Monday, August 10, 2015

Outing to explore Skellig Michael

The three of us woke up before sunrise to drive down to the dock where we planned to meet the boat that would take us around two hours out to the sea, before reaching the Skellig Islands. We knew we had a long day ahead of us, so we packed our lunch to eat on the island as well as dramamine pills to help with sea sickness. Unlike the day before, we woke up to an overcast sky and the sure beginnings of a drizzle. 

The Irish family we shared the boat with were quite interesting. They were from the village, but had been living in Singapore for the past decade or so, due to the husband's job. The children had essentially been brought up in Singapore and attended international school. But the family still visited Ireland each summer to catch up with extended family and provide exposure to Irish culture for the kids, no doubt. The three of us were especially taken by "Yoda Nan" as her grandkids affectionately called her, and I can see why. She had the wizened old character of someone who had been through a lot of turmoil, but took it all in stride. The boat ride was clear proof of that. It was raining and the waves were immensely choppy, but this granny didn't mention a word. She was so stoic and awe inspiring really. Yoda Nan, as it turned out, was the perfect nickname for granny, considering the fact that the new Star Wars movie shot some scenes here for Episode VII. 

The entire boat ordeal was nightmarish. Thank goodness for the dramamine pills because I'm sure I would have been sick otherwise. The small boat took a good beating over some waves, and I felt like I was on water theme park ride, where everyone inevitably gets drenched. It was miserable. I closed my eyes for the most part and kept praying for the ride to be over. When I first saw one of the Skellig islands, I whooped for joy. I am definitely not cut out to be a sailor. 

The owner of the boat had two dogs, and I was so afraid that they'd fall into the sea because they were so lightweight! But they managed to stay on board...and we finally were able to dock onto land.

We were told that there were no public restrooms on the island, and that we should practice the utmost caution when climbing up the stone hewn stairs, as there had been incidents of death from careless tourists in the past. Of those two statements, the first was more alarming. No bathroom?! I already had to go rather urgently and couldn't fathom enjoying my time on the island with a full bladder to worry about. Colleen and I were on the same page, actually. So, embarrassing confession: After picnicking, I made my way over to a crevice in the unique rock formations in search of a cave... and may have peed on some endangered peat moss. They should have told us there were no restrooms on the island beforehand! But even so, a full day out there and no restroom. That's tough. I suppose they want to keep the island from becoming overloaded with tourists, but still. Thankfully, no one noticed, and I felt so.much.better. Be warned: Make sure to use the bathroom plenty of times before going to the Skellig Islands and don't drink liquids.

I was very excited to spot puffins everywhere. They have got to be some of the cutest creatures out there. Their nests were buried in the delicate moss and alongside the rock formations, in the cracks.

Getting up to the settlement was another journey. It was rather windy and the steps were very steep. A lot of people would stop for breaks along the way. There were no handrails and hardly any changes had been made since the last family that occupied this island.

When we finally reached the top, we were able to learn about the unique rock structures that early settlers had assembled to keep themselves dry. Why anyone would want to live in such harsh conditions of their own volition is beyond me. So it doesn't surprise me that the settlement began as a monastery sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries. You've got to be a masochist to live out here. Or an ascetic. Or a combination of both. Ideal conditions for monks, wouldn't you say?

What shocked me was that after the monks left, there were cases of families living out here. The Butler family occupied the island until the 1820s. A young child died after catching a nasty cold. I believe this was a graveyard filled with unnamed stone markers. I overheard a guide telling a group that the Butler family tried to raise cows out here, but they didn't survive. I was still pretty incredulous that people would choose to live here at all. It's pretty remote (two hours out from the coast), and there's no electricity on the island. Just the stone structures. It would've been wet, drafty, and inconvenient in many ways. I will say that I was mighty impressed by the dedication to building the stone mounds. We were able to go inside them, and it was miraculously dry.

On our way back down, I spent some time trying to capture photos of the puffins in flight, and this was probably my best shot with a 50mm lens. Not the most ideal lens for an active shot, but it's what I had to work with. Their beaks are so colorful, and their eyes are so expressive!

