parkrun tourism: Eastbourne

event#84 parkrun#307 another compass point!

There are a number of recognised challenges that parkrunners try to tick off, one of which is the compass points. So far I’d only managed one point at Southampton parkrun, parkrun tourism: Southwark and Parkruns: South Manchester. So I was delighted to take up the offer of a visit from my best friend who now lives in Eastbourne!

Access:

I’d travelled by train from Gatwick airport, a relatively simple journey. The parkrun takes place in Shinewater Park, and I got a lift there. It is a residential area so runners are asked to park considerately if they’ve come by car. There’s a bus stop at the park entrance, and the nearest railway station is Hampden Park.

Course:

This was the first outing of the summer course when I attended. Quite a bit of the course is on uneven grass surface, so watch your step! One loop of the play park, then onto more solid paths, over bridges, under bridges, and round some lovely lakeside views. Back for one final loop of the playpark, which does mean you have an agonising run PAST the finish line before that last stretch.

Crowd:

There was a good mix of runners, and I certainly wasn’t alone in the jog-walking group at the back. I did worry a bit that the tail walker looked like he was dressed for a speedy run.

Some well behaved dogs, a few family groups, and I got chatting to an elderly couple who were making their 3rd parkrun, having only started as part of their 70th birthday celebrations. A lovely reminder of the inclusivity of parkrun. There were 331 participant when I attended, the average is in the mid 200s.

Facilities:

A cute coffee cart is onsite for post run faff. No loos. There’s a Premier Inn very nearby if you wanted to stay over. Start and finish is at the same point, so the traditional “hang it on a tree” method of leaving your jacket applies.

Gear:

I had travelled in my Sauconys, which were OK for this course. I wore my #isitfancydress With Me Now top, and of course had my cow cowl on, but saw no other parkrun tourists or WMNers! Darn it, I was looking forward to exchanging a “Dolly or Bev”/ “arbitrary” greeting.

Strangely Appropriate Song on Shuffle:

I have a choir concert coming up soon, so I have the songs we are singing downloaded onto a Spotify playlist. So I was working on the Irish Blessing ” May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall soft upon your fields”. There were very few hills to contend with, the sun indeed did shine warm, and no rain, soft or otherwise, fell upon my fields. Which was nice.

Time:

I was jog walking, and stopping to take photos, so a just sub 45 minute time for me.

And the rest:

I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in this part of the world, including a carousel ride in party town Brighton, and ice cream by the sea in Eastbourne, viewing the Seven Sisters, and seeing a big chalk man on a hillside.

All my parkruns:

List of them all NI (and other) parkruns: summary list

Trip To The Netherlands

Second star on the right, straight on till morning, isn’t it? No, that’s Neverland!

“Trip to the Netherlands” is a Scottish country dance, and a tricksy enough one at that, but we did it at my Tuesday night class the day before I took a….

Trip to the Netherlands!

This was a holiday that had a bit of history of rescheduling and push backs. And Gawd Bless Easyjet. It started with my The London Marathon journey, when we had both booked flights to the capital. Then R couldn’t go, so we re-booked his flights (where d’you wanna go? Amsterdam? Cool I haven’t been there either) and I booked adjacent seats on the same flights in February. All for minimal cost and fuss.

January came, and Covid restrictions were still in place. End of January and restrictions were lifting, including parkruns, so we booked a cancellable hotel in Am’dam, with a lovely Scottish vibe to it. And then we double checked on regulations and found we would still have to quarantine for 5 days. So we pushed the flights back to March. And then found that the hotel prices had literally doubled. So I suggested we look at Den Haag – I knew there was a Scottish dance ceilidh on the Friday night, it has the gallery with the Girl With A Pearl Earring, and most importantly – the parkrun begins with a Z!

We booked a room in the appropriately named Corona Hotel, and the journey began.

Flying from Belfast International (we all still call it Aldergrove) can be a pain, but it does have some good points. Booked parking in the main stay car park, which is very close to the terminal building, is not expensive, and I’ve always found security checks to be friendly and fairly quick. There’s still many outlets not yet reopened but Starbucks provided the necessary seats and caffeine. Our 9-50 flight had meant a reasonable leave the house time.

We’d boarded in good time, and started to taxi, but then halted because of an aviation fuel spill. Seeing fire engines on standby with lights flashing was certainly a worry! But we did get underway, and the flight to the busy hub of Schiphol takes just over an hour. This airport is HUGE, no seriously, you land and then taxi for a few miles until you reach the terminal building. It is also technically 5m below sea level.

There is a train station onsite, where you can get onward journeys to eg Amsterdam, or in our case, The Hague (Den Haag)

Our hotel was a short 15 min walk from the station, and we admired the lovely open squares full of people eating, drinking and laughing, as we passed by. The hotel staff were very welcoming, and we soon had dropped off our bags, had a relaxing drink on the hotel terrace, and set off for an aimless wander (ie to find vodka, wine and the holy grail of diet coke). Some places don’t use mastercard or visa, only maestro, so make sure you have some euro cash with you!

We found a lovely rooftop restaurant for pasta/ steak, and then wandered through the Passage, a vintage shopping mall with some gorgeous little emporia and a bit of history of the building as well.

Day 2

Having passed on our plan to stay in the capital, this was our day to visit Amsterdam. R had found a Flixbus that cost only 16-90 return, a third of the train prices, and which got there a few minutes earlier.

Took a while to find the right stance down at DH Centraal, but we did after a few enquiries find the green Flixbus sign, and a straggle of other travellers joined us. Good clean bus arrived right on time, and there was no trouble finding seats (in front of an annoying talking woman). After 40 minutes we discovered why this option was cheaper and quicker, as it pulled into the park and ride hub at Amsterdam Sloterdijk, just outside the ring road. We bought all day transport tickets at 8-50, and the metro takes another 40 mins to reach Centraal. The train gets there in 5 minutes, so that’s a good alternative option.

But wow, Amsterdam Centraal Station is a hugely impressive jewel of a building, red brick gothic with a clock and a dial showing…wind direction? A busker with a miniature fairground organ was playing Queen songs as we passed, and we went for the easy option of MacDonalds breakfast muffins, before taking a canal cruise boat trip. These are an hour long, there are multiple operators offering the same journey, so the principle of arbitrage means they are all priced at 13 euros.

The tour is a very relaxing way to spend an hour getting some of the history of the city, and the ticket doubles as a postcard! We learned that as there are so few bridges across the Amstel river, the little ferries are free.

We strolled down the waters edge to the Sea Palace, a floating Chinese restaurant that is the replica of the Jumbo in Hong Kong. What a sumptuous interior, and we were fascinated by the robot waiters, which brought orders to the table on mechanised trolleys. Dim sum starters, followed by soup, and then we couldn’t resist trying the salted egg yolk dessert thing…..

A wander round the neighbourhood reminded us of the city’s reputation, which apparently is not the reason the city flag has three Xs on it. I enjoyed sampling cheese in Henri Willig, and bought a mini cheese slicer.

The Flixbus option is good value, but our return bus wasn’t scheduled until 8 pm, so we decided to cut our losses and just get a train back. Unfortunately it was cancelled at Harleem, with a further 40 minute delay, but we did get back , out our feet up, and then set out in search of chips. Ended up by introducing R to Five Guys!

Day 3

The hotel breakfast seemed expensive at 17 euros, so we headed off in search of alternative, finding ourselves at https://hoenderenhop.nl/en/hoender-hop/ a really chilled and relaxing cafe with cool background music on Grote Markt, with super strong coffee, and a delicious yoghurt/granola/fruit dish.

We had tickets for 10 am at the Mauritshuis Musuem, but were distracted by the arrival of a royal (?) at the next door parliament building. The museum itself is in a lovely old building, and contains many fabulous paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other Dutch masters. The pride of place is the Girl With The Pearl Earring (room 15 upstairs), which was not too mobbed by viewers, though it is protected by a steel circular barrier.

My favourite was the giant detailed painting of a bull.

Of course, the museum shop is a must visit, and I bought some pearl earrings (natch!), a GWTPE face mask, a tulip microfibre cloth and a book about tulipomania. (If you’ve seen me on Weakest Link you’ll understand!)

No, I dont know why I can’t get this image the right way up! But spot the beagle

We then took the no 1 tram out to Scheveningen, the seaside resort just a couple of miles from the centre.

We alighted at the Kurhaus stop, a fairy-tale hotel with fabulous glass dome and porticoed terasses.

