Tuesday, June 28, 2011

This is Why We're Here

He didn’t speak a word of English but the man at the small town gas station we had finally found, was still able to communicate that he knew we had caught the ferry from Poole, England that day and we were on our way to Mont St Michel. I suppose the only crazy non-french tourists that come through are doing the same.

Most probably aren’t doing it on a monster of a two-wheeled machine however. After a 4am wake up call, a long walk, a stressful hunt, a taxi, a less stressful hunt, a train, and another taxi, we had picked up our Suzuki DL650 at 9am that morning. The English couple that hired it out to us that morning from their Bournemouth home (complete with Mainecoon and Saint Bernard, who looked like a cartoon he was so big and clumsy) had apparently spent the entire week prior preparing the bike for us. New tyres, new luggage, fully serviced, the works. Packed with all our gear it looked like it might topple but Courtney fell into riding with ease.

The 5 hour ferry from Poole, England to Cherbourg, France was somewhat of a culture shock from us. The only ferries we had been on at home had a small snack bar and two or three decks. This one had 7 decks, a full buffet restaurant, an arcade and multiple bars – and it’s ‘basic’ because there’s no pool.

Once we got past the intimidating French border police we were extremely happy to immediately recognize signs for Mont St-Michel 3 hours away. As soon as we rounded the bend into the countryside we were away laughing – literally. The French countryside looks like every picture you’ve ever seen. Those pictures aren’t of rare beautiful views seen from the occasional hilltop, those pictures are France.

We followed a highway until we decided it was too much of a risk not to get petrol and it was after 10 minutes of exploring that we came across the French mechanic, running a side by side gas station and workshop with 2 pumps and a tiny office with eftpos. He circled on a map our origin and destination and then pointed out each small town we should aim for along the way.

The rest of the ride was a dream, through small villages, past fields and lakes – past fairytale castles that suddenly appear on the horizon. Over hills hiding valleys centred on huge steeples and turrets. It was 2 hours later, nearing our campsite, that we looked across the fields and saw it – the silhouette of Mont St Michel, framed in sunset. After the cold of Ireland (and the great beer and hospitality), the hustle, bustle and horrible hostels of London, this is where we were supposed to be. Everything fell into place.

Penelope_nz's Beauvoir, France photoset Penelope_nz's Beauvoir, France photoset

What to See and Do in London

What to See and Do

Tower of London

Oh how naïve I was, thinking we would be walking up a tower, having a look and leaving. Mind you, that was when we first started researching our trip, but Tower of London is awesome. Built as a Royal Residence and later used as a Prison, it also acted as a weapons store and housed the Royal Menagerie – gifts of wild animals from around the world that later because the London Zoo.

Once inside, join a free guided tour by a Yeoman Warder and then keep exploring on your own. We were there for 3 or 4 hours and while utterly exhausted at the end, we never got bored, and there’s something for everyone. The website gives examples of 1, 2 and 3 hour itineraries and while we didn’t follow any of them, they give you an idea of what to expect. There are a lot of interactive kid-friendly exhibitions without the kid-friendly stuff getting in the way of an adult enjoying themselves. View medieval torture devices, ancient suits of armour, medieval living quarters, or even the Crown Jewels – which are very very impressive but be warned that the long queue outside the jewel house is only the start of the queue on the inside.

Interesting factoid – the Yeoman Warders are not tour guides in costumes, they’re actual Yeoman Warders. They live on site just as their predessors did for hundreds of years, and they have to have done a full term of service in the armed forces, been recognized for their achievements and have achieved a certain rank before they can apply to be a Yeoman Warder.

Walk from Trafalgar square past Downing street to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey

We had planned to see Big Ben and Westminster Abbey on a different day entirely but on our first afternoon we decided to catch the first bus we saw and see where it took us. We got off at Trafalgar Square to see the Lion sculptures mentioned by the Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London. The Lions are awesome, and Trafalgar Square looks like a nice place to have a coffee in the sun, but we didn’t realize when we started walking around, just how close it is to everything. We accidentally stumbled across Downing St completely by accident and Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are a stones throw away, essentially occupying 3 corners of an intersection, although the Abbey is a couple hundred metres down from the instersection itself. Nice easy walk with good pubs for dinner afterwards or you can snack on hot candied peanuts from the vendors on Westminster Bridge – spanning the River Thames just behind Big Ben.

Changing of the Guards

I had no idea there was so much pomp and ceremony involved! If you go, the best position is high on the steps of what I think is called the Queen Victoria monument from memory – the roundabout in front of the palace. While some of the action happens inside the gates, a lot of it happens around the roundabout as well and from this vantage point you can see everything. Marching bands, horse, royal trumpeters – and if you’re lucky, as we were – the Queen may just drive out the drive way with her 30-car entourage.

Visit Hyde park

Aside from our obsession with squirrels, Hyde Park can fill a day easily. We only visited 2 of the four Royal Parks, this and Regents Park but it just felt open and relaxing. Yes, you can see foxes, squirrels and countless types of bird life but there are also several cafes and restaurants, lots of statues and monuments (including a bronze of Peter Pan which is quite cool), a swimming hole called the Lido, and opportunities to hire paddle boats or bicycles. My favourite place was the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and if you make a wrong turn you could end up in her old backyard – Kensington Palace backs onto Hyde Park.