Clouds continuing to gather ominously. It began to rain steadily on our trip back to the mainland. I was drenched to the bone and was so thankful to make it back to the village to change into dry clothes. I had an Irish coffee afterwards with bread pudding. That helped too. :-)

Aranka pondering the cliff formations. It's so funny to think that JJ Abrams would film here a few weeks later for some scenes of Star Wars Episode VII! We later read in the media that access to the islands proved to be rather restrictive due to the fragile ecosystem of the wildlife. But they managed to get some filming done, so I'm excited to see that when I go watch the movie.

The entire island just had the feeling of being untouched. And yonder in the distance lay Little Skellig, which I'm sure is even more wild and inaccessible. I'm not sure that anyone lived out there. 

Despite the gloomy weather and the really turbulent and unpleasant boat ride over, I'd say that the magical puffins and amazing history of the island made it all worthwhile. I don't know that I'd visit again, though. Once is enough for me. ; )

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Driving along the Wild Atlantic Way

Ireland's coastline is very magical. Our drive along the Wild Atlantic Way gave us some awesome panoramic views of the rocky cliffs, and this particular day was so balmy and calm. It made the ride very enjoyable. The roads were rather narrow at times and there were lots of twists and turns, but it was so nice to see various villages and all the luscious green fields surrounding us. Ireland definitely earned its "emerald isle" nickname. 

Make way for sheep! We saw many sheep roaming around the hills, but this pair gave me a good laugh. We were trying to figure out how to get to our bed and breakfast located in the village of Kinvara, and we spotted these two hanging about under the signs. They were actually heading in the direction we needed to go, which made it all the more hilarious. When in doubt, follow the sheep. Another interesting thing to note is that all the signage in Ireland includes both the Gaelic and English spelling of things. Gaelic, or Irish, is a dying language, sadly, and most schools require students to learn the language as part of the academic curriculum. But most Irish folks I spoke to say that most people just speak English. Once, when we were shopping in Cork, I heard some older ladies speaking Irish, and it was enchanting. They were also in their late 70s or so. Definitely a different generation. I had to strain my ears to figure out what they were speaking, it sounded elvish to me.

Lots of winding roads! 

First fish and chips meal in Ireland, and it was amazingly hot and flaky. I still think my favorite fish n' chips experience that I've had was in Scotland – there was a torrential downpour of rain and the fish shack provided shelter. Plus, the battered cord was wrapped in newspaper, which is kind of a must. But this was pretty good, too! It was pretty popular with families and locals, which is always a good sign in my book.

After checking into our bed and breakfast and arranging for a boat ride to take us out to Skellig Islands early the next morning, we walked around the rock strewn beach. It was so calm and peaceful. That's one thing I appreciated about Ireland's village coastlines – many are secluded and pristine with nary a tourist in sight, besides us, I mean. ;) It gives you the opportunity to experience the beach as locals. Of course, there are high traffic areas around the Ring of Kerry and the Cliffs of Moher, but that's why I would stress making it out to some smaller villages.

Looking out along the horizon, I felt a wave of nostalgia and uncertainty wash over me. My days living in Europe were dwindling, and even though I was enjoying our trip, I couldn't help but think about the frantic days that would ensue. I brushed these thoughts aside and tried to focus on being present, but that's easier said than done. Especially if you're a planner.

Our cozy bed and breakfast! We had to wake up at 5am the next morning to make our boat to see Skellig Michael. I don't think any of us slept too well that night.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Killarney's killer views

We entered the famous Ring of Kerry and stopped at Killarney National Park to take in the views. You know what's missing in these photographs? Dinosaurs. It feels so prehistorically pristine. This valley felt very "Land Before Time," to me. Can't you see it? It was good to stretch and breathe in the clean air as well. 

One of our few group photos of the motley crew, as it were. Colleen missed the memo on color coordination. Green is obviously the way to go in Ireland, hello. She makes up for it by being Irish. Her blood is green. ;)

These rubber flats from Crocs are probably one of the best purchases I've made this year. They are so suitable for travel. They're water proof, so they double as shower shoes, and the rubber adds a spring to your step. Perfect for walking all day when you're exploring new places and don't have time for tired feet. Ishita recommended it to me, and she also travels a lot. I will say, the one downside can be that your feet may get cold, but I'm not above wearing socks with these flats. Yes, I committed a fashion faux pas and did that a couple times. Anyway, sizes run large, so I'd order a size down. I made that mistake and had to reorder on Amazon. 