R described it as a posh Blackpool! It has the usual seaside elements you’d expect – frites and ice cream kiosks, amusement arcades, as well as a pier boasting upper and lower (covered) decks, with a Ferris wheel, and zip line and bungee jumping at peak times. Some interesting bronze sculptures are dotted on the promenade. There are a number of eating and drinking establishments here – I asked the barman for a Sex on The Pier and he gave me one! (insert own innuendo here).

And I later enjoyed a common menu feature – a 12 o’clock special, consisting of a sandwich, soup, and small salad. The weather was superb, and we agreed to come back tomorrow to watch the sunset.

Scottish Country Dance is a world wide activity, and when I had contacted Margaret, the local co-ordinator, she said there would be a ceilidh on the Friday night. So I was delighted to be able to attend. My day travel ticket got me on the right bus, and I enjoyed a super evening of song, dance, and food with some locals.

Day 4

Saturday is parkrun day. But this was no ordinary parkrun day. This was Letter Z day, getting that final letter in my alphabet, and fulfilling the “thing I want to do” that I said on The Chase. Previously Zs were only in Poland or South Africa, so Zuiderpark (literally Southpark) is a very much appreciated addition to the fold, being easily accessible from much of the UK. My usual parkrun write up is here Zuiderpark parkrun

After the parkfaff in the cafe, we changed back at the hotel, had a stroll around the local shops including the cooks treasure trove that is Dok, a cornucopia of knives, pans, aprons, dish towels, barbecues, recipe books, moulds, piping nozzles and kitchen appliances of every description.

Back out to Scheveningen, where it was much busier being a weekend, with the little blue mini train going from here to the harbour, many dogs having the time of their lives on the beach, and the daredevil activities going strong. I had a celebratory glass of fizz on the Kurhaus terasse, before we strolled on the pier, and then as the sun was already making long golden streaks across the water we found a table with a fire pit (it was still cold, 12 degrees or so) in Golfslag, one of the many cafe restaurants by the shore. We ordered a selection of tapas, and the sun could not have been more stunning as it slid into the ocean.

The tram home was understandably packed, but the crowd was good natured and courteous.

Day 5

On our final day, we returned to Hoender en Hop for breakfast, before strolling through Chinatown,

and then by the canal, to look at the Royal Palace.

We stopped for coffee and bitterballen (breaded deep fried balls of stew) and a final look at the birds around the Buitenhof. Security at Schipol can take some time to get through, so make sure you leave plenty of time at the airport.

But the weather was still lovely on our return flight, giving superb views over the Mourne mountains.

Valencia 2022

Finally a trip away!

Making the most of my free time now I’ve retired with a trip to the beautiful city of Valencia.

Flights were out of Dublin, which did require an early start to catch the 5.30 am bus from Belfast. However, the bus was there at just after 5, so we didn’t have to stand around in the cold for too long. This was a nice relaxed way to reach the airport, being dropped off right at the door in just under 2 hours. Time to find some tea, and something that I usually only eat at airports for some reason, an almond croissant!

Checked in and lined up by the airplane steps, we than had to stand in the Dublin drizzle for an achingly long 10 minutes while a technician climbed in and out of the body of the plane. Before telling us that we’d have to go back inside and wait for an alternative craft. To be honest, I’d rather have an hours delay and get on a plane with no flashing warning lights!

The flight was very smooth, and I always love the view over the snowy Pyrenees. We landed in glorious sunshine just after lunch, and made our way through Covid and passport checks, before heading to the car hire depot. Having lived in Luxembourg during my career, I am (or was) familiar enough with driving on that side of the road, and so I was designated driver. It still took a bit of adjustment to remember where the rear view mirror was, and I did miss my reversing camera!

The satnav took us to the Vincci Palace Hotel on Carrer La Pau without too much swearing, followed by several trips round the block while we tried to locate the side street where the entrance to the car park was located. Via an elevator. A member of staff patiently guided me while I line up the car at exactly the right angle before squeezing it in to the small space. The hotel is very conveniently located, and even has a sun terrace!

Bags unpacked, we set off to do “aimless wandering”. This city lends itself really well to this activity, with beautiful buildings at every corner, and plenty of signs explaining any historical or architectural significances. Even with one of the main squares, Plaza de la Reina, closed for refurbishment, there was no shortage of sights to stop and stare or photograph.

I’ve been studying Spanish with a daily Duolingo lesson for over 2 years now, and so I was interested to see just how well I could communicate. The passport guy had surprised me by answering Bon Dia when I offered Buenas Dias, and I noticed that many signs, menus etc were in 3 languages: Spanish, English, and ……Valencian, a sort of version of Catalan.

We found a nice cafe for tapas and delicious Spanish white wine. Calling into a local Minimart for supplies on the way back to the hotel, I found that most of the wine on sale had corks rather than screwtops. This allowed me to try quite a complicated sentence: “Perdonne senor, busco una…en frances es un tire-bouchon” accompanied by suitable hand signals. And sure enough, un sacacorchos was duly obtained, and wine purchased. The prices were very reasonable – a bottle of Chardonnay started at 2 euros!

The hotel was very comfortable, and the staff very friendly and helpful, even providing me with a tray containing a kettle and tea bags for my essential morning cuppa.

The next was warm and sunny, and we had a great stroll round the city centre taking in the fabulous indoor market selling live snails, giant goose eggs,

colourful fruits and veg, and row upon row of fish and seafood. There was even a sign with my name on it!

From there we headed to Placa Ajuntament with the city hall, the bullring, and the gorgeous Estacion which still has detailed ceramic and wooden adornments. I found a cafe that served paella, the speciality of the region, and in the afternoon I took in the big Torres de Serranos before enjoying an ice cream in the Placa de la Viergien in front of the cathedral (under refurbishment). In the evening I dined on dorade with vegetables, and we finished with a few drinks in the lovely hotel bar.

Breakfast in the hotel was a good range of cold meats and cheese, yoghurts, bread and pastries, some hot food, and little slices of tortilla. We extracted the car from the elevator (easier on the way out), and headed out of town to visit friends who were staying nearby.

I decided not to attempt putting the car back in the hotel, opting instead for a public car park only 100m away. A late lunch was had at Saona, doing a 3 courses for 9.95 which was just exceptional – stuffed artichokes, salmon tartar, and a lemon and mango dessert.

We caught the hop-on-hop-off bus for an afternoon orientation tour of around 2 hours, to get a feel for what we wanted to see next day.

On our last full day, we went to La Ciutat de les Arts y les Ciences, and absolutely stunning complex of concert halls, exhibition spaces, science museum and aquarium. It was a little chiller today, and when we got off at the seaside stop, the seabreeze was very strong. But we found a nice seaside cafe for smoked salmon and avocado on toast before continuing our tour.

In the afternoon I tried to find the rooftop bar, as advertised on the guide map. I found where the door should be, and a notice said there was a new entrance round the far side. I walked round the block again, with no sign of an entrance. Back to the original notice to make sure I’d read it correctly, and then return to where the new entrance should be, before having to use my language skills to ask where it was. Sorry, closed for refurbishment! Oh well, off to El Corte Ingles for a bit of retail therapy instead.

For our last meal we went to Bacca, a glittering cavern like restaurant with deliciously camp waiters (think Hank Azaria in Birdcage) for a final seafood paella, and a nightcap in the hotel bar.

Final morning we went to the old established chocolate house Santa Catalina, all ceramic walls, and neatly turned out and very attentive waitresses for chocolate and churros, breakfast of champions!

This set us up nicely for a final dander, taking in the Torres de Quart, and the cathedral where there was a live display of local dancing and singing taking place.

Driving on a Sunday was a little less frenetic, and we only argued with the sat nav a wee bit before making our way back to drop off the car and head to Valencia’s architecturally stunning airport. Sadly much of the inside is currently being refurbished, but I bought some good olive oil to take home with me.

Luck was on our side on the return journey – plane landed on time, no queues to contend with, and the bus we were booked on, that we thought we were 5 minutes too late for, was still waiting at the stand. It was packed, and they were only letting on passengers who had booked tickets, so even though we didn’t get sitting together, we were on our way home through some torrential rain. And sadly I had someone behind me chatting incessantly (and loudly) the whole way.

In Belfast, a free taxi pulled up just as I reached the depot, and whisked us home in good time.

Overall, it is a delightful and attractive city that I would love to revisit , maybe when all those refurbishments have been completed!

Budapest

Bonus quiz question – Budapest is one of 4 capital cities on the Danube, can you name the others? Answers at the foot.