Go to London Dungeon

London Dungeon is not a preserved historical building, it’s just an attraction. It does however use actors, sets and occasionally visitors (Courtney got burnt at the stake. Erm) to tell you the historically accurate stories of some of the scarier times in London’s history. Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, Guy Fawkes and the Plague are among the 14 tales told. It’s spooky but I hate scary things, won’t watch horror movies and have never been to Spookers (a horror park in Auckland) and I still enjoyed it. Granted I wouldn’t let Courtney drag me to the front of our group to be the first ones scared but he enjoyed it all the same. The 14 rooms include 3 rides – a log flume, a motion master and a freefall – and are explored in order, guided by ghosts and zombie-like creatures in groups of about 20. Well worth it.

Ride the London Eye

It’s quite expensive but we loved the London Eye. The whole ride takes half an hour and the view from the top is amazing. You can sit or stand in the capsule you share with approximately 12 other people and walk around and get photos from all sides. One of my favourite photos from the trip so far is me and Courtney with Big Ben in the background, taken from the top.

See a show on the West End

We saw two and we’re seeing another when we get back! Courtney was a theatre and musical virgin when we decided on a whim to see We Will Rock You but he left loving it and we were both blown away the next night by Wicked. We booked our Wicked tickets in advance because it often sells out, as you would want to do with many of the award winning or highly recommended shows, but if you’re not fussy about what you see you can get some awesome last minute deals. The theatres release the last seats for that nights shows to a couple of discount retailers around the West End each day. We turned up to the booth at Leicester Square station around 5pm and saw We Will Rock You at 7.30pm that night, with awesome seats in the Circle Balcony, for half the face value (We paid 30 pounds each). If you’re going to see a show, we can highly recommend both shows, but Wicked was out of this world.

Go to the Science Museum

We only went to a couple, but the Science Museum was probably the museum I’d recommend the most. We went for Courtney’s interest in Science but even I could find the first ever computers interesting. They have a space section including a real capsule off an Apollo flight, as well as sections of transport, energy, biology – everything. And the gift shop is a lot of fun too, even if you only play with the toys!

Take a Bus
Like I’ve said before, public transport in London is awesome. It’s also a great way to see London and link the suburbs together. We could have paid for a Hop-on-Hop-off tour and seen it all in one go, but I think we got all the benefits of the tour by doing it ourselves. I feel like I know London a little bit, we figured out the best ways to get home, the most interesting routes, and the suburbs we definitely didn’t want to check out. We also would never have seen St Pauls Cathedral, Oxford Circus or Trafalgar Square if it weren’t for the buses we were on at the time.

Go to Hard Rock Café

It took us ages to find but when we eventually did, we discovered the gift shop does free tours of the memorabilia vault downstairs. This restaurant is the original, and they have a bank vault filled with the treasures of musical history. It’s kind of cool to note it’s an actual bank vault, from the buildings previous life when it even housed Princess Diana’s dress the night before her wedding. The vault’s not huge but it’s free and a short walk from Hyde Park Corner.  

What Not To Do

Go to Notting Hill during the week

There are a few market stalls that run down Portobello Road all week long and we thought we would go and check them out, see where the movie was made and just generally go exploring. I didn’t love it.  Notting Hill, despite the modern price tags, feels like it must have in its younger days of being a low income area. Without the presumed atmosphere of the market in full swing (which happens on weekends) it just feels a bit dirty and has little to offer. The highlight of our exploration was finding a One Pound Store that outdid anything our $2 Shop has to offer at home.

Go to the Natural History Museum on a school day

We went especially to see the Dinosaurs, and most of the Dinosaur exhibits were closed. The special exhibit featuring life-size animatronic dinosaurs was very cool (although quite short for the 10 pound price) but the main dinosaur hall with the fossils was closed for maintenance. Add to that about a million chattering school children on daytrips and it wasn’t a London highlight. We have nothing against kids in general, but there were so many! I don’t know how teachers do it, because we couldn’t even keep track of the ones walking circles around us. We’re considering going back to the NHM on our way home in September when the Dinosaurs will be back on display, because the kids will be on holidays then (or so I believe).

Make a special trip for Borough Market

Borough Market is cool, but it’s not as cool as the guide books would have you believe. Queen Victoria Markets in Melbourne still reign supreme for me, and I get a better vibe from many of the markets back home. Lot’s of yummy food here but many repeat stalls. I’d go back if I were in the area (and it was a Thursday Friday or Saturday when they’re open) but I wouldn’t make a special trip for it again.

What I Wish I Did

Go on a River Cruise or Duck Boat tour

I wanted to go on a Duck Boat Tour in Dublin and we saw them in London too. At 21 pounds each though, it wasn’t feasible, or good value. Next time I visit London, I’d like to at least do a River Cruise, which is much cheaper.

