.


Surprising Portsmouth

Portsmouth's signature Spinnaker Tower, and the masts of HMS Warrior.

When I left Dublin, I was feeling pretty travel-weary, and I was starting to get concerned. This was the first time I'd taken a whole two weeks off for travel. Prior to this trip, my longest vacation had been a 9-day cruise, and there's a big difference between being shuttled around on a cruise ship and an itinerary that totaled out at six airports and 15 train stations in those two weeks. I wasn't really homesick — just cranky, tired of transit and other tourists — but I was starting to wonder if the second week was such a good idea.

London, so well sign-posted.

Getting back in to London, with its easy-to-understand Tube map and plethora of sign posts, helped a lot. I dropped my luggage at mammoth Waterloo station, and headed over to the Tate Britain, one of the museums I still hadn't seen in London. I was there, mostly, for the museum's large collection of J.M.W. Turner's work. Turner's paintings originally interested me because of the subject matter (he painted a lot of naval scenes from the Napoleonic Wars), but that's not what I've come to love best about his work. Turner's work is never quite concrete enough for you to feel like you're there, when you look at a painting. But occasionally, looking at the best of them, you feel instead like your soul was there. It was soothing, shuffling from painting to painting, and it was a great way to recharge.

After retrieving my bag at Waterloo, I took a crowded train out to Portsmouth. I won't go back into my previously documented obsession with sailing warships; suffice to say I'd run out to Portsmouth on a day trip during my last time in London to see HMS Victory, and wanted to go again and have a more leisurely trip. It's not a common destination for American tourists, the sort of place that merits a page or two in a UK guidebook, a place I wasn't entirely sure how I was going to fill my two days and three nights.

As it turned out, Portsmouth surprised me, charmed me, fed me amazingly well, and wiped out any remaining traces of travel weariness in some of my favorite travel days ever. Tourists, especially Americans, were few and far between, and for all the talk of the friendliness of Irish people, it was the people of Portsmouth I found most willing to strike up a conversation, curious about a rare American. It's a city where the past is everywhere, waiting for you to discover — the old fortifications along the water you can wander along and through, the fort built by Henry VIII, the tunnel Admiral Lord Nelson went through en route to HMS Victory before the battle of Trafalgar, the cobblestone streets and warm old pubs. It's still the home of the British fleet, but in places it's easy enough to imagine it as it was when Britannia ruled the waves, drunken sailors and officers in their best uniforms walking the cobblestone streets, the masts of dozens of ships filling the sky.

The beach, and some of the old fortifications.

By the time I got to Portsmouth, I was feeling back up to eating full pub meals, and I'm so glad I recovered in time, because Portsmouth has a ridiculous collection of beautiful historic pubs. Many offered bed and breakfast accommodations, and it was above one of these, The Duke of Buckingham, that I stayed, in a tiny little room. It was in another, The Ship Anson, that I confirmed the best fish and chips ever are to be found in Portsmouth. I'd eaten there for lunch on my previous trip to Portsmouth, and remembered the fish and chips as having been completely mind-blowing. Two years later, and many other plates of fish and chips at many other establishments later, I couldn't help but wonder — The Ship Anson's still stood out, but was I artificially inflating the meal in my mind?

Fish and chips at The Ship Anson.

So I ate there again, and ordered the fish and chips. Unlike other pubs, The Ship Anson is quiet about its fish and chips. There are no signs outside claiming their fish and chips superiority, nothing about them being "famous" in the menu. They're listed there among everything else, and it was by sheer chance that I'd ordered them the first time. My fish and chips came, looking pretty magnificent on the plate. Then I took my first bite, and confirmed that there had been absolutely no artificial inflation — the batter is perfectly crispy, just slightly sweet, and coating a mammoth piece of perfect cod. The chips were as good as chips get, but believe me, this is all about the fish, the fish so gigantic I thought I'd never eat the whole thing, and so good I actually did. I took a picture midway through, to try to capture how good the fish itself was, and a concerned waitress asked me if something was wrong. No, I told her, these were the best fish and chips I'd ever had. She looked totally surprised. Ship Anson, don't be so surprised — you do indeed have the best fish and chips ever. You should toot your own horn a little more. And open an outpost in Silver Spring.