Travelling during Covid times has added complications, but we managed to download our NI Covid certs, and use Irish passport to convert these to an EU covid pass.  Travelling from one EU country to another should be OK, no additional PCR testing or passenger locator forms required. ( At that time, regulations have changed since then!)  Proper foreign money also acquired – there are roughly 400 Hungarian Furints (HUF) to the pound, which is an awkward exchange rate, but I memorised that 2,000 was about a fiver, and used that as a gauge.

With an early morning start, we stayed the night before at the Clayton Hotel by Dublin airport, which also serves as a car parking option.  Treated ourselves to some southern Tayto crisps from the nearby garage while watching the Ireland rugby match, and then enjoyed dinner in the restaurant.

Alarms were set for early o’clock, and at 4 am we were boarding the shuttle bus.  Simple drop off of our one piece of checked in baggage, and the 3 hour flight departed and arrived on time.  Hungary is 1 hour ahead.

The hotel reservation had included a transport car from the airport, but this used R’s work phone number, so a bit of back and forth-ing was required on the phone before our taxi arrived, and took us into the centre of the city, where we were staying in the Hotel Impulso, with fresh and modern décor and a warm welcome from the staff.

Day 1 is usually “aimless wandering” to get some bearings.  There seemed to be many kebab shops nearby, but also a very handy Metro station (Pope John Paul 2), and even a wee Tesco on the corner for essential supplies (wine and crisps).

  Much construction work is ongoing, some of it restoring and repairing old buildings, some of it extending the metro line.  But we found a sticky tabled bar that was about to start serving food, and began the usual game of ordering something that resembled Smirnoff and diet coke, ice no lemon please.  Diet coke is often rare outside the UK (and no, Coke Zero is not the same!)

There weren’t many restaurants near our hotel, so we ended up in a sort of Asian food shop, where I tried a seafood ramen.  Back at the hotel, our bedroom was at the front, and the trams passing by were quite noisy, but they did stop at midnight.

Day 2.  Breakfast at the hotel was great, a wide selection of delicious breads, some cheese and salad items, as well as hot food.  It was interesting to note different Covid practices – whilst mask wearing was pretty universal, even outdoors, the breakfast was serve yourself buffet style.

We were picking up the hop-on-hop-off bus today, so walked all the way down to St Stephens Basilica to sort out the tickets and take an orientation tour.

There’s a small Christmas Market behind the basilica where I was able to get some mulled wine and a chimney cake.  We needed to show Covid certs and ID to enter. R had a flatbread with pork, leeks and sour cream.  Other food on offer included gigantic hot dogs, and Henry 8th style legs of meat (pork, presumably).  The Hungarian language is quite unusual, and not related to those I am more familiar with, so it wasn’t really possible to have a guess at the meanings.  That said, English was widely spoken.

In the afternoon we visited the synagogue, the second largest in the world.  It is a stunning building, and we found the guided tour very informative and moving.  Hungarian Jews suffered badly during the 2nd world war.  Famous Hungarian Jews include Tony Curtis, Estee Lauder, and Goldie Hawn. There is a very poignant sculpture at the rear of the building in the form of a willow tree, with a name written on each leaf.

We dandered back to the hotel, stopping off at the Craft beer and Bistro for a drink, and picking up some essentials (sanitiser, plasters, notebook) in the Spar. And then I got changed into my Scottish dancing clothes, and hopped in a taxi to go to the local class!  How marvellous to take part in an activity that is done right across the world.  Masks were worn throughout the class, which was delivered mostly in Hungarian, with the odd English recap for my benefit.  The most surreal part was the warm-up which was done to a Mongolian folk rock band called the Hu (and amazingly I even recognised the song).  There were 12 of us in the class, and tartan sashes were used to denote those dancing as men.  We tried (and failed) to get through the twelvesome reel – it’s not one I’m familiar with at all, so I wasn’t much help.  Got my first experience of public transport by getting a bus and metro home.

Day 3.  After a relaxed breakfast we strolled across JP2 Park to the train station for photo opportunities, and then didn’t have to wait too long for the HoHo bus, where we managed to get seats upstairs at the front. Crossing the Danube, we got off the bus on the Buda side, and took a little shuttle bus to take us up to the top of the hill.  There is usually a funicular railway operating too, but it was closed for repairs. Many things are priced in euro as well as HUF, and the shuttle bus was 9 euro, well worth it to avoid climbing up the hills.

The Fisherman’s Bastion by St Matthais Church was where we alighted, and enjoyed the blue skies and sunshine for some great photos.  The Buda Tower was closed to visitors (Covid), and the Carillion bells weren’t ringing (lightning), while the Palace was closed for refurbishment.

Back at the foot of the hill we walked across Elizabeth Bridge, and lunched in the Pointer Pub.  Suitable refreshed, we walked to the main Christmas market in Vorosmarty Square.  Big food stalls serving big portions of goulash, sausage and knuckles.  Lots of lovely stalls with leather goods and wooden toys. Porcelain ornaments, fur, and jewellery.  I bought a pair of silk earrings.

We caught the 4 pm boat at Dock 6, which was just the perfect time for our river trip.  We found seats on the upper deck, complete with blankets to keep warm.  As the sun set there was a beautiful golden light on the water, which then became deeper twilight and all the buildings lit up in fabulous colours. We walked home, calling into Tesco for the makings of a “hotel room picnic”, and I mistakenly bought a bottle of wine with a cork!  Cue much hilarity at reception as David bravely wrestled with an ancient corkscrew to unite me with my Chardonnay.

Day 4.  The weather was a bit cooler and duller , but we took the HoHo bus to Heroes Square, admired the ice skaters, and had a dander through the old castle museum, dotted with many statues.  I was proud of myself for finding 300HUF to use the toilets.

We lunched downtown in the Longford Irish pub (cheesy chips), and then checked out the Timberland shop.  I worked out how to get back to the hotel using public transport, and bought a couple of 24 hour tickets. We’d wanted to go to the West End City Centre shopping mall, but the metro was replaced by buses and we were scared of getting lost.

I was able to go to the Thursday night dance class, which was being taken by a Russian girl, mostly in English.  There were only 9 of us plus the teacher, so I felt a wee bit left out when I didn’t have a partner for a 4 couple dance, but I do sympathise knowing how hard it is to find a programme that’ll work for however many dancers turn up.

The class runs from 6 till 8, so it does make for a respectable early night, I treated us to ice creams from Tesco, and Barbara on reception did the honours with the corkscrew.

Day 5.  After a leisurely breakfast, I bought a bottle of Tokaj, the famous Hungarian wine, from Tesco, and packed it in our check-in bag, which we were able to leave at the hotel as our plane was not till the evening.

We used the public transport tickets to visit the big Market Hall, a riot of colour and displays of fruits, meat, cheese, paprika, lavender, wooden toys, palinka, and embroidered goods.  The lower level has some history and information about the most important Hungarian produce, and I was able to buy little tins of paprika, a jar of caviar, smiley pickles, and some cheese. 

I wasn’t sure whether to fork out for a tablecloth or peasant blouse, but R pointed out some embroidered face masks, which were not too expensive and will definitely get used!

The number 2 tram line claims to be one of the most scenic in Europe, hugging the side of the river, so we took a ride on it to the parliament buildings.  Our tickets were indeed checked on this part of the trip.  After an unsatisfying cheese scone in a café, we looked at the bronze shoes, a poignant tribute to those who’d been shot by the Arrow Cross.

Back on the red metro line, we rode to the station and then changed to the green line and back to the hotel, where we used the wifi to complete our passenger locator forms, needed to get back into Ireland.

I was a little concerned when our taxi was late, and then got stuck in some awful traffic going to the airport, and then the queue to drop off bags took an hour to get through!

I was a bit worried about Storm Arwen, but our return flight was uneventful, landed on time, got through passport and Covid checks in under 5 minutes, and our suitcase was waiting for us on the carousel.

Quiz answer: Those other capitals are Vienna and Bratislava (which I’ve visited EuroViennaSlava), and Belgrade (which is now on my bucket list so’s I can complete the set).

Scotland 2021 – In Flora’s Footsteps

Day 1

An early start to catch the 7.30 ferry to Cairn Ryan.  This becomes somewhat of a theme.  We had booked seats in the Hygge lounge, highly recommended for some peace and quiet in comfy seats.  Covid restrictions on-board included mask wearing while moving about the ship, social distancing in queues, and a limit on the number of people allowed in the shop.

As we headed north, I felt echoes of Scottish dances as we passed signs for Ardrossan, Dumbarton, Breadalbane.