Hire a Paddle Boat in a Royal Park

I can only speak for Hyde Park and Regents Park but both had Paddle and Row Boats for hire. Just for kicks, I’d love to take one out on the lake on a lazy Summer’s afternoon and get even closer to the birds and even further away from the hustle and bustle.

Rent a Bicycle

All over the city there are stands filled with bikes that you can hire. You pay a one time access fee and then a secondary per hour rate and you can take them anywhere you want in the city as long as they end up back in a stand at some point. It doesn’t have to be the stand you took it from, but it doesnt have to be on time or you get stung with massive late fees. Rather than seeing the city, we’d like to use them just to see more of the parks.

Shop at Oxford Circus

I didn’t even know what Oxford Circus was until we went through it on a bus but it’s basically a shopping district with a lot of ‘Sale!’ signs. It houses Top Shop and most of the other big name brands and if I weren’t on so tight a budget, I’d love to have a browse.

Visit Selfridges or Harrods

I didn’t really care about the big name department stores until I saw the windows of Selfridges in Oxford Circus. Now I’d like to have a look.

Penelope_nz's London photoset Penelope_nz's London photoset

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Comforts of Home

We’re only just over 2 weeks into the trip but there are a couple of things we wish we had with us. You already know how much I miss my furbabies, if I could travel with them I would. We also really miss having our own couch and TV to come home to after a day out.

There are no particular shows we want to watch, but we’ve been leaving the hostel around 10am and getting home after 10pm. If we go to our hostel room we have to go to sleep, because there’s no light and everyone else is in bed, but we just want half an hour between getting home and going to bed where we can sit and wind down. We’re both really looking forward to getting our tent set up in France just so we have our own home base with no one elses dirty laundry on the floor.

It’s not much to miss, and I haven’t been homesick at all. I miss my furs, and I miss my friends. And most of all, on my Mum’s birthday, I miss my Mum and my sister. On a day to day basis, there are no triggers to make me miss them. If I see something they would like, I take a photo or it passes by. Mum’s birthday came and went while we were sleeping and with no internet at the hostel I couldn’t wish her a Happy Birthday. When we got to a café with free Wi-Fi, there were Facebook updates from Mum, my sister and Mum’s best friend mentioning the birthday celebrations and that’s when it’s hard to be the one that’s not there.

We sent a parcel home (Oh my goodness never plan on sending things home from England it’s crazy expensive) and contacted her before her birthday but it’s just not the same. As we head onto the next leg of our journey, including getting the bike, the trip gets more and more exciting for us and time passes quickly. We think often of home but don’t often wish we were there instead. Occasionally though, there’s that little pang and something makes you think of what you’re missing.

I think that’s the beauty of travelling like this. We experience new things every day, some good, some bad. Some show us how far behind our little country is but many remind us what amazing things (and people and furs) we have waiting at home for us in September. Whereas I left being glad to stir the pot a bit, get out of my job of 4 years and out of an adventure-rut and into the big bad world, and while I’m definitely not sick of travelling or anything like that, I can’t wait to get home.

What travel-triggers make you miss home?

Oh, and HAPPY BITHDAY MUM!!!! Love you and miss you heaps xxxxxx

Penelope_nz's London photoset Penelope_nz's London photoset

Sometimes It's The Little Things

Sometimes it’s not the monuments or the landmarks or the stupidly expensive tourist attractions that make your day. Granted I have enjoyed every single cliché immensely. I’m a cliché kinda girl. But someone said on Twitter yesterday something along the lines of making the most of the little moments because you don’t know which will turn out to be big moments in hindsight.

Yesterday we planned on going to the British Museum and then to have a look around Camden Town. On a whim, we started at Borough Markets on the opposite side of town and when we were done there we decided to look around Regents Park, because it was in the same area of the Museum and Camden. Regents Park was alright, but it’s a lot more formal that Hyde Park, all rose gardens and sports fields. Instead of heading to the Museum or Camden, we decided to head back to Hyde Park, one of our favourite spots, and find us some squirrels.

We bought a back of peanuts and headed back to the spot we last fed the squirrels. It took a while to get them used to us but we soon had them running up onto our knees and sitting on our shoulders. At times one would be be jumping off as another was running up to see us. Some were greedy and would pry our fists open to find more peanuts after taking the one offered. Others would only take one but would go and bury it and come back for more to hide. A nursing mother squirrel sat on the back of the chair behind Courts for 45 minutes eating more and more.

Now I don’t know if you’re supposed to feed the Squirrels and I don’t know if peanuts are good for them. We were using unroasted unsalted nuts still in their shells and judging by the number of empty peanut shells around we weren’t the first. I also know that Squirrels are probably very dirty and all that sort of thing. I don’t care how dirty they are, we had so much fun!

Occasionally a family would come past and comment and we would share the peanuts so they could try it too. By the time we left, the squirrels were so trusting of us that I could get one to follow me down the path by clicking my fingers as I walked. We had given the last of our peanuts to a lady a few benches down but the squirrels hadn’t realized and were looking to us for food, soon congregating around this lady when they realized the source had moved.