HMS Victory.

Not surprisingly, when I wasn't wandering along the water or consuming fish and chips and hand-pulled cask ale, I was usually at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Much of it I'd already seen (and thoroughly photographed), but that didn't stop me from working my way through HMS Victory at a snail's pace, taking more pictures and video, and breathing in that unique scent of a historic ship, some combination of tar, wood, and maybe a trace of old spiced rum. I've visited both the USS Constitution and HMS Victory, and while I greatly appreciate that Constitution is still kept in floating shape (Victory is permanently dry-docked), I've felt rushed on the ship's tours. Victory, if you visit during busier times, is on a free-flow system, where you can go through the ship — all the way down into the hold — at your own pace. Unfortunately, busier times also meant that the ship was overrun with obnoxious French students, which I didn't quite understand — Victory pretty much represents the downfall of the French empire, and doesn't seem like the greatest choice for a French field trip. But they weren't enough to ruin my enjoyment of the ship and dockyard.

I also saw the D-Day Museum, after a long walk through the heaviest wind I've ever encountered in my life. There were times where I struggled to just to stay standing, and yet, instead of being frustrated, I was grinning, amused by it all, completely refreshed. The D-Day Museum itself felt a little small, but it did give more context on the history of Portsmouth; I realized that many historic buildings that might otherwise have been preserved, and could have fleshed out the Old Portsmouth area, were flattened by bombs during World War II.

Spice Island Inn and Still & West in Old Portsmouth.

There's still more than enough history to go around, though, more than enough brilliant pubs, more than enough museum exhibits to look at and old ships to climb through, more than enough lovely walkways along the water. Part of me wants to trumpet the charms of Portsmouth to anyone willing to listen. Another part of me wants to keep it secret, to never let American tourists know about it, to remain a place I can go back to again in the future, when I once again feel the desire to take a break from all things American. But then, in this age when undiscovered places have been discovered, overrun, and abused, perhaps the simple truth is that Americans aren't interested in going to Portsmouth. They should be, and yet I'm glad they're not.

My Portsmouth city and Historic Dockyard photos and video are in two different sets, because I took a whole lot of pictures.


Onward to Dublin, and frustration

Ross Castle.

Let us just fast-forward through my Thursday in Ireland, which I spent alternately throwing up and curled up in bed, miserable. The group was going to Cork that day, but instead of Cork, I managed to go downstairs to the kitchen to gag down toast. Not really the way you want to spend your travels.

By Friday I was feeling not great, but good enough to go out and see something. Fortunately, Ross Castle, in Killarney National Park, was just down the road from our house, and so Katie, Min, and I walked down to check it out. The castle itself was beautiful from the outside, and although they didn't allow you to take pictures on the tour inside, it was still a great experience. The main tower of the castle has been completely restored using techniques of the time, so you got a more complete idea of how the family in the castle lived and defended themselves.

For defense, there were the narrow slit windows, first for arrows and then later for muskets, and an even smaller musket hole pointed at the main door. Our guide showed us the workings of one of the doors — double-planked, both horizontally and vertically, and held together with manual metal rivets that would have originally had a far pointier end on the intruders' side, so that they couldn't have thrown their bodies at it. The weakest part of the door was the wooden cylinder that went up into the ceiling and allowed the door to turn, but that portion was hidden from the potential intruders by an archway. I've seen lots of archways before and never realized they had a practical purpose.

The most striking thing about life in the castle was the complete lack of privacy the family and their servants had. The family spent most of their time in one main room, and all slept together in the same bedroom, saving their great hall for entertaining guests. Only the patriarch had a small office, used for managing business and settling disputes. Servants had it even worse, crammed together in one tiny room with a loft-like area to sleep even more people, a space that would have been extraordinarily dim. Still, they would have been warm and protected, which was about as good as they could ask for. Even the toilet — a long stone seat with an opening down to the ground below —was long because multiple people would have used it at the same time. Going through the castle, you really realize what a luxurious "need" privacy is when compared to things like food, shelter, and safety, the main priorities in an era when life expectancy was only 30 to 35 years.