We crossed the lofty Erskine Bridge and stopped at Starbucks for a quick lunch.  Limited seating indoors, and a one-way system.

The road up the side of Loch Lomond is quite narrow, very busy, and there are a number of roadworks.  This was our longest driving day, and our next stop was at the famous Green Welly, where travellers can take a comfort break, get a coffee, something to eat, and browse the extensive range of gifts and outdoor gear.  I got a jigsaw, a tartan notebook (in which to record these thoughts and observations), and a Green Welly bauble for the Christmas tree!  I buy a new decoration each year, usually on vacation, as it’s lovely to have these reminiscences when decorating the tree in the first weekend of December. It’s tradition, dontchayno.

From here, the scenery really becomes glorious, especially the stunning steep sided Glen Coe.  Though I’m never quite sure whether as a Campbell I’m strictly allowed here….

We were staying in the Ben Nevis Hotel in Fort William.  It’s a bit outside the town centre, but has plenty of parking.  It’s showing its age and is a bit rough round the edges.  There is a swimming pool, but you need to book a time, so I wasn’t that organised.  We also had to book a time for dinner, so at 6 pm we settled at our table in the bar.  It is table service only, and they are quite strict about this.  The staff appeared to be struggling, and weren’t really watching the room.  I know the hospitality industry has suffered greatly during the pandemic, and post-brexit it is difficult to recruit new employees for this type of work. 

The food arrived – but no cutlery.  Even though the knives and forks are in a basket on the bar top, you are not allowed to go and just lift some.  My salmon and prawn starter was tasty, but the spinach tortellini got a bit cold during the wait for cutlery.  The waitress didn’t know what wine they had, or what the soup of the day was.

The England football match was on.  It was being shown on a big screen in a large room next to the bar – you were supposed to book a seat, but that did not deter some determined fans who snuck in anyway.

We spotted the “Harry Potter” steam train shunting into a nearby siding, and that gave us an idea for the next day’s adventure…..

I fell asleep during the football and only discovered the next day that Italy had won!  I knew I had a bet on them so I waited for the betting site to let me know what my winnings were.

Day 2

Having seen the Hogwarts Express we decided to see if we could get tickets on The Jacobite, a famous steam train that goes twice a day between Fort William and Mallaig.  Seats, especially first class, are booked out months in advance, but a helpful sales assistant on the phone revealed that there are a few seats available on the day from the train itself.  Cash only (£49 each), queue up where indicated and then head for coach D.  Be careful where you leave your car – don’t park in Morrisons car park, use the Long Stay one instead (£4 for 10 hours).

The train itself has a teensy Harry Potter shop where you can purchase chocolate frogs, every flavour jelly beans, magic wands etc, as well as jigsaw puzzles featuring the famous viaduct.  (It even appears on the back of a Scottish tenner!) There’s a small buffet car too, but you can bring your own food on board, so I bought a packet of haggis crisps in the shop in the station.

The passengers are a mix of Potter fans and steam train nerds.  The view from the left hand side approaching the viaduct is the better one, and there is a short stop in Glenfinnan where we admired the old carriages and even a snow plough.  A kilted piper stuck up a few tunes – I was tempted to ask if he knew Flora McDonald and offer to dance…..

The train has a distinctive noise and feel – the chuff-de-chuff and “I think I can, I think I can” chant as we rattle along, the smoke obscuring the view from the windows coming out of tunnels, and the little black “smutties” that come through the open windows.

We stopped for precisely one minute at Ardrisaig.  This is so that the train spotters can say that they have been to the most westerly mainland railway station.

Past the Sands of Morar (another dance) and we are soon pulling into Mallaig station, where lots of seagulls are nesting.  The nearest loos are just past the police station, and cost 30p, though you can pay contactless.  Mallaig is a busy port, with fishing vessels and Cal-Mac ferries, as well as plenty of cafes and restaurants.  We found the cute little Harry Potter shop in Haggard Alley, where I was tempted by the Cloak of Invisibility. 

Lunch was in The Cabin, a delicious meal accompanied by a salad mercifully free of red onion, and some friendly service.

We left Mallaig at 2.10, I haven’t quite worked out how the engine got to the other side of the train, for there is no turntable.

One coach was now empty, as the passengers had only journeyed one way, so we were able to find seats on the side with the better view.  There are loads of bystanders and onlookers waving in the vicinity of the viaduct itself, and people also  wave and video and photograph from the road which runs parallel to the track for most of the journey.  On a sadder note, the only white wine on board was sauvignon blanc.

Back just after 4, the weather was a wee bit dreich, as they say in these parts, so we didn’t attempt any more sight-not-seeing.

I don’t think my emails are updating properly – still haven’t heard from the betting site.

Day 3

Early start, and after breakfast we set off around 8 am.  We stopped at the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie  ( to give him his full name Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart)  raised his standard to commence the Jacobite Rebellion.  The view from the little mound behind the visitor centre is amazing.  It’s a short uphill walk, but definitely worth it.

We reached Mallaig at 10, where we were catching the ferry over to Armadale on Skye.  It was a bit misty and murky, but at £16 for the crossing, this is easily the best way to get to Skye.  Had a cup of tea, saw no dolphins.

We stopped for lunch in the Broadford Hotel, rather fine bowls of Cullen skink with warm crusty rolls. 

I’d read of the legend of Sligachan Bridge, (built by Thomas Telford), where a local female warrior Scathach did battle with our own Cú Chulainn, but when they resolved their differences without causing mass world destruction the fairies granted the gift of eternal beauty to anyone who immersed their face in the river for 7 seconds.  Made perfect sense to me, and of course I had a go!  So if you don’t recognise me next time we meet this’ll be why. There is also a statue of a pair of mountaineers who mapped out routes in the mighty Cuillin Mountains.

The next stop was colourful Portree, where we had an ice cream and a wee dander.  As we had plenty of time, we decided to try going to Flora McDonald’s grave and memorial, but it was a narrow and twisty single track road so we gave up.

We stayed at the Skeabost View B and B, it’s a little bit remote but has lovely views, and a friendly and welcoming host.  After a bit of chillaxing time, we drove back into Portree for fish and chips by the pier.  There’s a bit of a wait for these, as it’s a really popular spot.

Back at the B and B we enjoyed watching the sun set and the tide come in, while spotting rabbits in the fields and a sea eagle soaring overhead.

Day 4

We had ordered breakfast the day before.  Very fine black pudding indeed comes from Charles Macleod.  I had veggie sosig and scrambled legs.  We had another early start to catch the ferry at Uig, and were there just before 8.30. There’s not much in Uig, but a rather nice little pottery shop does have some tempting wares.  This ferry (to Lough Maddy on North Uist) goes at some peculiar times, and not the same time every day, so double check if you are planning on using this route.   The views departing Skye are just gorgeous, and there’s plenty of spaces in the lounges, but it’s breezy on deck!  Cal-Mac are quite good at keeping social distancing, especially at avoiding congregating on stairs when returning to vehicles.  Saw no dolphins.

We arrived in the Outer Hebrides to rather grey and overcast weather, but made our way down some narrow lanes to Baleshare Beach.  Windswept and deserted, large pebbles, turquoise surf rolling in, and a very strong breeze!

The guidebook that I’d bought at the Green Welly didn’t show many roads on the map, but it did have an attraction in “Flora McDonald’s House”.  It took a bit of hunting down, and was reached down a farmer’s lane, where at the foot of the mound on which it stood were a group of cows and what appeared to be a bull.  I made my way to the monument with some trepidation, trying to exude lots of “I come in peace!” vibes to the cattle, but it was unnerving.

The memorial could really do with some (OK, a lot) of TLC.  There is an inscription, but it was so old I couldn’t make it out.  I had planned to video myself doing the highland dance “Flora McDonald’s Fancy” on this spot.  I started, but went wrong in the second step as I was a wee bitty nervous about antagonising the coos!  So I abandoned that and tiptoed my way back to the car saying “there there, nice cattle” in what I hoped was a soothing voice.

Having left from Skye and already been on North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist, we thought we might as well add another island to our itinerary, and crossed the causeway to Eriskay, bemused by the “Otters crossing” sign as we did.  The causeway only opened 20 years ago and was a much welcomed transport link.  We visited the well-stocked Eriskay shop, where I bought a colourful wall calendar for next year.  And had a drink in Am Politician, the pub named after the vessel which ran aground near here carrying a valuable cargo of whisky, inspiring the book and film “Whisky Galore”.