All in all I think we spent around 1.5-2 hours there, just making Squirrel friends. It was nice to sit and relax for awhile, and it was nice to have animal company. We’re so used to being surrounded by cats and dogs all the time at home that it’s quite difficult to get used to not having them now. I miss Izzy and Toby like crazy and after an afternoon with the Squirrels it was weird to come back to our homebase and not have a fur to curl up with.

So sometimes it’s the little things that end up being amongst the highlights of a holiday. 1.50 for a bag of nuts plus a train to Hyde Park Corner.

What’s been an unexpected highlight of your travels?

Penelope_nz's London photoset Penelope_nz's London photoset

The Underground is Awesome

Not the most exciting topic, but I am so impressed with the ease of getting around London. Several years ago in New York, I had friends that had a good grasp of the Subway and I only had to figure it out for myself twice. The first time I tried I got lost and just caught a taxi instead. The second time I walked ages first so I wouldn’t have to transfer. In London, it’s a whole different story.

I initially looked at all of the things we wanted to do in London based on their proximity to each other. I would look at an attraction and work out what it was closest to, and therefore what attractions we should do on the same day as each other. I thought we would have to walk everywhere, but after a lot of complaining on Courtney’s part when we had to walk home from Kilmainham in Dublin, we decided to attempt public transport.

Londoners, you don’t know how lucky you are. Proven by a Briton in our hostel who thought the Public Transport was rubbish. At home if you want to catch public transport to your destination, first of all the chances are that you will be catching a bus. If you live near a train station, great. Chances are you don’t, because there aren’t nearly as many, and there is no underground, there are no trams. When you catch the bus, 90% of the time (unless you live in the inner-inner city) you need to schedule your day around the bus. Be at the stop early just incase the bus is, and be prepared to wait half an hour just incase it’s late. If you want to transfer, you might be lucky to a two services that are synced together, but often you will have to repeat the whole waiting process again.

In London, the easiest way to get around is the Underground. You swipe your Oyster Card (prepaid travel card, super easy to buy from a machine or a person) and head to your platform. Everything is sign posted so the whole process is ridiculously easy. A train will appear usually within 3 minutes. If you want to transfer, again, 3 minutes. If you want to take the bus, which is sometimes more direct (and sometimes not), I found it a little less convenient because you have to hunt out the bus stop in the area you’re in. You can use your Oyster Card here too though, and once you’re on the bus it’s a great way to get to know the city in context instead of train station to train station.

I was extremely apprehensive about using Public Transport in London but it was so easy. We were never ever limited by location, if we got bored on one side of town, we would go to the other. Easy, quick, and reasonably cheap (32GBP for a week unlimited on trains, buses and underground services). The underground is awesome and convenient. And there’s nothing quite like riding a red double decker bus past Big Ben.

Which country do you think has the best or worst public transport?

Penelope_nz's London photoset Penelope_nz's London photoset

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Worst Hostel I've Ever Stayed In

So I ended up loving London, right? Not so when we arrived. We got to London at 1.30am, arriving at Kings Cross St Pancras Station after a plane, a bus and then a train from Dublin. I was really excited about this hostel because it seemed like luxury compared to the others I had stayed at – a privacy curtain around every bed, individual reading lights and a power point each. Free Wi-Fi, kitchen, lounge. The pictures looked fantastic.

Fast forward to Monday morning at 2am when a very tired me and a very grumpy and sore Courts (carrying both our bags at his insistence) complete the walk from train to hostel. The reception wasn’t overly tidy and the guy behind the counter didn’t really speak English but there weren’t any alarm bells as such. We paid for our week and trudged up the stairs to find our room.

When we opened the door to our room the first thing that hit us was the smell of heat and sweat. There was so many other peoples belongings on the floor that there was literally a square metre to stand on. Although these belongings were scattered everywhere and it looked like a bomb hit the room, it wasn’t entirely the fault of our roommates. There was nowhere to put anything because there were 4 triple-bunks crammed into a room the size of my bedroom at home.

We piled our stuff onto the top bunk, which we had been allocated along with the bottom bunk of the same stack. It was a mission to get the bags up there, not so much because we were aiming 3 bunks up, but because the bunk was so close to the ceiling and our bags didn’t fit between the ceiling and safety rail. The triple height bunks were crammed into a room with normal ceiling height and even with the bottom mattress basically lying on the floor, there wasn’t a lot of room.

I was bitterly disappointed and really upset as well, not least of all because the planning had all been my responsibility. Courtney hates hostels and I thought I’d never get him into another one after this. Crammed onto the smaller-than-a-single bottom mattress together, Courtney got to sleep quite quickly, but I lay awake, unable to sleep with all the people screaming in various languages outside the jarred-open window.

Hostel life, right? I’ve stayed in plenty of hostels – 12 if I count right – and I have reasonable expectations. I have no issues sharing a room with people, I know what I’m doing when I chose a mixed-dorm and I know they’re not quiet places. But I chose this one for the curtains, lights and power points – little indulgences that you don’t get anywhere else. Or here, for that matter. The curtains were non-existent, the lights and power points didn’t work, and the beds were so close my head was next to that of a 50-something bald, fat, hairy, sweaty man.

