Friday, August 23, 2013

A Leisurely Sunday (Monday) Drive in Ireland

Monday and Tuesday, Sheila and Graham took us on a mega tour of southwestern Ireland. Mercifully, they did all of the driving, so they get first picture.

The goal was to avoid the tourists -- and the tour buses -- which meant harrowing narrowing and twisty roads that made the ones outside of Skradrin, Croatia look like highways in comparison. I don't know about you, but I'm not a big fan of blind, one-lane roads with crazy European drivers speeding at you suddenly from the other direction, all the while trying to process being on the left side. I will never again call a road in the U.S narrow. And these hazards don't even include the sheep -- or, as happened to us at one point, taking a wrong turn and ending up on an even smaller and unnamed road along the coast. These pictures don't do it justice. It's hard to stop for a picture on a blind narrow curve surrounded by tall hedges or mountain pass cliffs.

The payoff, however, was some incredible and unmolested scenery.

At one point, we thought we had brilliantly stumbled onto a Tim Hortons,

but the place only sold TH coffee. We did find the best-ever view at a tea house, though.

Here's a sampling.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Sweet Cove(s) of Cork

For once J has no choice but to indulge my love of the Pogues. I've never been a huge fan of the traditional song The Irish Rover (let's call the Pogues version of it my 81st favorite Pogues song), but it does begin with a reference to County Cork, where we have taken shelter from the August cold and rain ... and you have to love a young Shane McGowan -- in a suit! -- singing with the bearded dude from the Dubliners. Plus, you have to love his teeth captured in the frame below.

It's been a little disheartening after a couple days in Ireland to learn that Shane McGowan is just a well-liked and -known musician but not, in fact, a bona fide national hero. I mean, seriously, the tacky Irish-themed tourist gift shops don't sell Pogues albums along side "Celtic Dulcimer Ballads," "Irish Drinking Songs," "Emerald Isle Rain Sounds," and many more examples of why the CD is dead? So much for the Irish saving Western Civilization.

But at least they've joined what's left of it, the crash of the Celtic Tiger notwithstanding (wow those are some big empty new houses on the coast). J and I got to Dublin Sunday night, and in time-honored tradition, our first task was to find a pub away from the tourist area we could call our own. I love Germany, and man did we have a great time in Slovenia and Croatia, but it took all of 5 minutes to feel like we were back home (even though we aren't). The menu for this random, average-looking pub far enough down the street from Trinity College to escape the tourists was on a BLACKBOARD. God bless them. And, dear and patient reader, I can finally announce that the long wait is over. Yes, Rob, Carlsberg is distressingly big in Ireland, but this average and random pub had about 10 beers on tap, including an honest-to-goodness LOCAL CRAFT IPA, Gallway Hooker to be exact. (Irish or India for the "I," who cares.) It was one of the best beers of my life, equivalent to the one that launched this blog.

And in the please-take-a-hint-Germany-it's-possible-to-borrow-from-another-county's-beer-culture-and-do-it-well category, J had a damn good Irish-made German Weis as well -- Friar Weisse.

This stopover in Dublin was just a prelude. The next morning, after discovering the joys of a "junior" Irish breakfast (no less than four pieces of meat, if you include the blood pudding), we enjoyed our throwback, no-GPS road trip to Cork with Trevor and Aurelie.

We liked Cork a lot. It's not huge but quite vibrant and still a major working port.

Although the Church of Ireland only holds sway among 2.9% of the population, it has a cool cathedral, in the dunce-cap style of a lot of churches around here,

including Catholic ones, like Trinity Church

The Catholics have a nice cathedral, too.

Unfortunately we arrived at the Butter Museum after it had closed, so no pictures there.

Still in indulge-our-pent-up-cravings mode, J had a "classic American" burger at Burger Bistro. While I might quibble with the assumption that classic American burgers have barbeque sauce on them (as much as I love barbecue sauce on burgers), it was excellent. 

No, Martin, most burgers in the U.S. do not actually come with a little flag on them.