Our stopover this evening was the Borrodale Hotel, in a lovely room that had recently been refurbished and has a bath with Jacuzzi jets!  Their anti-Covid measures were being very well observed, with one way systems and social distancing.

Dinner was langoustines and seafood linguine, though I was disappointed to find crab sticks as part of the seafood.  Early to bed as we had a very early start next day to catch yet another ferry.

Day 5

The hotel had provided a takeaway breakfast for us as we were leaving so early – fruit juice, sandwiches, crisps, piece of fruit, yoghurt and a chocolate biscuit.  We arrived just before 6 am at Lough Boisdale terminal, which is small but efficient. This was a long ferry crossing, and I found a good spot on the top deck to take in the stunning views as we left Uist, and sailed between Skye and the “cocktail islands” of Eigg, Muck and Rum.  And Canna.

Saw dolphins!  Several pods of orca, with their black fins repeatedly breaking the surface.  A keen passenger with binoculars did exclaim “whale!” at one point, but I didn’t see it.

Disembarking was well organised, with staff ensuring that there was no congregating on the stairs.  We were quickly off into Mallaig (again) and back down the Road to the Isles.  We had hoped that our timings might allow us to photograph the Jacobite as our paths crossed, but it was stopped at Glenfinnan station as we passed.

The sun was shining on Ben Nevis and the surrounding scenery as we made our way to Oban and the Great Western Hotel.  There is some parking to the front, which is £6 per night and protected by lockable bollards.

We took an “aimless wander” along the seafront, and had a drink at the Oban Inn, watching the constant stream of maritime traffic across the bay.  Continuing on to South Pier I had scampi and chips while he had battered black pudding!

Back to the hotel we checked in and unpacked.  I walked up the steep hill to McCaig’s folly, where I posted a “where’s Linda” Facebook picture.  And lo, one of my old pals from Luxembourg said that she lives in Oban and we arranged to meet for coffee the next day.

We had dinner at Coast – I had veggie curry which was rather nice.

Day 6

I found a chatbox on my betting site to see why my winnings hadn’t been paid out…..only to discover I’d bet on the wrong flippin’ competition!  I headed out early for a run, and my headphones were not working, so I was full of self-recrimination and negative thoughts as I ran to Ganavan Sands, where the parkrun would be, if it were on.

Breakfast was a bit slow, having to wait to be served, and for tea/ coffee top ups. 

We had hoped to visit the “hollow mountain” dam at Cruachan, but their phone line said that they would remain closed throughout 2020 (sic).  (Rumour has it a major blockbuster movie is currently being filmed there).  Instead, we visited the rugged stronghold at Dunstaffnage Castle, home to my Campbell ancestors, and where Flora McDonald was held after BPC’s escape.  The castle is currently closed to visitors, but there’s a lovely old chapel in the grounds, and the information board mentioned other old stones at Ardchattan Priory, so we went there next.  But while the Priory is open to walk around its extensive gardens (£5), the stones are a good 1800m walk away.  Across a field.  Uphill.  With livestock.  So we didn’t.

In Connel we attempted finding the Falls of Lora but without success.  For future reference they are a weir under the bridge, so check the tide times for the best views of kayakers attempting it.

Back in Oban, we tried to book a table in famous fish restaurant Ee Usk, but nothing was available, so instead we booked at the Piazza next door, given that it had lovely views over the bay. We had a light lunch of mackerel pate and Haggis pot at the Oban Inn, though we had to wait for cutlery to be brought out.  After an ice cream we had a quick potter round the charity shops, where I found an aboyne blouse for my highland dancing.  Then I went to Roxy’s bakery on Argyll Square where I met up with Clare, and we chatted about old times over a tasty lemon and blueberry slice.  She’s a bit of a whisky expert so we took a quick look into the shop at the distillery in the centre of town, and she gave me some tips and suggestions for what I might like.

I changed into a holiday maxi dress for dinner, and we headed to la Piazza.  We shared a garlic flatbread to start, and then I had very tasty seabass on leeks and linguine.  But the noise levels inside this glass box were rising alarmingly, and I slipped out as soon as I had eaten.

Wandering back to the hotel, a piper on one of the boats docked at North Pier struck up a few tunes.  I should’ve called over and asked if he could play Flora McDonald, but it was probably a bit too slippy to dance on the slipway.

Day 7

For breakfast I had fruit salad and a croissant.  The weather was a bit misty, but we braved the tight and twisty road up to Pulpit Hill, where we enjoyed great views of the bay, even though we couldn’t see too much of the islands beyond.

We took the long way round the Argyll coast to our next destination, and even managed a detour to the Clachan Bridge onto Sheil Island, the “Bridge over the Atlantic”.  This is a scarily steep bridge, we were astonished that lorries and coaches made their way over it.  It is the only way onto and off the island – so don’t listen to the satnav telling you to carry on down the road to Easdale, you’ll just have to come back on yourself.

A brief stop off at Loch Melfort Hotel to enjoy the view, and then a stop at Lochgilphead for lunch.  There is an extensive programme of work upgrading the seafront, I look forward to returning when it is complete.  We dined in a little Italian chipper, where I had a mozzarella and mushroom toastie, before getting an ice cream while we wandered to the teeny stone bridge at the edge of town and carefully crossed the road to see the Crinan Canal.  Sadly no boats were passing needing to use the swing bridge.

Our journey continued along the sumptuous shores of Loch Fyne and through Inverary.  We had a break in the Loch Fyne Oyster complex, where I stocked up on a few essentials (Oban chocolates, haggis crisps, seaweed lip balm) in the little deli, before reaching the Tarbet Hotel.

This is a very old brownstone building which stands right on a major junction in north Loch Lomond.  Traffic heading further north to Oban and Fort William makes a right hand turn here, and it is amusing (and a little scary) to watch some vehicles miss the main turn off and then try to cut down the lane meant for traffic approaching from the other direction.  I’m amazed there aren’t more accidents here! The sun was shining, we had a table outside, and the views across to Ben Lomond over the sparkling water were beautiful.

I was a little concerned at their Covid practices.  Everywhere else we had been was strict table service:  here, you just grab a table that’s free, even if there are empty glasses and crockery on it (ie it has not been sanitised between uses), and then queue at the bar for your drink.  The staff try to remind people to socially distance and wear masks, but it’s not well observed.  The revolving door was in use (at the last hotel their revolving door was NOT to be used). 

The hotel is showing its age, the floors are a bit uneven and creaky, and whilst there is a lift, you still have to negotiate stairs to get to your room.  The bedroom itself was bright and airy, though with the road nearby it’s noisy.

We’d ordered a set dinner.  I had mushroom arancini, which were not bad, and he had filo wrapped prawns.  For mains, I had the only veggie option which was a curry.  It was OK, could’ve been spicier and a few more chickpeas wouldn’t go amiss.  R ordered lamb but without the mint gravy.  Of course, it came swimming in gravy. For dessert I had churros with a very nice chocolate sauce.

After dinner we walked to the loch shore.  It’s a very busy spot, full of motorhomes and picnickers.

Day 8

Worst. Breakfast. Ever

I’d gone for an early morning run, which instead turned into a hike through the Tarbet Isle woods, with some lovely views over the loch. Came back, showered, and we went down for our allotted time of 9 am, since we were not in a huge rush.  We had booked this location as it’s only about a 3 hour drive from here to the ferry home.

Tea and coffee came OK, as well as some rather nice toast.  I ordered porridge, R the cooked breakfast with no bacon, beans or tomato, but extra haggis and 2 poached eggs.  We waited.  And waited.  After 25 mins R went to chase up the missing food.  A large bowl of grey goo with an unwiped splodge on the edge of the plate was given to me.  R got a plate containing…..2 poached eggs and some haggis.  We complained again, and asked for extra toast.  I pushed around my rather unappetising porridge, which had neither honey nor compote that the menu had promised. R’s plate arrived back.  The eggs were hard, as was the tattie scone and lorne sausage.  We asked to speak to the manager, or the most senior person in charge.  He agreed it was unacceptable, and deducted the cost of breakfast from our bill.

I do get it, staff are hard to come by and need time to be trained.  But this was clearly not just an issue for ourselves, given some of the recent reviews on Trip Advisor.  I had a bet on the extra toast arriving, but no surprises given my gambling prowess that it did not.

Packing and checkout done, we took a route via Garelochhead which avoided the heavy traffic down Lomond’s side.  This is still the nuclear naval base, which provided for a different sort of view.  We stopped in Helensburgh for an ice cream at Dino’s, admiring the black sails of the boats racing on the water.