To be fair, when I asked the manager the next morning if it was possible to get a refund if we changed hostel (everywhere ended up being full) he said yes, he knew the room was rubbish, and he had someone go in and put curtains up that day. He also let us bed-hop through a couple of other, nicer rooms for the next 2 nights before the hostel hit 100% capacity and we had no choice but to go back to room 18. His understanding and hospitality however did not make up for the nasty nasty showers, one of which didn’t even have a shower head or the nasty nasty toilets, several of which you had to stand in a 10cm gap between wall and toilet just to get the door closed around you.

So we are stuck here, and although I’m annoyed that I paid to get the curtains, lights and power points and didn’t get them, they are like I said luxuries and don’t necessarily affect our comfort. If I had somewhere to put my belongings and more than an inch of personal space I’d be happy. Is that so much to ask?

PS. Photos of London are coming!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Be Careful What You Wish For

I really wanted to love London having fallen head over heels for New York City and craving the big city vibe. Oh and how I do! London is awesome. Yes it’s expensive and yes it’s Summer so it's light and yes we’re doing all the tourist-y stuff but I don’t care, I love it here.

Our hostel is the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed at (more to come on that) and so we have a primal need to be away from the hostel at all times. If there was any city this could happen at, London is the best. So far we’ve managed 14 hour stretches away and never even noticed how late it was getting (thank you 10.30pm sunset) or been the slightest bit bored.

Aside from a we’re-hungry-and-went-the-wrong-way argument at the tail end of day one, every moment of the week so far has been great. I’m not sure that we started it the right way, although equally I’m not sure that we did it wrong either. We caught the tube to London Dungeons and spent several hours there. London Dungeons was awesome and the tube was fine, but the best part of the day was afterwards. We had no plans and did not want to go back to the hostel so we decided to catch the first double-decker bus we found and get off it when we saw something interesting. That something was Trafalgar Square, and after that we kept falling all over London landmarks like they were cracks in the pavement. We accidentally found Downing Street, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. We got lost at the worst possible time - as it started raining - but we found our way back to the hole that is our hostel and settled in for the night.

Day two again just kind of fell into place. We saw the Changing of the Guard which is a much bigger fanfare than I ever thought it would be. Not only that but the freaking Queen left the palace as we were waiting and I saw her. Not a fan of the royals? I am. Soul Buddy is English so it's practically law. Either way the Queen and her 30-car security team made my day.

We then wandered to Hyde Park which is very close by. We lost ourselves in the expanses and then Courtney saw a fox. We don't have them at home so it's a very big deal and we semi-followed it until we came across a guy feeding squirrels. He very kindly gave us some nuts and we had the time of our lives getting squirrels to sit on our laps and even one on Courtney's shoulder, as a fox stalked them in the background. Hyde Park is the best place to possibly get lost and we could have spent all day there but it was off to London Dungeon and the London Eye which were both awesome, made even more so by the epic public transport system they have here. 

Not even a two hour trek to find the Hard Rock Cafe (thanks to wrong directions) which then turned out to be closed which then turned out to actually be open but too late could dampen our spirits because upon finding the 'closed' side of the restaurant we found the open shop and just in time to do a tour of the vault downstairs which amongst the treasures of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Sting, Madonna and Kurt Cobain, had Steve Vai's guitar and Freddie Mercury's chair, both of which us loser music fans could touch and take photos with. It was only after this, at 10pm at night, that we found the open side of the restaurant but by then we were spent and it was hometime.

All in all we've spent far more hours out of the hostel than in it and we're yet to lose interest. London wins.

PS. Photos on their way when the Wi-Fi at the hostel comes back on. For now we are in a cafe in Notting Hill, about to explore Portobello Road.

What to See and Do in Dublin

What to see and do:

O’Connell Street
One of the only things we did on the North side of the bridge, O’Connell Street is worth a stroll, if even just on your way to dinner. After the cobbled, windy and narrow streets of many inner city suburbs, the expanse that is O’Connell Street gives you a whole new perspective. The wide centre median, which many people use as a third footpath, has several important statues on it, and the street itself is not only home to many great Irish Bars but our favourite Eddie Rockets branch too.

Temple Bar
Reknowned as the place to be if you want to eat drink and be merry, Temple Bar finds itself on many must-do lists. We never partied in Dublin so our perspective on Temple Bar is slightly different. After the open nature of O’Connell Street, the suburb of Temple Bar is a 180 degree difference, looking and feeling like you thought Dublin would. Narrow alleys, cobbled streets and handpainted signs amongst the professional jobs, all hanging from red brick walls and surrounded by hanging baskets of flowers. And it doesn’t hurt to take your photo at the iconic Temple Bar pub itself.