From Cork we headed to our friends Sheila and Graham's in an undisclosed location -- their cove is just too sweet to mention by name (e-mail me). They were fantastic hosts. The first order of business was the requisite pot of tea at an old hotel on a lake with a 600-year-old church, next to a cool forest reserve.

This was just the warm-up -- trust me. The day after was spectacular and warrants its own entry.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dear John (Plitvice National Park and Zagreb)

From Krka it was an easy trip to Plitvice National Park. Plitvice isn't off the beaten path, but I'd still recommend it to anyone visiting Croatia, even in August, when the waterfalls aren't as full as they are on the posters we saw everywhere (see below in the restaurant).

While hiking in the park for two days, J and I kept debating whether our Salt Lake friend John would like the place. On the one hand, John hates crowds, especially in the outdoors, and Plitvice offers yet another over-crowded and sanitized National Park experience involving multi-car "panoramic train" buses, boat rides, and boardwalks.

On the other hand, it's such a developed and crowded park that one is never more than a couple kilometers from a $1.40 espresso -- and John surely would approve of both this aesthetic and price point -- especially given this is Europe, where espressos are served in real cups, whether in parks or at highway rest stops (I can't get over that last part. If you want to see America's decline in action -- go to a Jersey Turnpike rest-stop sometime and then go to one in Europe).

John would also love the 1970s communist-design hotels on the edge of the park still very much in use. We enjoyed our throwback, $5-for-two-people soup and plate of potatoes lunch at the "National Restaurant."

And John might be willing to tolerate the crowds for the views. Croatia has some seriously green and clear water, some of it moving downhill quickly.

There aren't a lot of food options around the park, so we ate at the nearby ski hill. You could see the top of the lifts from the deck. Um, I get now why Croatia is known for its slalom specialists.

Day 2 it was time for the lower falls, a series of falls cascading down a chain lakes that culminate in what we think is called the "Big Waterfall." Or maybe that wasn't the translation of the Croatian name but just the sign for the tourists. 

Our last stop in Croatia was Zagreb. It took a while for us to warm up to the city, especially as we spent a lot of time looking for a restaurant our first night. Not a particular restaurant -- any restaurant. We weren't exactly in a tourist area after a while, and Zagreb still has a lot of rebuilding to do. Below is a pretty typical example of a building -- what used to be a nice building, that is. J wouldn't let me take pictures of the cement monstrosities we passed getting a bit lost on the way to the bus station (don't get me started on airport hotels without shuttles to either the city center or even the airport. For that matter, don't get me started on Zagreb cab drivers ripping you off on the 4-minute trip from the airport to the airport hotel).

Luckily we found a good pizza place (there's much less fish in the North) by turning into an area with a sex shop and a dilapidated (bombed out?) building. Strangely, here I had one of the best German beers of the whole trip, a Fisher's Helle from Erding, near Munich.

Zagreb is sort of a mini-Vienna, give or take the recent war (and a church with what looks like Lego on its roof, which John definitely would have appreciated).

We skipped Europe's shortest funicular ride.

J was able to add to her Caravaggio count, as The Supper with Emmaus was on loan to the Arts and Crafts Museum in honor of Croatia joining the EU.

I could have added to my Bruegel count, but it's not like I'm a professional researcher or anything, so  I can't blamed for going to the two museums out of three without the Bruegel (we figured as much out, but not before everything was closed for Assumption Day).

The Food Revolution has not yet come to Zagreb. We like čevapčiči (tri-meat) sausage a lot, but the fries are horrible throughout the country, and, even allowing for my resilient Germany-induced craving for vegetables, one can only eat so much overly oily zucchini. 

And yet EVEN Zagreb, unlike Germany, has figured out the concept of a brewpub, which, combined with our last cake and coffee Pause on the continent, made for a wonderful last unhurried day before flying to Ireland. When in Zagreb, we prefer the Pivnica Mali Medo. Still no American Pale Ale, but there's no doubt what John would think about the excellent copper lager -- a bit reminiscent of flagship Sam Adams.