Back across the Erskine Bridge and the scenery is a lot more mundane.  Slow moving traffic and roadworks held us up a bit, and I didn’t get to do a five minute stop for shortbread-and-tablet-for-the-office.  Ach well, it’s for their own good!

Final ferry home was grand, I do love watching the H&W cranes loom large as we approach.  No dolphins though.

Haste Ye Back, say all the signs as you leave a wee village or toon.  Don’t worry, we will.

The One With The Travelling 60th Tee – part 1

Well, this started with my cousin’s 60th birthday. Which happened to be in March 2021. The UK was still in the throes of Coronavirus restrictions, so his party was held over Zoom. I thought it would be amusing to get him a special T shirt to wear, and I duly found and ordered one off t’internet.

Except it didn’t arrive in time for the actual do 😦 So what to do? Keep it give it to someone else? Give it to D anyway as a souvenir? As I ran the options passed him we came up with a more brilliant idea – I would pass it to him, he would pass it on to someone else having their 60th in the near future, who in turn would pass it on…..you get the picture. Bit like those bottle bags which continually get passed from giver to recipient, or the theory about there only being one box of After Eights. All being well it might arrive back with me for my 60th in October. When hopefully we won’t be in lockdown or quarantine any more and I can have a proper party. Yay!

The rules – such as they are- take a photo wearing the T, send it to me, and I’ll do a blog entry on who’s wearing it, where, and what shenanigans it got up to. And who’s next. We did consider awarding bonus points for Most Interesting Stain, but that just sounds like asking for trouble with a capital T. hashtag60Tee

I got some takeaway coffees and we did a doorstep handover. Good luck, lil Tee shirt, travel safe!

While you’re here, if you’d like to make a donation to my marathon fundraising please click the link below. And let’s get everyone smiling.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Linda-Harley6?utm_source=Sharethis&utm_medium=fundraising&utm_content=Linda-Harley6&utm_campaign=pfp-email&utm_term=6712ef4f37c8474abddc1546696e9878.

Tralee

After the Cliffs , we were back at the Ballygarry House Hotel, one of our favourite spots. Our stay included one evening meal, but the restaurant wasn’t open till Wednesday. So we booked a table for then, and tonight (Monday) ate in the brasserie.  I had the veggie curry, which was rather heavy on bell peppers.

There is a lovely spa at the hotel, but during the ongoing restructions they have a limit on the number of clients they can have, and what treatments are on offer.  I’d missed out on booking something in time on our previous trip, so I was looking forward to my back massage later today.  So with the morning free we headed into Tralee for a bit of a potter around.

I found a colourful Billabong skirt in a charity shop, and we had a mooch around the fine grey stone courthouse.  We also booked a dinner reervation in the Ashe Hotel just as a change of scene.

There was a sale on in Mountain Warehouse, and I found a great relaxed easy care dress WITH POCKETS that I loved.  So I bought it in 3 colourways.

From there we walked around Tralee town park, on what turned out to be the parkrun route!  There is a sundial dedicated to Neil Armstrong, who’d once trod these paths, and of course many Rose of Tralee related things to look at and admire.  Back in 2002 when I was in Luxembourg, it was decided to inaugurate a Lux Rose competition, and I had some peripheral connection (tap dancing at the Rose Ball, Jemima Irish dancing in a display, my good pal Anne-Marie being one of the contestants). 

So it was with a wistful smile and fond memories of bygone times that I read down the names of the roses from around the world.  No competition this year, a huge loss to the town, and yet another indicator of just what a ubiquitous impact Covid was exerting.

Time for my spa!  I had my temperature checked and filled out a detailed form.  Then I had some time to soak up the rare sunshine in the open air hot tub.  The spa provided a pair of disposable knickers for me to change into, though it took a while to work out which way round they went.  My masseuse worked wonders on my knotty shoulders, and I relaxed in the chill out zone for a while.

Back at our room, I had no key with me, could hear the TV going, but there was no answer to my knocking.  I still had the spa-undies on, though thankfully with a coverall beach dress over them, and I was clutching a plastic bag with my wet swimsuit.  Not really how I wanted to start a search of the hotel looking for R and the key!  When I found him on the terasse, he hadn’t a key with him!  Luckliy reception had a spare, and I was able to dry off properly, change into something more fitting before pretending I was in France and sipping a cocktail on the sun-filled terasse.

Wearing one of my new mountain warehouse dresses, we rang a taxi to take us into town, and the very friendly Albert arrived. 

At the Ashe, I ordered the fish special, which was hake with a sun-dried tomato tapenade, and absolutely delicious.  We went for a bit of a stroll after dinner, before calling Albert again to take us home.  Times were tough he confided.  No Roses, no ‘merican tourists, and no students.

Back at the hotel, I wandered the grounds enjoying the sunset before retiring.

Wednesday was the day we had set aside for doing the Slea Head Drive, and I’d been anxiously checking weather forecasts for over a week.  I needn’t have worried, we had blue sky and sunshine all the way.  After a breakfast of porridge with the hotel’s own honey I donned another of my new dresses and off we set.  Past the Blennerville windmill, and into a Dingle traffic jam.

First stop was Castlegregory Beach.  There is a good car park here, and some clean loos.  Which probably explains why most of the carpark was taken up by motorhomes, in spite of the sign banning them.  The bay is calm, though a little rocky, but seemed popular with swimmers and dog walkers.

Next, the Connor Pass!  No trucks or buses allowed, however there were loads of cyclists.  Is there a special cerfickatick they get for plodding all the way up here?

At the viewpoint there were great views in both directions – back down to Castlegregory to the north, with Mount Brandon brooding over it, and down to the picturesque Dingle to the south.  We swooped down into the town, had a minor kerfuffle finding the right road to the centre, but found a great parking spot by the church, which is free, and in easy walking distance of the the town and the harbour.

We stolled downhill, past the long queue outside the coffee shop – that must be some special brew!  After an ice-cream and short look at some tweed jackets, our next destination was the Ryan’s Daughter beach.  Given the sunny day, that seemed to be the destination of about a billion other people also.  The small car park at the top of the path was jam packed, and cars were parked right down the laneway onto the beach. 

Manoevering around was extremely stressful, and I left R to be amused by the attempts to get up and down, while climbed up Dumore Head, the most westerly point of the mainland.  It’s a specacular view, looking out towards the Blaskets, no wonder it was used for some of the filming of Star Wars.

Carrying on round the drive, our next stop was the fairly new Blasket Centre, and its brand new viewing platform.  When seen from above, this viewpoint is the wiggly W of the WAW sign.  There is also a stunning stained glass window in the centre itself, depicting various aspects of life on the islands.

Saw no dolphins.

The hills on Sybill Head look like solid waves as you approach, and are called the three sisters.

We stopped at abillboard advertised cafe-pottery, only to find the cafe closed and the pottery overpriced.  We should have stopped in Ballyferriter, I’m sure I saw Darth Vadar and Yoda standing ouside a pub!

The hotel has bicycles for use by residents, so we had a few laughs as we made our way to the nearby Ballyseedy Wood.  Thank goodness we both managed to stay upright.

Back at the hotel, we changed for our special dinner in the main restaurant, which was wonderful.

There was heavy rain overnight, but it eased by about 8, so I got into my running gear, and R took me into Tralee town park to do a freedom parkrun.  It’s a nice route, not too hilly, and I’m realiably informed the team here are great, so I’ll look forward to the day when I can run it for real.

Back at the hotel for a late breakfast of chia seed pot, and eggs benedict with no ham.  Then it was time to pack, and head off to the next leg.

 

Cliffs of Moher and more

 

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Always happy with a map in my hand

The next stage of our trip was to pick up the Wild Atlantic Way and head south.  Two years ago we had done the WAW from Sligo as far down as Galway, so it was good to be taking the next part of it.

After breakfast we compared maps and sat navs.  We wanted to take the ferry-to-Kerry, to cut out going through Limerick, and I discovered it was slightly cheaper if we booked online. (18-90 for a car) But we had to persuade the sat nav that we didn’t want to go straight there, but rather take the very scenic coastal route.

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After driving round the bare grey rocks of the Burren, we stopped for a leg stretch at Bishops Quarter beach, which seemed a very calm bay popular with swimmers.  I could see that the sat nav then wanted to take us inland to the cliffs (huh?) while I wanted to hug the WAW.  R agreed to take my suggestion, which I think he regretted the whole rest of the way, as the roads were very narrow indeed, and oncoming vehicles didn’t always pull over where they could.  So the air was blue, but oh my, the views were just breathtaking!  The Aran islands basking in a vivid blue sea, the sun glinting on the waves.  After we turned a corner, there were the cliffs, brown sheer drops bordered by green at the top and blue below. And there was the odd compulsory WAW point for me to try and fail to get the full name in.