Guinness Storehouse
Even though I didn’t love every second of the visit, Courtney did, and it’s worth a look. The tour is not of the actual brewery, although the brewery apparently covers 50 acres of land surrounding the Storehouse and you can see the steam and procession plants from the top. It’s better to refer to the tour as that of an exhibition rather than a brewery. It’s very well done, with audio, video, touch and taste aspects. The roasted barley tastes like burnt coffee by the way, but the Guinness taster and the full pint you get for free at the top make up for it. I guess the Storehouse could do with being a little more concise. Courtney had no issues but I got a little bored, not helped by the crowds. The bar on the 4th level does a really lovely lunch for a decent price and the 360 degree view of the entire city from the 5th level is an awesome way to wind down after a couple of hours in the often dimly lit exhibits.

Grafton Street
Although obviously aimed at tourists, Grafton Street is awesome. On the South side of the river and a stones throw from Trinity College (which according to a Taxi driver is worth a day to visit, but we didn’t go), Grafton Street has the best selection of shops we found outside a mall. The street itself is picturesque, and the street performers are what makes the visit worthwhile. There are a lot of them, dotted down the centre of this no-drive zone. You’ll also find another Eddie Rockets branch on a side street here.

National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology
There are several arms of the National Museum dotted around the city, but the Archaeology and National History arms are an easy stroll from both Grafton Street and Trinity College (and not far from Temple Bar). We went specifically out of a morbid curiosity to see the eerily preserved Bog Bodies – 4 examples of people that were killed in various fashions and then thrown in the bog pits of Ireland. They then lay there for thousands of years, where a combination of factors meant that when they were discovered they looked like distorted, leathery but creepily similar versions of themselves. We loved this particular exhibit – the 4 bodies are in separate cave-like rooms within the hall, so you don’t have to see anything you don’t want to see, but there are also objects and even perfectly preserved and restored fur cloaks that have been pulled from the bog, and a video showing how one of the bodies was processed and preserved. It’s really weird seeing a thousand year old body’s skin being lifted because although the preserved bodies are hard, when they come out of the bog they’re soft. Also in the Archaeology museum are exhibits of Vikings, Medieval Ireland, Gold in Ireland and Egyptian Mummies. The Museum is free and although we didn’t visit the other arms of the National Museum, we’ll say with obvious bias that this is the best to visit. It’s not too big so your visit can be as long or short as you want, and it has enough dead bodies (bog, mummy, Viking), gold jewellery and ancient weaponry to interest most people at least for a little while.

Things not to do

Walk in St James Gate by yourself, looking like a tourist, or at any time of night.
This is the area that the Guinness Brewery is in, but we found out as we walked there and when we looked it up afterwards that it’s one of the dodgiest areas of Dublin. It looked and felt it and while we didn’t have any trouble, it’s apparently the place to be if you’re looking to rob someone (or deal drugs or sell yourself).

Visit Kilmainham Gaol if you’re short on time.
This is not to say the gaol isn’t worth a visit but it’s not a must-see if you are short on time. The tour is cool but it doesn’t have very many of the quirky, gruesome or curious stories that make a tour of this nature worthwhile. Rest assured if you’ve done a similar tour where actors are paid you scare you, that won’t happen here. If you’re a museum-type there are several levels of exhibits to view as well which have more of the interesting stories but we visited after a day at Guinness so we were a little exhibited-out and only looked at the first level. Entry is only 6 Euro so it’s good value for money compared to many attractions. Bare in mind the Gaol is ages away from anything and that it’s nowhere near as close to the Guinness Brewery as the tourist maps would have you believe. It’s a cheap taxi from Guinness, or a bus from anywhere else.

What I would have done differently

The Hop-on-hop-off Bus
This is a double decker bus that does a continuous loop of the city over and over again all day, with running commentary from the driver-slash-guide. It passes all major attractions, including going as far out as Guinness and Kilmainham, and fills in the gaps in between. We saw the bus on our first day but the one we saw (there are a few) which we think is the cheapest, was 16 Euro for a two day pass. Since we were at the tail end of our Irish adventures and therefore the tail end of our Irish money*we didn’t think the 16 Euro was justified (I think Courts had 28 Euro total and I had about 60). In hindsight and after many hours of walking, getting lost and a we’re-tired-and-lost argument, it would have totally been worth it, even if we had to eat bread and butter for two days.

The Viking Duck
There is an amphibious vehicle (shaped kind of like a duck and in this case, viking themed) that does tours of Dublin. They drive around the streets and then plunge into the River Liffey and eventually back out again. Everytime they passed us they looked like they were having so much fun, and having done a duck tour in Australia I knew it was genuine so I really wanted to do it but alas, we were totally out of money.

*The first day of a new city, we take out all our budgeted money for that city. If we run out of money in a city, there is no more. This way a city can run out, but the trip never will. Knock on wood. Oh and we combined all of Ireland as one ‘city’ budget-wise since we were only there a week. Also Guinness was prepaid so not affected by our lack of funds.

Penelope_nz's Dublin photoset Penelope_nz's Dublin photoset

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It Should Have Been Obvious

Our first impression of Dublin was that it wasn't as Irish as the places we had previously visited. After visiting the national treasure (Guinness Brewery) and some national history (Kilmainham Gaol) we spent our second day in Dublin in and around Grafton Street. We had a late start but I was desperate to see the bog bodies at the National Museum of Archaeology and Grafton Street was not only nearby, but came on high recommendation from a taxi driver - the best kind of recommendation.