The great hall was most impressive, not surprising since it was designed to impress guests, with its restored high, vaulted wooden ceiling, made of interconnecting planks held together with wooden pins, a key part of the authentic restoration of the castle. Like most castles in Ireland, when a roof tax was applied to any home someone owned that was not their primary home, Ross Castle's roof was burned off, contributing to its rapid deterioration and the need for the extensive restoration that went into the castle. You could see the authenticity as well in the bedroom, where an arch was woven — the weaving still clearly visible in the finished ceiling — then a stone arch placed above it and plastered, the weaving acting as a sort of scaffolding and mold.

Ross Castle felt much more authentic than Leeds Castle, which I'd seen on my last trip to England. Leeds Castle was redecorated in 1926, in a French style featuring lots of ostentatious bits, and while that was interesting to see, you knew it wasn't the way the castle had looked when it was a castle, rather than just a residence that happened to be in a castle. Ross Castle gives you that important context, and I think now any castle I see from here on out, I'll be able to think about how it would have looked.

Ross Castle was all I managed to see on Friday, and on Saturday I had an early train in to Dublin, so that I could spend an afternoon there and at least see a bit of the city before my Sunday morning flight back to London. I'll admit that going in, Dublin was a place I felt like I should see, but there wasn't much there I had a pressing desire to see. As I came in on the train, I was already looking thinking forward to my time in England and Scotland, so I might not have given Dublin a fair shake. But it definitely was not my favorite city on the trip.

Trinity College.

I wanted to swing a couple big tourist attractions in the little time that I had, and I started with Trinity College, which had lovely grounds sided by old buildings (it reminded me of Harvard in that way), and was home to the Book of Kells and its prefacing museum exhibits. I'd read "How the Irish Saved Civilization," and having that background was important in really appreciating what I saw, because the Book of Kells itself isn't super-exciting if you go in with no context. You see a few pages, and get a sense of how exceedingly intricate the work was, with its vivid colors, particularly the shocking lapis blue. If you're like the woman with the obnoxious Boston accent viewing it at the same time as me, though, loudly exclaiming about how small and detailed it was, and pretty clearly trying to talk herself into believing the cost of admission was worth it to see this old book, you're probably going to feel ripped off.

Any qualms I personally had about the cost went away as soon as I stepped in to the college's Long Room, also included in the admission price. I entered and my jaw was literally agape. As the name indicates, the room is long, and tall — a healthy two stories, capped with an arched wooden ceiling that makes it seem even taller. The paneling is dark, rich brown wood, elaborately carved in places, simple in others. As I came in I could see a twisting wrought iron staircase leading up to the second level, but in each U-shaped section of shelves, there were also two rickety-looking ladders leading up to the second level. At the end point of each section of shelves was a bust of a philosopher — some ancient, some relatively modern. And, of course, there were the books. The Long Room houses the college's collection of old books, so very many of them — worn, leather-bound books in various shades of brown, tan, red, navy, in various widths and heights. The whole room smelled of them, a little musty, but a good musty. It's a bibliophile's dream, a place to soak in the atmosphere, the floorboards creaking under the feet of the people around you. Sadly, though, like the Book of Kells, no photos were allowed here.

After Trinity College, I decided to try going to the Museum of Archeology & History. But Dublin's signposting is sporadic at best, the equivalent of someone pointing lazily in a direction and saying, "it's over there." I had maps to get to the museum, but with a large museum, maps can only get you so far before you need signs directing you to an entrance, and there weren't any — there was just a general sign about the museum's exhibits on the fence outside what may or may not have been the museum. Finally, I opened a wooden door along said fence, and was surprised to see an equally surprised guard looking up from his magazine. He recovered to tell me that whatever museum his gate led to was closed. It may or may not have been the Museum of Archeology & History, as there seemed to be some other museum with a similar name that was also in this area.

Flower sales on Grafton Street.