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We had booked entrance tickets in advance, and enjoyed a look around the visitor exhibition, using the clean loos, and having a cooling ice cream.

It’s a bit of a walk to the various viewing points, and there are quite a few steps to climb.  There are marked busking points along the way, and there were a variety of musicians playing away.  Although the weather was warm and sunny, it was a little hazy, and I couldn’t quite make out the Kerry mountains to the south or the Twelve Pins to the north.

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As well as the usual tourist gifts in the visitor centre, there are a few more shops near by, including aran jumpers, musical instruments, and jewellry.  I fell in love with a set of items created by a local designer, whose sister was the sales assistant.  They were inspired by the colours of the WAW, and used three different blue stones: agate for the ruggedness of the coast, larimar for the ocean, and topaz for the sky.  I took my time decididng which piece to buy.  I asked the assistant how they were surviving in these unusual times.  She shook her had sadly and said “Normally at this time of year there would be 10 coaches of Americans parked outside.”

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I took time to be thankful that there weren’t huge crowds around, I’m not great in very busy spots.

We waved goodbye and put in the co-ords for the ferry.  Again, I wanted to stick to the WAW, while Sally Satnav kept wanting to take us inland, on more minor roads.  Our eta was just after 2, and as the ferry departed every hour on the hour, we were not expecting to catch that one.  But we pulled up to Killimer dock just as they were finishing boarding, and a crew member motioned us on baord, and to the head of one of the lanes.  The boat cast off straight away, but so smooth was it that R didn’t acutally realise we were moving.  Coronoavirus notices advised everyone to stay inside their vehicles, though not everyone obeyed that instruction.  I had the ticket as a barcode on my phone ready to be scanned, hands free.

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Saw no dolphins.

The queue at Tarbert to go the other direction seemed much longer that ours.  We were reminded that there are many Tarberts in Scotland also – I think the name means something to do with fish, and they are all ports.

The journey from there to Tralee was unremarkable – we went inland rather than yet more coastal driving, and soon were back at the Ballygarry House Hotel, which we’d enjoyed so much on a recent visit , that one of the first things we did when we got home was to book this return trip.

bothforme

This time, we were taking advantage of a special offer that was 2 nights for the price of 3, and included one dinner and a welcoming prosecco cocktail!  R only likes drinks that start with S, end in F, and have a mirno in the middle, so, both for me!  In my matching frock and all!

 

 

Galway

You say staycation, I say holidays in Ireland.

Covid restirctions mean that far flung travel is still fraught with difficulties.  Many countries are on the quarantine list, and more can be added literally overnight.  Take into the mix the health risks of flying, and who wants to go on a cruise these days, means that holidaying closer to home becomes even more attractive.

I’d tried and failed to visit Galway previously, so I was really excited to be starting our trip in the City of Tribes.

The journey took about 4 hours on good motorways.  We did stop at a service station which was in Kildare, and as it was one of the counties that had recently been put under more restrictions, I wondered if this would apply here.  But it was open,  I was surrpised that the food outlets were still operating, including the touch screen ordering at Burger King.  And eat-in was an option.  It’s amazing how my brain now picks up things like hand sanitiser stations, supervision of numbers on-site, one-way social distancing flows……..or the lack of same.

Our destination was the Harbour Hotel, right by the marina, which was very well located, and had ample car parking at the rear.  My map reading and the sat nav instructions were in agreement, tourist maps and leaflets acquired, and we were soon heading out for our first wander around.  Plenty of covid-conspiracy grafitti.

Pubs that don’t serve food are still closed, and other cafes and restaurants either have a queue to get a table, or you need to book in advance.  We decided to reserve a table in the hotel restaurant tonight, rather than run into difficulties finding somewhere in town.  The only spot they had was at 5.30.  As my friend Sarah would say, “Norn Irn tea time!”

We strolled past the large (and smelly) boats in the harbour, and found that the gate at the far side was closed.  R leaped over the fence, but I was more reluctant.  A passer-by was trying to shout instructions across the road, but I couldn’t make him out, and he picked his way through the traffic to open the gate for me.  Thank you!

We found ourselves at Spanish Arch, and our first expereince of the ever-present busking in this lively and musical city.

A trio were delighting people in the bright sunny square with some rock covers, the sun was shining, swans were gliding on the River Corrib, and a Galway hooker was putting up its sails.

The main street into Latin Quarter looked quite busy, so we wore our masks and took our time dandering past the cladagh jewellers and aran jumper shops.  I found a Murphys ice cream emporium, and cooled down with my favourite Dingle gin flavour whilst enjoying some more busking.  We found a Morrocan restaurant that looked interesting, and booked a table for tomorrow night’s dinner there.

Back at the hotel, I changed into a holiday maxi for dinner.  The Dillisk restaurant has a strong marine theme, including a seaweed garnished High and Dry gin cocktail, and seaweed flavoured wheaten bread.  There was sea bass on the menu, but it was supposed to come with gnocchi, which I don’t really care for.  But the staff volunteered to swap that for chips.

After dinner I took a stroll through the Claddagh, an open grassy are popular with young people who were relaxing with a few drinks.

We had booked a breakfast slot at 8.30, and the serve yourself buffet had plates individually wrapped in cling film.  I had some bread and cheese, and ordered scrambled eggs.  I was a little concerned that all the customers were being seated at adjacent tables, rather than spreading us out a bit more.  Ther was a mysterious bra abandoned by the lift – I’m guessing what happens in Galway stays in Galway.

It was a Sunday morning, which makes for a pleasant wander through less crowded streets.  We got some iced coffees to sip while people watching at Eyre Square, and I bought an enamel brooch from a chatty jeweller, who suggested we take the “ferry to Kerry” on our journey south, which would avoid going through Limerick.

I did my “not parkrun” by sticking to the water’s edge and running out the 1km causeway to Mutton Island.

The weather was glorious – normally we’d find somewhere to sit and enjoy a drink in the sunshine, but current restricitons make that more diffuclt.  We found a quiet-ish spot down Kirwan’s Lane, and ordered some food to go with our drinks.  I get the feeling the noisy girls beside us had ordered one plate of chips between them, so no doubt there are ways around the rules.

To our restaurant for dinner – I ordered a veggie tagine and a glass of chardonnay…..to be told that they don’t serve alcohol!  But the waiter helpfully gave directions to a Spar round the corner where I procured a bottle for us to share.  Much cheaper that way anyway.  The food was delicious, and we took the long way home via Long Walk, soaking up the colourful atmosphere.

I booked a ticket for the Shannon ferry online, ready for our trip next day to the Cliffs of Moher and beyond.

 

 

Mostly Munster

Munster consists of the following counties: Kerry, Cork, Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and Waterford.  Time to Take A Break – how many of them could I visit in a short trip, the first venture since the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down?

Wednesday

I like following a map, not for navigation purposes (the sat nav handles that), but just to get a feel for geography, to know which those mountains are, to spot any points of interest along the way.  The road map I was using on this adventure was 15 years old, but to be honest, roads don’t change that much.  Even the new motorways are often just upgraded N roads.  So it was interesting and useful enough to follow.

Drogheda is as busy as it ever was – back in the old days the Belfast-Dublin route used to go through the centre of town, with huge delays and traffic hold ups.

I had a cuppa at a cute little place in Ashbourne Industrial estate.  Face masks are mandatory in indoor retail places, so I was getting used to having mine always to hand.

We stayed at the Maldron Hotel Newlands Cross, and booked a table at the Chinese across the road, the Hong Han.  They used to specialise in buffet style food, but that’s no longer feasible.  However, they were doing a non-stop- roaring trade in takeaway for collection.

I realised it was the first time I’d eaten out in over 4 months, and I thoroughly enjoyed my king prawn and broccoli. The prawn crackers were served with what I’m sure was gravy.

Thursday

I had a rejuvenating night’s sleep in crisp white sheets, though the bright standby light on the telly was annoying.  Is there a travel hack to get around this problem?  The shower was noisy and underpowered.  Breakfast was another area where previous practices have had to be changed.  No more communal queueing and handling of the buffet serving spoons, instead food has to be ordered from a menu.  I had the vegan thyme mushrooms on toasted sourdough, which was nice and light and damn tasty.

We enjoyed surfing through local radio stations as we travelled.  On South East radio they announce recent death notices, followed by a piece of sombre music.  Very Hunger Games!