The star of the show, our blue compact car. Not the most fancy, but she gets the job done. 

On the road again...onward into the green coast.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Exploring Cork city

We are officially beginning our road trip around Ireland! It takes around three hours to drive from Dublin to Cork, and Colleen had no trouble driving a stick shift on the opposite side of the road. She is amazing. We didn't have a GPS, so Aranka was navigating the entire time. It was good times. We arrived to County Cork in the evening, and I had great fun, or craic, as the Irish would say, listening to the noticeable shift in accent from Dublin. I think one of my favorite parts of this trip was listening to the diversity of accents. I would practice in the car, while reading excerpts of my Ireland travel guide aloud to C and A. I felt like Doctor Doolittle. 

Crossing the River Lee to get to the city center to start our day. So glad for the blue skies and sun. Cork city is located in the southwest coast, and its city center is actually on an island in the river. 

Who doesn't love a good food market? The English Market is the place to go in Cork city, if you're in search for fresh ingredients or just a fun to place to browse. Queen Elizabeth made a visit, and if it's good enough for her... Anyway, after pursuing around some shops in the city center, we made a point to come here for an early morning bite.

As a foodie, there was one thing I was really looking forward to on this road trip – fresh, quality seafood. Hungary is a landlocked country, so I don't get the chance to eat much fish there. I was so excited about all the choices here. Mmmm, salmon, haddock, oysters! The possibilities are endless.

Nothing beats a good cup of coffee paired with a scone to start the morning off right.

This is such a cute concept for a bar – Arthur Mayne's Pharmacy is the latest addition to Cork Heritage Pub Trail. It is a 120 year old chemist shop, which turned into a wine bar. Let me tell you how fitting this was for Aranka. She is obsessed with chemists and pharmacy shops because she loves browsing and exploring different cosmetic products. It was good fun to see the pub pay homage to its roots with this front entry, a glass cabinet featuring vintage potions and the like. The bathroom was even better, it felt like stepping back in time. This pub was recommended to us by the place we were staying, and it did not disappoint. The food was good, beer list had an abundance of local options, and the ambience was chill.

It was an ideal place for us to plan for our next stop. We were planning on getting onto the Wild Atlantic Way soon, which is a scenic coastal route in Ireland. Something akin to Highway 101 on the Pacific Coast, I suppose. Anyway, I went with the stout, since I'm a fan of dark beers and Aranka and Colleen opted for a lager and cider.

So a stout, lager, and cider walk into a bar...

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Ireland road trip: First stop, Dublin!

For my final holiday before moving back to America, I embarked on a week-long road trip with my colleagues that would take us around the southern half of the country. We decided on Ireland because we wanted to explore the scenic countryside and drive along the Wild Atlantic Way. It also happens to be Colleen's ancestral homeland. We landed in Dublin, that fair city, and who should we spot but Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey of architectural fame. They are, in fact, the architects of CEU's new campus building, so we had interviewed them and met them in person in Budapest. I guess they also happen to be two of Ireland's natural treasures because this larger than life photo was the first thing we saw when we went inside the airport.
Following a heat wave in Budapest, filled with sleepless nights tossing and turning from the lack of circulating air (my flat has no AC), it was lovely to go somewhere cooler and breezier. I booked a penthouse flat in Dublin, which had access to a rather large terrace, where we could appreciate the green hills in the distance and generally orient ourselves with the cityscape. 
We passed the iconic Molly Malone statue after touring the grounds of Trinity College, Dublin. Of course, we stopped to take a photo...
Traffic on the opposite side of the road. Took me back to my study abroad in England, where I had to constantly remind myself to look right before crossing the street, so I wouldn't get run over. Dublin was a manageable city to explore in a couple days. We didn't try to jam pack too much into our schedule. It is a holiday, after all. ;)
One place that piqued my interest was the Chester Beatty Library. I read that it houses a vast collection of rare art and manuscripts. It's also free admission, which was a nice change from most other museums in Europe. What drew us in, though, was an exhibit called, "Damsels for Dinner: Tale of Oeyama," a Japanese medieval tale about an ogre/demon who kidnaps maidens and eats them. The scrolls featured one of the oldest comics out there, I suppose. A gruesome one. There was also an impressive collection of ancient religious manuscripts. Highly recommend visiting!
Petunias on the window sill of Bram Stoker's birth place. Caught my eye. 
The Stag's Head, one of the oldest Victorian pubs in Dublin, was where we stopped for a much needed lunch break. We were seated in the parlor lounge at the back of the pub, which was formally a "fashionable Victorian smoking room." Classy. I ordered the lamb shank, and Aranka and Colleen had fish and chips. We were also excited to taste the cider and have a pint of Guinness. One of my Irish friends told me that the Guinness in Dublin tastes so much better, and this is strangely true.