By this point, I had walked quite far on my bum foot and wasn't really in the mood for going to a museum anymore, so I gave up and headed over to Grafton Street instead. I figured I'd go for a tour of the old Jameson distillery later in the afternoon, but first I was going to need some lunch, or the complimentary whiskey on an empty (and still cranky) stomach was going to be bad news. Grafton Street was teeming with people, and by people, I mean the types of slow-walking, gawking tourists known as tourons. It was difficult to walk down the street, with buskers every 50 feet or so, drawing huge crowds, some of them quite talented, some not, like the guy making a marionette dance — badly — to Daft Punk. I took a quick look at St. Stephen's Green — on par with other large cities' public parks and gardens I've seen, and then headed over to Davy Byrnes, of "Ulysses" fame, a pub that owes its success to a book most people I know are either afraid to read, or have read and hated. I guess it works for them, though. My brain really, really wanted oysters, but my stomach opted for steak and chips, and my stomach had absolute veto power at this point. The steak and chips were pretty mediocre, but were also the first non-toast/crackers/eggs/potato chips meal of substance I'd eaten since getting food poisoning, and I kept it down, so I guess it was a success as far as my stomach was concerned.

The Brazen Head.

I took a roundabout route to the old Jameson distillery so that I could stop in to the Brazen Head pub for a half pint, just to check out the pub, which is Ireland's oldest, established in 1198. Incongruously holding out amidst apartment buildings that must have grown up around it, the Brazen Head seems completely out of place, but once you walk into its courtyard, you can definitely feel the history. In the bar room I went into, Spanish men at a table with two built-in taps (Guinness & Carlsburg), were partaking of this beer buffet, watching soccer and eventually belting out "Smoke on de Water," accompanied by some sort of cheap, pointy-80s-hair-band-shaped guitar. The more normal regular clientèle at the bar were nice, though, and I chatted with one guy about his travels in the United States. He really enjoyed the museums of Washington DC, and also liked Boston — not so much New York. I was glad to see my opinion of these three cities validated by someone not from the United States.

(Fake) mash cooking at the old Jameson distillery.

When I finally got there, after once again being mis-directed by the Dublin signposting, the "Jameson Experience," aka the tour of the old Jameson distillery, was pretty much like walking through a Jameson commercial. The actual workings of the distillery have long since been removed, and been replaced by scaled-down replicas just large enough to make tourists feel like they're seeing something. I do feel like I have a better idea of how whiskey is made now, so it was worth going, but I definitely don't feel like I was on a real distillery tour.

After I left the old Jameson distillery, I went back to O'Connell Street to snag my bag from a left luggage place and take a bus to the airport hotel I was staying at for the night. By this point, I'd walked all over the central part of the city, had my bad foot bashed by a stroller, and was feeling pretty exhausted and done with Dublin. I'd done my research on the bus I needed to take, and the stop I needed to get off on, but when I got on the crowded double-decker bus, I had to take a seat up at the top, and realized I couldn't really follow where we were going. After a period of pretty serious agitation, the bus cleared out enough that I could go back downstairs and ask the driver about the stop. He was very kind, and let me know when my stop was.

It was only when I got off the bus that I realized it was not actually my stop. Google maps was either wrong about the location of the hotel, or the location of the bus stop, and as a result, my attempts to match the two up did not work. I'd thought I'd seen the hotel that was supposed to be near mine at the previous stop (in hindsight, I should have just followed my gut and gotten off there), so I trudged back down the street to the previous stop. My foot was pretty well throbbing by the time I got in to my hotel room, and I was definitely done with Dublin.

Now that I'm not in the midst of that "ARGH! Get me OUT of this city!" frustration, I can look back a little more objectively and think about why I was so frustrated with Dublin. A huge part of it was the terrible job the city does of signposting its attractions. But I think an even larger part was the plethora of American tourists everywhere — their big buses spewing exhaust along the streets, their stupid stroller antics, their loud voices in quiet places, their sheer numbers. I deal with enough tourists living near Washington DC, and at home I'm much more patient with them, willing to take a picture or give directions. But when I'm travelling, I want to get away from all of that, and all of them, and Dublin definitely was not the place to do that.

More Dublin pictures are up at my Flickr site.


Galway: Worth a four-hour bus ride

Spanish Arch.