In Wexford I found the statue of John Barry at the Crescent.  He became known as “The father of the American Navy”, and every year a wreath is laid at this statue.  I was impressed at a photo of JFK taking part in this ceremony.   History has its eyes on you!  There was a teeny alleyway leading up to the main shopping street.  The train crawls through here at a very slow speed.

The John Barry pub on the corner, like all other “wet pubs” which don’t serve food, was closed, with a suitably depressing notice on the door.  This feature was sadly repeated everywhere we went.

I love bridges, and was very impressed with the new  Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, very fine indeed.  At 887m, it is Ireland’s longest, and was opened earlier in 2020.  It crosses the River Barrow from Wexford into Kilkenny.  And now we were into Munster, and crossing the Rice bridge over the River Suir into Waterford city– does the central span lift, I wonder?

Our route took us over another stunning cablestay modern bridge, the Thomas Francis Meagher , and we changed radio stations to WLR.

We stayed in Clonmel – home of Magners/ Bulmers cider.  The Raheen House Hotel had a sign-in sheet for contact tracing, lots of sanitiser about the place, and it was not possible just to have a drink at the bar.  There are beautiful gardens with a wide variety of plants, which allowed for a pleasant stroll.  The magnolia (rhododendron?) blossoms were as big as my hand.  Dinner was served in a soft gentle atmosphere, with candles in the fireplace and classical music playing in the background.  I tucked into some tasty fish and chips with great tartare and mushy peas.  Early to bed, and slept well.

Friday

We had pre-ordered breakfast the night before – I chose grapefruit segments and a 2 egg omelette with mushroom and cheese.  I was a little bit worried about the bowl of sugar and salt sachets on the table – how Covid safe is that?  Imagine I had glitter on my fingers….

The radio was on in the background, and I was struck by how non-aggressive the interviewing style was.  That combative “not letting you finish what you’re saying before repeating the question more animatedly” technique is now rife in the BBC, and it’s not helpful to actually hearing what people have to say.  After breakfast I took a walk by the river.

We found ourselves listening to the morning show on RTE Lyric,  what a strange mix of music, including Goodness Gracious Me, which you would never be able to publish these days.  There was a cooking slot, and I must admit the recipe for mango salsa sounded delicious, I might try that with some grilled halloumi or prawns.

Over there are the Galtee mountains, where the cheese comes from.  This part of the country has rich fertile ground, meaning lots of farming traffic, and roadside stalls selling strawberries and potatoes.

“Welcome to Tipperary – you’ve come a long way” says the sign at the edge of town.  The N24 goes through the centre of town, which is jam packed with delivery lorries.  I could see protest placards about the “road of death” but I wasn’t immediately sure whether they were for or against a bypass.

We stopped in Newmarket, Co Cork, which probably hasn’t changed in years.  Into a coffee shop – there was a limit on numbers entering, and hand sanitiser….but sachets of ketchup in a common bowl.  A sign in sheet for contact tracing, was by the till, with a communal pen, but no-one was ensuring that everyone used it.  Still a 10 euro limit on credit card (ie contactless) payments.  I ordered a cheese scone with my coffee, which came with a mound of grated cheese, a new one on me.  Was I supposed to sprinkle it on the scone or was it just for decoration?

I had to use the cash machine in the Spar , but I did find a a lovely rust jacket in a sale in an old fashioned drapers.  “That’s not a local accent?” said the lady behind the till, and we chatted about how the pandemic has affected everyone in different ways.  Those in the arts sector found their work ceased overnight, with little prospect of getting back to normality any time soon.  Whereas farmers and local shops like this, not so dependent on tourist trade, are impacted less.

Sadly I missed a phone-call from the spa where I had been on the waiting list. Oh well, no-one really wants to see my runners’ toes!

The road carried on over the mountains, where it’s hard to have straight roads.

We skirted Limerick, where the signpost as you enter the motorway made it clear what vehicles were not allowed to use it!

Into Tralee, Co Kerry, where this year’s Rose Festival has sadly had to be cancelled.  We stayed at the Ballygarry House Hotel, just on the edge of town.  There was limited mask wearing, though we later clarified it was only mandatory in retail outlets, rather than hotels.  I changed into a colourful holiday maxi dress and we had dinner in brasserie, halloumi salad and not-Chardonnay.  I felt bad having to say no to this and sending the wine back, the waitress even produced the till receipt to show that it did indeed say “Chardonnay”.  All I can say is, my palate has had a lot of practice over the years.  Never mind, I switched to Pinot Grigio, which was fresh and light and a good accompaniment to the salad.

Saturday

Well that was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages!  The beds are ginormous, and the white cotton bed linen crisp and inviting.

The breakfast buffet is still there, but not help yourself.  You point at or ask for what you want and it is served to you by a member of staff.  Hot food is ordered from a laminated menu.  All the menus have a little box explaining what changes have been made to keep everyone safe.  I had a glass of cranberry juice and poached eggs on avocado and tomato toast.  The portion sizes were just right, and the menu held lots of tempting choices, including porridge with their own honey.  We watched the bees outside the window and spotted the hives a bit further back.  Lovely grounds, must be popular for weddings….which have of course been severely hit by the Covid restrictions.

Running gear on, we headed to Inch beach, a popular surfing spot and an official parkrun route.  Grey and dull, I couldn’t see any mountains, though Ireland’s tallest are just over there.

Lots of other runners were around, some bravely barefoot, as with the number of jellyfish I was dodging I wouldn’t be setting foot in the sea without a wetsuit.

The loos were open, an unusual feature in these times, so I was able to change into loose black trousers and jade shirt.  Cafes and  BnB are right next to the beach, which I will note for when parkruns are eventually back up and running, as it were. Jogging on sand is always challenging, but I enjoyed the sea air and listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.

Our next stop was Minard Castle in the mizzle, with conspiracy graffiti on the coronavirus notices.

From there we went into Dingle which was packed!  After a bit of a wait for a parking space, we wandered by the harbour, watching the tourist boats fill up with hopeful dolphin-watchers. I’m not sure I’d want to be on a boat with lots of others jostling around on the ocean waves.

We called into a café within a store, and I was appalled:

  • Very little mask wearing (even though this is a retail store)
  • No sanitiser at entrance to café
  • Tables held communal cutlery, sugar, salt and pepper shakers, milk jug
  • No sign in sheet
  • Didn’t see tables being sanitised between uses.
  • No paper towels in the gents (so when were they last checked?)

We felt uncomfortable and didn’t stay any longer than we had to.

We treated ourselves to some fabulous ice cream at Murphys – Dingle gin, sea salt, and Irish brown bread flavours. Breakfast of champions!

There were too many people around, no social distancing being practiced, crowding round the ice cream shops etc, so we decided to head back to car.  The heavens opened,  the wind threatened to blow us all away, and we got absolutely drenched.  Luckily the dogs’ towel was there.

Back we went  through Anascaul, home of Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, and the north side of the peninsula.  Showered and chilled out in the hotel’s fluffy white robe and slippers.

I went for a walk in Ballyseedy Wood, but I didn’t spot any of the otters or red squirrels.

Dinner in the brasserie, where the menus are on disposable paper, discarded after each use.  I chose a goat cheese in a nut crumb with spiced pear and beetroot salsa.  There was very good attention to cleaning tables and sanitising between use from the staff.

Sunday

Lovely breakfast – chia seed pudding, French toast, and a drizzle of their honey.

We had an insightful chat with the manager, who remained very visible throughout our stay, and who was very conscious of the damage that one photo on social media could do.  So his brief to staff was – customers have their eyes on you.  And his clear objective was to persuade customers that You’ll be Back.

We listened to Hamilton en route back home, reaching Barak Obama Plaza just as One Last Time was playing (R’ s favourite version of that number has Obama himself delivering Washington’s farewell address).  Obama, like many US presidents, has Irish roots, and he and Michelle visited relatives here back in 2011, including pouring a pint of Guinness in a nearby pub.  Someone had the Offaly bright idea of turning the service station into an attraction in itself, and there is now a mini conference centre upstairs.  The dog holding area is called “Central Bark”.

Home

What did I miss?  Well, I don’t think we managed to cross into Clare, so I didn’t quite tick off the full Munster House.

And it won’t be “One Last Time”, as we enjoyed our stay so much that we straight away booked for another visit!  I shall get my reservation in to the spa in good time, so I’ll be able to report back on that.  The honey and Irish whiskey body scrub sounds fabulous, I’ll just have to be patient while I wait for it…..