Half-remembered Travels: Monet’s Gardens in Giverny

Claude Monet's house in Giverny

Claude Monet's house

When my wife and I visited Paris for our honeymoon a couple of years ago, my favorite part of the trip wasn’t even in the city. And we almost didn’t make it there, either.

We had a week in the City of Light, and while we knew there was plenty to keep us occupied within its borders, I figured a day trip would be a good respite from busy streets, crowded museums and hurrying Parisians. Now it seems to me that when people talk about day trips from Paris, they mostly talk about Versailles, a mere 40 minutes by train.

I can’t quite remember why we didn’t go. Maybe we were afraid of the crowds. Or I thought I was too cool to go to that place everyone else goes to. It’s possible we just didn’t find the idea of a palace that interesting, and that the gardens there didn’t seem much to different from what we could find in Paris itself. At any rate, we chose Claude Monet, even though Giverny, the little village (population 502 in 2008) that is home to his water lily ponds, was at least an hour away.

Our plan was simple. The train would take us to Vernon. We’d skip the taxis and shuttle bus, and rent a couple of bikes for a scenic 4-mile ride through French countryside on our way to seeing a master artist’s inspiration.

We barely made it out of the city. Continue reading

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New kid on Block Island

Sachem Pond on Block Island.

Sachem Pond on Block Island.

I suppose I should apologize for the awful title. But I won’t.

It’s been more than a couple of weeks since I stayed there for the long Labor Day weekend, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about Block Island.

So here’s what I liked about the place: The beaches. Not just the beaches, but the fact that I could go to any beach on the island, if I was so inclined, easily and for free. Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary, Day 7: Guinness, Guinness and more Guinness in Dublin

Pints of Guinness

Pints of the national beverage.

OK, so we weren’t that bad. But we only had a few hours left before we had to fly out, and our only plan for the day was to visit the Guinness Storehouse — anything else would be a bonus. Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary, Day 6: The Cliffs of Moher and a Dublin shock to the system

Cliffs of MoherWe almost passed on the Cliffs of Moher.

Our next hotel was in Dublin, a couple of hours away, and the cliffs were an hour’s drive in the wrong direction. Not only that, but we were flying out early the following afternoon, and didn’t want to give Dublin short shrift. Those were my concerns, anyway — my wife was in favor of going the whole time, and she was right.

Really, how could we be that close to one of the wonders of the world — probably one of the top five sights in Ireland — and not go? Who knew when, or if, we’d ever be back?

So we set out early and arrived shortly after the 9 a.m. opening time. We thought we were the first people there, but a tour bus and maybe a dozen cars had beaten us to it. Still, it was far from crowded. Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary, Day 5: A wild time on tourist-friendly Inishmore

Meeting a horse on Inishmore

Making a new friend on Inishmore.

One of the (many) things I glossed over in the past couple of blog entries was the dramatic change in scenery as we traveled north. The lush greens that enveloped us on the Ring of Kerry soon gave way to rocky open fields filled with hardy-looking brush. In a way, it prepared us for the rugged beauty of Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland.

Our first morning in Galway, we woke up early for the 45-minute drive west along the coast to Rossaveal, to catch the first (10:30 a.m., 25 euro round-trip) of the three ferries to Inishmore. (You can also take the ferries out of Doolin, which is about an hour and a half south of Galway. It’s close to the Cliffs of Moher, which is a plus; the downside is that crossings are more likely to be affected by the weather.) Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary: A night of the craic in Galway

Trad music at Taaffes Pub

Trad music at Taaffes Pub in Galway's Latin Quarter.

craic [krak] noun fun and entertainment, especially good conversation and company (often preceded by the): Come for the beer, lads, and stay for the craic!

Truth be told, I hadn’t expected much out of Galway. Back when I was still planning the trip, I’d thought of the city more as a jumping-off point for the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher.

It didn’t help that I’d been to a couple of underwhelming music sessions in other cities. Neither did the fact that we were staying at what appeared to be a hotel for business travelers, and that the drive downtown took us past generic office buildings. Not even the Latin Quarter was promising — it just seemed like the same pedestrian-only streets lined with bars and restaurants that you can find in any European city.