Ireland isn't all about beautiful scenery. In fact, usually when I said I was going to Ireland, anyone I talked to was pretty much guaranteed to mention Guinness in the next sentence. And yes, I was planning to partake in my share of Guinness and pub food on this trip.

By the end of my first two days there, I'd had my first draft Guinness (delicious, as expected, and smoother than in the U.S.) and a delicious Irish stew, but our group had also discovered that most pubs closed ridiculously early in Killarney in the off-season. When the three of us who were either brave or crazy enough to undertake a four-hour bus ride to Galway set off for there on Tuesday, we were more interested in seeing the city that had charmed us in pictures. What we ended up finding, though, was a place ripe with charming pubs that stayed open much later than Killarney.

Quay's Pub.

We started with a lunch so late it was nearly dinnertime, at Quay's Pub. This was one of those enormous-but-still-cozy pubs, winding through multiple rooms with a maze of stairs and bars and balconies, warm wood paneling, and worn furniture. We worked our way down to the dining room and ordered, among other deliciousness, a dozen amazingly fresh, super-briny oysters. This was a first oyster experience for my friends Min and Katie, so I was glad they had great ones to try, and it was fun to be the oyster pusher this time. Time will tell if I've created any oyster monsters, as my friends Melissa and Eileen did when they talked me into my first oyster.

Delicious Quay's Pub oysters.

After the Quays, we walked around amongst the pubs and shops, and along the water by the Spanish Arch, snapping pictures as usual, and killing time before meeting up with Katie's friend Luke, and his friend Tom, at a different pub, Naughtons.

Naughtons might well be the quintessential Irish pub. Dimly lit, worn by years of drinkers, with a wall of whiskey behind the bar. We snagged a little paint-chipped snug and settled in for an evening of fun conversation and great beer (I tried a Galway Hooker Ale, which was quite yummy). At some point a music session started up in one of the pub's other rooms — a bunch of young guys, just sitting around a little table crammed with Guinness glasses, playing away. It added a whole other level to the atmosphere, and it was tough not to tap your foot, the music was so good.

It was great fun chatting with Luke and Tom, too. Ireland is a country I think Americans have built up a lot of stereotypes about — many of them stemming from St. Patty's Day — and talking to people from Ireland is really the only way to find out what they really enjoy, and what they're really concerned about. We also learned that the Irish think we have even more stereotypes than we do — for example, that we think everyone in Ireland says "to be sure, to be sure." None of the Americans at the table had ever heard of that.

It was especially good to talk to fun, normal Irish people, because we seemed to have a disproportionate number of encounters with crazy people on the trip. There was the guy in a Killarney pub with the ZZ Top beard who sat down at our table and started talking nonsense about things like mermaids. At some point he decided that I either worked for the KGB or the CIA, probably the result of my attempts to surreptitiously take a picture of a guy across the bar who had a super mullet. All too blurry, sadly. He then proceeded to go off on a lengthy diatribe about how terrible the United States is that seemed to be some sort of redux of the Iran Contra scandal.

As off as that guy was (and as uncomfortable as he made us), the craziest person I saw was actually on the bus ride home from Galway. A man a few seats up from us was reading the newspaper, quite normally. But I happened to look up when he got to a page with a picture of a dolphin on it, when he reached out, and caressed the dolphin on the newsprint. Then he pulled his hand back and WAVED AT IT, and returned to normally reading the newspaper. It was quite impressive. I mean, I ride public transit most days of the week, and I've never seen anything remotely that crazy.

I don't doubt that most people in Ireland are perfectly sane, non-newspaper-dolphin-petting people. We definitely spent one of our most fun evenings of the trip drinking and chatting with two of them, and we all agreed the bus ride had been worth it.

All of my Galway pictures are posted at Flickr, although sadly I was not in picture-taking or video-shooting mode at Naughtons.


Two excellent ways to see a beautiful country

Killarney National Park

So, logically, after travel snafus, my next blog post should be about my first few days in Ireland. But to be honest I've been having a difficult time deciding what to write. I mean, it's like, BREAKING NEWS: IRELAND STILL BREATHTAKINGLY BEAUTIFUL. I'm sure you're shocked. If you've seen any pictures or any movies set in Ireland, you've seen some of the rolling green hills, the fluffy little sheep, and the jagged cliffs spritzed with white frothy foam. That was what I saw, except in person.