We loved Grafton Street, 100%, but it came across very much as a tourist trap and not somewhere the locals go to wile away a Sunday afternoon. Every few metres were street performers of every skill set (and skill level), from musicians to magicians. Our favourite was one of the three living statues scattered down the street, this one painted to look like the blackened statues of the city rather than someone with a bucket of metallic face paint poured over them. He held a pipe which we later figured out was filled with bird seed, and pigeons took turns perching on him to add to the display.

After successfully navigating the museum and finally seeing the bog bodies (just as morbid, creepy and cool as I hoped they would be) we still felt Dublin was more of a city of the world than of Ireland. Making our way back to the hostel to pack, we were drawn to a pub only a few hundred metres from home, but on the main stretch of O'Connell Street. Loud and more importantly live Irish music blasted out the door and Courts looked longingly at the blackboard as our last few coins burned a whole in our pockets. It would be wrong not to spend our last few dollars on a pint wouldn't it?

As we sat in the garden bar out the back, I suddenly found myself in the middle of Ireland. While Courtney watched a game of Hurling on the big screen (his new favourite pastime) I watched the people. I kept thinking about something we learnt in Athlone - that no one in Ireland really has house parties. At home it's normal for a night out to begin at one persons house and to possibly end at anothers. It's just as normal for a night out to be at a persons house, rather than a club or pub. As much as we love the pub atmosphere, it didn't entirely make sense to us why the Irish would entirely exclude house parties from their social agenda.

At this pub we were at, a few people sat to one side in pairs, most of us looking as un-Irish as the next. It was very obviously the tourist side of the bar, people who wanted to be outside but were weary of being in the thick of it. The 'thick of it' was centred around a couple of snooker tables and the tables surrounding them. After one of a group of men turned the heater off, a comment passed between their group and one of women at the next table. Next minute, one member of the boys is sitting with the girls and they've discovered they grew up in the same town and know the same people. Half an hour of comments between the groups later and a comment goes across the girls to a third group on the far side. Now all three groups are involved in varying degrees of conversation, all within half an hour.

The garden bar we were at backed onto the garden bars of two other bars, all sharing a communal middle section. If in half an hour, 3 groups of 3 or 4 people can begin melting into one, all at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, imagine Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights. As each bar slowly melds into one group of friends, the three bars can collectively do the same. Soon, everyone knows everyone - it's no wonder that in big-small towns like Athlone with several thousand residents, everyone still knows everyone.

Why would you need a house party? Everyone at the bar is going to be your friend soon anyway. So, with only an hour or so until we left Dublin, we finally found Ireland in the city. Behind a pub, surrounded by the disregarded and neglected rear-ends of several buildings, walls crumbling, windows cracked. Faces aged, teeth chipped, old and young, men and women. United by the mere fact they're Irish. Which isn't a 'mere' fact at all. Irish people conquered the world, without losing their culture or letting it fade into anyone elses. Even when you think it's dissolved and faded, you find it in the least likely of places. Ireland's just chilling out behind the pub.

Thanks Ireland, it's been grand.

Penelope_nz's Dublin photoset Penelope_nz's Dublin photoset

Recommendations Vs. Reputations

After such a great start to our Dublin adventure, we had big plans for our first full day. First on our list was the Guinness Brewery, but it wouldn't be so much fun if we got there the easy way, right? After filling up on free breakfast, getting ready in the (yay, clean!) showers and checking in online, we headed back down O'Connell Street, this time only stopping for a photo at Eddie Rockets before continuing over the bridge that spans the River Liffey.

We had plans to find a food market we saw advertised and wandered through the streets of Temple Bar to find it. Temple Bar was like striking gold - everything I imagined Dublin would be, right down to the last detail, was crammed onto these streets. Cobblestones, red brick, thin roads and thinner footpaths. Hanging baskets of flowers, handpainted pub signs, wrought iron lamp posts and chalk drawn menus. We only ever managed to find part of the market - it's normal location was being renovated and so stall holders were spread around three locations. We found one and got coffee and crepes but we didn't bother searching out the other two locations - too much like hard work when all we wanted was breakfast.

We accidentally fell upon the State Apartments and in turn Dublin Castle when we spotted a walking tour and were curious as to what they were looking at. We hadn't planned on seeking out the castle, not only because we were a little castled-out from the Burren but because Dublin Castle just didn't look that great online. It wasn't, although better than expected. Photos taken, we continued an age towards the Guinness Brewery. It dawned on us as the pubs and shops got rougher and the broken windows more frequent that maybe the Brewery wasn't in the nicest of Dublin neighbourhoods. It wasn't until we returned to the hostel that night that we found out just how rough, thanks to our lovely friend Google.

Guinness Brewery kept Courts happy for the best part of a few hours. We didn't expect it to be so museum like, but it was very professionally presented as a real tourist attraction. I expected to be led across viewing platforms overlooking the machinery and workers, but the whole thing was actually in the original Storehouse, with views over the current brewing premised. There are 5 levels of exhibits showing every step of growing the barley, hops and yeast, sourcing the water and processing it all, along with 200 years of advertising, bottling and branding.