We walked around a little bit, then found our way to Taaffes Pub, which promised trad music every evening at 8. We managed to snag a couple of seats at the bar, ordered some Guinness, and waited. And waited. Then waited some more. Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary, Day 4: Dingle

Previously: Day 3: The Ring of Kerry

Downtown Dingle

Downtown Dingle

Unfortunately, when you only have a couple of days to spend in southwest Ireland, you have to choose between the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. As you can tell from my previous post, we chose the former. But we decided that we couldn’t pass up at least going to Dingle, the only town on the peninsula, before setting off on the 3-hour-plus drive up to our next hotel, in Galway. Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary, Day 3: The Ring of Kerry

Previously: Day 2: Kilkenny, the Rock of Cashel, Killarney

Ladies View, Ring of Kerry

Ladies View, on the Ring of Kerry.

I hadn’t given it much thought until recently, but I’ve always been a city boy. I grew up just outside Metro Manila, in the Philippines, and going there meant many wonderful things. As a child, it meant the visiting the zoo, or eating at McDonald’s, or going in to work with either my mom or dad — I loved tall buildings and elevators and air conditioning. In my teens, it meant hanging out at the gigantic malls with my friends, and soon after that, drinking with them.

I continued to crave city life after moving to the U.S. I lived and worked in central and western Massachusetts, but spent as much time as I could in Boston. From Albany, I jumped at the chance to work in northern New Jersey in large part because I’d be close to New York City. In my travels, I’ve always sought out the places where multitudes of people gather: London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Amsterdam.

This is all a long way of saying that going to Ireland wasn’t necessarily high on my list of destinations. I wasn’t dreading the trip — I knew I’d have a great time — but maybe I didn’t feel that same anticipation, on my way to the great cities of the world. I’ve been in the countryside, driven through it and smelled it, camped out in it, and I didn’t quite see what would be so different about it across the Atlantic.

The Ring of Kerry proved me so very, very wrong. A couple of weeks removed from Ireland, I think of this day as the “meat” of our trip, and as the moment that truly opened me up to the country, in both senses of the word.

We tried to head out as early as we could — even in the off-season, the road outside our hotel was lined with gigantic buses ready to ferry tourists around the Ring of Kerry. Our guidebook recommended heading clockwise around the ring to avoid being stuck behind said buses. The downside is the possibility of running into those buses on the ring’s notoriously narrow roads, but Rick Steves assured us this wasn’t a problem if we got an early enough start. Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary, Day 2: Kilkenny, the Rock of Cashel and Killarney

Previously: Monasterboice, Newgrange, Kilkenny and motoring misadventures

Rock of Cashel

The Rock of Cashel

Unfortunately, we didn’t have that much time to spend in Kilkenny — our next hotel, in Killarney, waited three hours away. But we tried to make the most of it.

After breakfast at the hotel (and by the way, every hotel over there will have the following components of a traditional Irish breakfast: eggs, sausage, bacon, white pudding, grilled tomato. Black pudding, beans and hash browns only made occasional appearances), we took the car and parked just north of the city center. The plan was to walk through downtown on our way to Kilkenny Castle.

We passed the old jail and courthouse — a handsome building — and down an alley spied the gates to St. Francis Abbey Brewery, which makes Smithwick’s. Unfortunately, the latter was closed to tours while we were there.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised by how busy the place was. No, it wasn’t midtown Manhattan, but there was plenty of foot traffic, and the stores and coffee shops we popped into all had people in them (and to think, at this I hadn’t even seen how truly quiet the country’s small towns could be when there are no tourists around). There was even a multistory mall. The pubs and restaurants were still closed, but I did derive some entertainment from their names. Continue reading

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Ireland Travel Diary, Day 1: Monasterboice, Newgrange, Kilkenny and motoring misadventures

Monasterboice

The ruins of Monasterboice, about 40 minutes north of Dublin Airport.

My wife and I recently returned from a weeklong trip to Ireland which took us around the bottom half of the country. We booked a vacation package through Aer Lingus, which included a rental car and hotel accommodations: a night in Kilkenny, two nights each in Killarney and Galway, and, finally, one night in Dublin — everything else in between was up to us.

I think we did a (mostly) good job of managing our time — seeing and doing what we wanted to without feeling rushed or tired — so I’m writing a chronological account of the trip so you can follow along, see what we did right and where we screwed up, and take away some ideas for when you visit Ireland (and believe me, it is worth the trip). Without further ado: Continue reading

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