I do, though, think we picked two very good ways to see Ireland's countryside. On Sunday, my first full day in the country, we did a two-hour horse ride through Killarney National Park. Now, up until I went to college, I rode horses nearly every day (at least during the warmer months) for about 10 years. I was in the best shape of my life. Going into this trip, by comparison, I had been mostly sitting around, resting my swollen foot, my muscles growing flabbier and flabbier. Things came back pretty quickly once I got on my horse, O'Sheen*, but my experience made me attempt to use muscles I hadn't used since high school, plus the more recently flabby ones. So for many days after the ride it was my sore legs that slowed me down, not my foot. I really need to stop doing things at the outset of my trips that ruin my legs for much of the rest of the trip.

I really did enjoy riding again, though, and horseback was a perfect way to see Killarney National Park. We covered a lot more ground than we would have walking, and it just felt like a more classic way to get around. Our group had a variety of experience and liking-of-horses levels, but by the end of the ride everyone was trotting quite nicely, and the two of us with more experience got to canter a few times — the last time through a muddy lane where the stocky Irish horses' heavy hooves splashed us thoroughly, but the mud only made it more fun.

Along the ride we saw people walking, and quite a bit of wildlife, including some different breeds of deer that looked more the size of caribou. Most impressive, though, were the mountains, Macgillycuddy's Reeks, rolling soft and green off in the distance, down into the silvery-blue lakes.

The beauty we saw in Killarney National Park was just a sneak preview for our tour Monday of the Dingle Peninsula. Our group size — 11 people — was once again advantageous here, as my friend Meghan was able to book us a sleek little private bus and driver for less per person than it would have cost us to each book a seat on a big bus tour. It's a good thing we weren't on a big bus tour, either, because our crew likes to take pictures, and we made a LOT of photo stops.

Taking so many pictures on our Dingle tour.

Eventually our driver realized that our camera fingers got itchy at the sight of any substantial cliffs, charming beaches or particularly cute sheep, and started stopping without even asking. He'd pull over, and say, in his thick Irish accent: "Get off my friiiiiickin' bus!" We all agreed that that would never, in fact, get old.

The photo stops also never got old, mostly because as we drove along from Inch Strand, through Dingle town, and out to Sleigh Head, around every bend, the scenery just got more and more spectacular — rolling hills broken into rough rectangles by stone fences, 4,000-year-old beehive huts still standing on windswept hillsides, daredevil sheep grazing where one false step would send them tumbling into the jewel blue ocean, and, of course, the cliffs.

Sleigh Head

I think that's really all I can say about my first two days in Ireland. I mean, I guess I did manage to write a post, but really, this one's all about the pictures. Here they are, for Killarney and Dingle. And here's a bit of video from our horse ride:

* I'm probably spelling that wrong, but I don't think the horse will mind.


Okay, so I took a cab this time

Paddington Station in London. More train and station pictures.

Although you wouldn't expect it from this oft-neglected blog, I just got back from two weeks in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Over the course of my last big trip, I turned Channel Six into a travel blog and managed a post most days. This time, I knew my internet access was going to be spotty and, well, I wanted to maximize my precious Europe time and save the posts for back at home. So NOW it's time for some trip blogging.

As the title of this post would indicate, after last year's public-transit-all-the-way New England trip, this time I ended up having to take a cab. Two cabs, actually. On my New England trip, I felt like everything came together perfectly, like I was just executing my travel plans, one leg of the trip after another. I might have been lucky. I mean, I planned an entire trip around Amtrak and didn't have any problems.

This time, things did not go according to plan. A lot.

I should have known when I had an entire middle row to myself on my redeye British Airways flight over. As I stretched out for some true jet-lag-preventing sleep, in retrospect I can see that I was sucking up all of my logistical karma. But I didn't think about such things.