The entire tour is self guided, and while most of the way is easy to follow thanks to big orange arrows on the floor, at times it was a little overwhelming or confusing, in part due to layout and in part due to the huge crowds of people. That's the other thing I didn't anticipate - despite knowing the brewery is Ireland's top tourist attraction I really didn't imagine so many people to be there. Courtney was in Long Haired Heaven, soaking in every morsel of information - and free Guiness - he could. Personally I got a little bit bored at times with the level of detail, but overall it was really well done and worth doing. The absolute highlight was the Gravity Bar on the top story. It provides 360 degree views of Dublin from one of the highest points in the city, all served with a pint.

Not satisfied with our achievements for the day, we set out to find Kilmainham Gaol, which by the tourist map appeared to be a stones throw from Guinness and had been highly recommended to us by Irish friends. First up, the tourist map lied. We walked for miles, feeling more and more uneasy with the area we were in (I'm pretty sure it was the basis for Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, but without Jason Statham to protect us) before turning back. Tired, grumpy and unable to find toilets let alone the damn Gaol, we bickered our way back almost to Guinness before deciding to water the gardens of a nearby hospital (Shhh) and then catch a taxi.

The taxi took us all the way back the way we had tried and then some - we would have never found the Gaol on our own. We were just in time for the last tour of the day and after all that walking and grumping we weren't leaving without what we came for. The tour was really good but not amazing. I was a little spoilt having done the awesome Fremantle Prison tour in Perth, Australia, and this one didn't quite match up. Courts on the other hand needed to pee the whole time, again (thank you Guinness) so he didn't enjoy it as much either.

By the time we made it back to Eddie Rockets for the second night running, we had walked miles, literally through both the warmest sun of the trip and the heaviest rain. It was a long, long walk back to O'Connell Street after Kilmainham but Eddie made everything OK. Well, maybe not in Courtney's books - even Eddie would have a hard time making up for that walk because our Courts ain't a walker!

At the end of the day, I was left wondering about the attraction of the attractions of the day - if that makes sense. Guinness, on the one hand, has an entire culture preceeding it. Every single bar in Ireland proudly displays Guinness signage and when you research a trip to Dublin, whether you drink Guinness or not (I don't) you are almost obliged to visit the brewery because it's so culturally significant. We hadn't actually heard of anyone doing the tour though and so went entirely based on the idea of it. Kilmainham on the other hand was something we wrote off until several people recommended it and we went solely on their recommnedations. So which is better? Despite probably enjoying Guinness Brewery more, I think I would usually rely on real life recommendations over branding - although I do love a good gimick. Which would you prefer? Ever been let down by branding or a good recommendation?

Penelope_nz's Dublin photoset Penelope_nz's Dublin photoset

First Impressions of Dublin

We arrived in Dublin at 8pm on a Friday night. The taxi driver who took us the short distance from bus to hostel recommended seeing the Book of Kells, History Museum and Grafton Street on top of our plans for the Guinness Brewery, Kilmainham Gaol and National Museum of Archaeology. When he stopped outside our hostel, I was immediately in love with Dublin.

The street was wide and steep - well, steep for Dublin, which is basically flat. Either side and right to the end, tall red brick buildings lined up tightly together, ivy clinging to window frames and wrought iron banisters reaching into the depths of the pavement for basement level apartments. It was everything I imagined Dublin to be, although more spread out. The imposing buildings leaned precariously overhead, if only figuratively due to their size.

The door to number 42 was huge, far bigger than any door should have to be. It was almost disappointing when we were let in and the door didn't supply us with a heavy creak and instead swung open to reveal a brightly lit reception area. We left our bags in the biggest dorm room I've ever seen, staking claim on our beds in the process. With a quick look at the two big lounges, we took little time in heading out to explore.

Down our street and to the right a few hundred metres we hit O'Connell Street - Dublin City's main road. First impressions - awestruck. The road is a beautiful open expanse of cobblestone, wider than any road we have at home and yet the same number of lanes. Footpaths melt into street which then melts into a huge centre strip full of trees and statues before the process repeats in reverse and you find yourself at the other side. The effect is awesome, it seems silly to throw so much praise on a road, but as far as roads go it's a great one. As the first impression of the city it makes you feel like anything's possible, the world is your oyster - just like you should feel when you set foot on new ground.

The only downside was that occasionally the melting effect worked a little too well when you found yourself stepping out onto the road unknowingly and having to pull yourself back again. If I was pushed to find another downside, it would be that after our week in Athlone, Dublin wasn't Irish enough. It was a beautiful city, but nothing jumped out to say 'Hi, you're in Ireland' like it had in Athlone. At least not on that first night.

We wandered on down O'Connell Street looking for something to stop us, and as many of you know by now, it was Eddie Rocket's that did it. Drawn in to the Irish-American Diner by my love for everything 1950's, we fell in love with Dublin for the second time in one night. When we eventually settled into bed for the night, we did so with full bellies, a little overwhelmed but very much looking forward to exploring what more Dublin had to offer.

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