Some brief history about the historic pub:
The Stag’s Head was the brainchild of Westmoreland merchant George Tyson who came to Ireland in the 1870’s and established a thriving Menswear and Haderdashery business in Grafton Street, from where he was appointed ‘outfitter and shirtmaker to the Lord Lieutenant’. He acquired this premises in the early 1890’s and commissioned leading architect J.M. McGloughlin of Pearse Street to build Dublin’s most advanced and distinctive Victorian pub - and the first in the Capital to enjoy electric light. The new creation opened its doors to the Dublin public in May 1894 amid majestic fanfare and distinguished patronage including the Lord Lieutenant and the most respected members of contemporary Victorian society. Tyson’s name is still to be seen on the large clock on the outside of the building. Another outstanding vestige of this era is the little parlour lounge discreetly situated behind the main bar; in former times this area served as a fashionable Victorian smoking room.
We continued exploring the city after lunch, and I was grateful for reminders to look right, haha. 
Colleen wanted to go see the bog people, which are housed in the National Museum of Archaeology. Some interesting facts about the exhibit:
The word 'bog' is derived from the Irish word bogarch, which means 'soft'. Peat bog covers 17% of Ireland's surface, which gives us the third highest proportion of peatland in the world, after Canada and Finland. 
It takes one thousand years to grow just a one meter depth of bog. The peat itself consists of 95% water, the remainder made up of rotted vegetation, pollen, dust and the like. In Ireland, it has traditionally been cut and dried and burned in the fireplace as turf. It is usually as a result of turf-cutting that the bog bodies come to light. The cold, acidic, oxygen-free conditions within the peat prevent decay and act to mummify and preserve the tissues of animal and human bodies.
Around a hundred bodies have been found in our Irish bogs to date, some male, some female, and those of children too. Some were thought to be there by accident, perhaps as a result of falling into the bog and drowning. Others were considered to be formal (and some not so formal) burials, and others appear to be rather more sinister.
We made a quick tour of Temple Bar neighborhood for a coffee break but didn't stay too long, since we had to hit the road. Next stop: County Cork, so! No time to waste.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Celebrating Ishita's last days in Budapest

 I'm not really sure where the time goes, but I now know what it feels like when an hourglass runs empty of its granules of sand. There's so much to do be done! So many projects to finish. Especially in our case, as we still needed to shoot a time-lapse of Budapest for our documentary.
For one reason or another, we had made excuses, until we were down to the wire. Since Ishita was leaving in a matter of days, we decided to shoot the time-lapse as a farewell of sorts. We set up the camera overlooking the Danube River and waited an hour for the sun to set. 
 It's funny how hardly no one notices the precise moment when the city lights are flicked on. Even as we were carefully watching the details of the city skyline on the Buda side, it was hard to spot. But next thing you know, the Chain Bridge was lit up, followed by the street lights and the Buda Castle. A magical scene that my eyes never tire of.
 Zeller Bistro is a restaurant that's literally around the corner of my flat, and we thought that it would be a perfect place to dine for Ishita's last supper in Budapest before her evening flight. I highly recommend this hidden gem for anyone who visits the city. It's located in Pest in the seventh district close to Hunyadi Ter and Andrassy Avenue.
The bistro is located underground and boasts an excellent menu and wine list at an affordable price for the quality of the food being served. It's very gastro-chic and features fusion Hungarian cuisine with a flair for freshly sourced ingredients. We chatted with the owner of the bistro whose father owns a farm in northern Balaton, a region known for its white wine. The dinner was bittersweet. It's crazy to reflect back on the year. Who would've thought that one of my college best friends would move to live with me in Europe for a year? Life is crazy beautiful.
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