I landed in London, saw a quick sight (the Roman ampitheatre ruins in the basement of Guildhall Art Gallery), and then headed to St. Pancras train station for a train up to London Luton airport, for my flight to Ireland. I was on the train when they announced that they were at a stand; there'd been a person killed by a train on the route we were supposed to take. I had just read "Waiting on a Train," and I should have known we were screwed. Instead of figuring out an alternate plan, though, I listened to the employees at the station when they said it would be another half hour, another 40 minutes.

I'd given myself a ton of time to get to Luton, but eventually it was starting to run out. A cab from St. Pancras would have been hugely expensive — and might not have made it in time with traffic, since Luton is so far from the city it probably shouldn't have "London" in its name. I asked at the information desk if there was another way to get there. Go over to King's Cross, and take the train to Hitchin, they said, there's a bus that goes from there. And how much longer was the train from St. Pancras going to be? They didn't know, but it could be another couple hours.

Hitchin it was, then. Fortunately King's Cross station is right next to St. Pancras. I should mention at this point that I was wearing an air cast, the result of a mysteriously swollen foot that my podiatrist never quite came up with a diagnosis for. But I still managed to book it over to King's Cross, inquire there about the train to Hitchin, and get on. At this point, I figured I had about a 50/50 chance of making my flight. I sat through about a 45-minute train ride, tense, staring out the window and willing the stops to go by faster, not sure what this mystery bus situation was going to be like when I got there.

But when I got out at Hitchin, there was a cab stand. For once in my travels, I said screw the bus, and asked the first driver in line how much and how far. 24 pounds and 20 minutes. I made my flight to Ireland's Kerry Airport, and in fact took another cab (this one planned) to the house in Killarney my friends and I were renting for the week.

That didn't end up being the only logistical problem I had during the trip. I used London as my transportation base, and I was supposed to take the Caledonian Sleeper train from there to Edinburgh. Except when the train car attendant asked me when I wanted my breakfast, we had a conversation that went a bit like this:

Me: Well, let's see, we get in to Edinburgh at...
Attendant (in heavy Scottish accent): Yuuuur nawt gowin to Edinburrrahhh. Yuuuur gowin ta Glaaasgoow.
Me: !!!!!

Turns out the terrible weather that had hit Edinburgh the in the days before my trip up there had prevented the Edinburgh sleeper train from making it back. So they were putting everyone on the Glasgow train instead. All we had to do was take a train to Edinburgh from Glasgow. From a different train station. With no maps or human guidance.

The fact that I'm back here to write this blog post would indicate that I did manage to get from Glasgow to Edinburgh. I did so using a combination of following people with luggage, using Glasgow's well-placed maps, and The Force. I should note that The Force is pretty strong in me. I use it every time I need to find my way out of Baltimore.

There were other problems, too, aside from occasionally needing to wear the air cast when my foot got bad. There was the sinus infection I started the trip with (the best thing I've ever done to prepare for a trip was ask my doctor for a just-in-case Z pack prescription). There was the two-hour delay on my flight home to BWI airport that pushed me onto a midnight train home (by the time I stepped into my condo I had been up almost 24 hours straight and my eyelids were about ready to stick to my eyeballs, but I had managed to avoid a third cab and the ensuing environmental guilt).

And there was the food poisoning. Yes, food poisoning. A friend and I both came down with it after (we think) some bad fish at a pub on the Dingle peninsula. I ended up missing our group's day trip to Cork, and learning that nothing is worse when it comes up than black pudding. Nothing. After a night of throwing up, and a day of lying in bed feeling miserable, I felt well enough to keep going and seeing things. And after a few days, I was back to gargantuan pub meals, including the best fish and chips in the history of fish and chips. But more on that later.

It might seem like a real downer to make my first post about all of the things that went wrong on this trip. But there was a positive that came out of everything — I learned that it can feel far more empowering when you find your way out of a jam than when you execute a perfect plan. Many of the times things went wrong, I was by myself, and I had to figure out what to do myself, and I did it.

As it turns out, that's a pretty exhilarating feeling. Plus, it's a lot more exciting to use The Force to get to Edinburgh than out of Baltimore.

London Tube train coming in.