Sunday, July 25, 2010

Back to the Cotswolds: Postlip and Cirencester

After so many weekends away, or preparing to leave, it was nice to stay local for a change. We had plans to attend the first evening of the annual Cotswold Beer Festival in Postlip, and then decided that getting back to those countryside walks on Saturday or Sunday wouldn't go amiss either.

We bought tickets for a bus to and from the festival, which worked seamlessly. We're fairly organised about these festivals now -- mind you, this was definitely the biggest one we'd been to by far -- bringing snacks, water, jumpers (i.e., sweaters), and a large camping blanket that's waterproof on one side; it beats standing the whole time, and packs up nicer than those camping chairs. The selection of ales was so impressive; all the more so because you're in this enormous converted barn, listening to great live music. I had ales that had hints of fruit cake, others called Pig's Ear and Dr Hexter's Healer, porters called Old Slug, and the list goes on.

Oddly enough, we had an epic lie-in on Saturday. Then it was down to High Street for some errands, and lunch at Nando's; that fixed us right up. (So glad to hear they have one in Ottawa.) Rejuvenated, we decided that today would be the day that we'd make our much-talked-about run to Ikea in Bristol. And it worked out really well: much like home, it seems folks forget that the place is open late on the weekends.

The Church of St. John the Baptist
We got up a bit late on Sunday as well -- I made some of the Turkish tea we'd brought back from Kuşadası, which really hit the spot -- so we decided to stay close for our walk. In the end, Cirencester, with its beautiful Church of St. John the Baptist, won out. We had a great time wandering the church grounds, and through Bathurst Estate and Cirencester Park, before stopping for a pick-me-up at the Crown.

On the drive home, we stopped at the Golden Heart Inn, something I've been wanting to do for a long time. It won Pub of the Year in 2009, and it isn't hard to see why. There's such a great atmosphere, delicious food -- Tea and I ordered one roast beef and one turkey carvery, and shared them -- and a surprisingly-big patio area out back.

Carvery at the Golden Heart Inn

As luck would have it, we happened to be driving back as MacKay and Reid -- two friends from home -- were making their way to their hotel. I got out and led the guys to one of our favourite pubs, The Royal Union, while Tea dropped the car home and then joined us. We had a blast, catchin' up and chatting with the owner -- and giving his two dogs, Kelly and Lucy, lots of love; have I talked about how much I love that part of their culture lately? It's so natural, and... good for the heart, I guess you could say.

Another lie-in wouldn't've hurt either, after all that, but alas, that was the weekend.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Up Dublin! Come on you boys in blue!

When friends of ours said they were going to be in Dublin for a long weekend in July, we jumped at the excuse to visit one of our favourite cities. One quick train ride to Birmingham International and forty-minute Ryanair flight later, and there was much hugging and back-slapping all round -- shortly followed by "Good night!" Hey, none of us is gettin' any younger; it's all about pacin' yourself.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

In Kilmainham Jail
Since Cee hadn't been to Dublin before, we decided that a hop-on-and-off bus tour would be the first order of business the following morn. After a hearty breakfast at the hotel -- including soda bread and black pudding -- it was off to buy our tickets for the bus, and for the hurling and football matches on Saturday, something the original Jae had been assured was a must-see.

In the Victorian wing
Our first hop off was the 'Gaol'. Tea and I enjoyed some great tours on our first trip to Dublin, but I have to say, if you have time for just one while you're there, the Kilmainham Gaol tour can't be beat. The history presses down on you before the informative guide even gets started. In particular, as we walked out to the yard that includes the Invincibles' unmarked grave, we all agreed that its significance was made known to us -- be it through chills or a weight in the air -- before the guide even pointed out the plaque. That, and seeing Joseph Plunkett's cell (amongst those of the other planners of the Easter Rising), where he and Grace had that short span 'alone' as a married couple, and then seeing her cell in the much-filmed Victorian wing later on; it wasn't hard to imagine why she decided to devote herself to the cause.

After that, we stopped at the Patriots Inn for lunch before walking to the Storehouse for some Guinness swag -- no, you can never have too much. We hopped back on the bus at that point, getting off again near Grafton Street for more shopping. Well, the girls shopped. Cee bought a cigar, and then we went wandering, stumbling upon the James Toner Pub for a pint before meeting the girls back at the Porterhouse for, you guessed it, another pint (of their own porter in my case -- delish!).

Within minutes of greeting Jae the previous evening, she'd mentioned Montys, a Nepalese restaurant she'd heard about; that was on the docket for supper. Well, what a treat! From the opening recommendation -- dumplings! -- we were hooked. My lamb ledo bedo (traditional Nepali curry) was amazing, and the peshwari nan was ridiculous -- seriously, probably the best I've had to date, and I'd like to think that means something now, after a year of trying great curries.

We finished the night off with a few more pints and live music at O'Neill's.

Friday, July 16, 2010

We started with another good breakfast at the hotel before heading to the train station to take the DART to Howth. The Victorian row houses gave way to greenery and, finally, the beautiful Irish Sea and Ireland's Eye. The air was heavy with salt as we left the train, and while the sun was shining through the clouds, we'd packed for showers. We noted Beshoff Bros fish and chips shop immediately, knowing how good that would taste after our cliff walk.

The harbour, Dún Laoghaire in the distance
Walking up the trail, the cliffs falling off to our left, reminded me of childhood walks around Cape Spear, and our recent trip to Cornwall. The cries of the seagulls and the crash of the surf accompanied us as the showers began. They were more cooling than anything; we really couldn't have asked for a better day. As we neared the top, a spectacular view of the town of Dún Laoghaire (which sounds like 'Dun Leery', I believe), across the harbour, greeted us. It was then that we noticed the houses, and the pub. It was a bit disheartening, thinking we'd conquered some significant mount, only to discover a thriving community in our midst. We attempted to cover our embarrassment by busily talking amongst ourselves, but a local quickly picked us out, stopping his car and leaning out the driver-side window with a friendly smile, "Do you know where you are?"

When we pointed at what we thought was the way down, he replied, "No, that's the boring way. What you want is there," pointing to a gap in a low wall that was in a similar, yet entirely different, direction. He said the way was intuitive: that so long as we were heading down, we were heading true. He emphasized that, while it was simple, we wouldn't see "any big German signs pointing the way," which had us in stitches for most of the way down -- Cee in particular, given his heritage.

Down we went, past row houses painted such bright colours you'd swear we were in St. John's. At one point we passed some guys unloading kegs from a flat-bed truck; they had this great system where one guy'd get a keg to the edge of the flat-bed before letting its weight carry it to the pavement below, and this little pillow they'd set for that purpose. The keg would bounce off that, turning on its side in the process, where the next guy would ensure that its momentum carried it right through the pub's side doorway. It was like something out of Donkey Kong!

The fish and chips from Beshoff Bros hit the spot, just as we'd imagined. Sated, we decided to pop into the tourist information centre quickly before heading back to Dublin. On the way, we noticed a crowd by the dock and were surprised to find a group of sea lions frolicking for the masses. A few people bought some bags of fish heads at the nearby shops, and the sea lions just went wild for them. Perfect timing!

Once back in Dublin, we decided to take the Laus (pronounced 'louis') -- or really neat, futuristic tram, as we liked to think of it -- to Abbey Street for more shopping. We were a bit confused about where to catch it, and ended up waiting longer than it would've taken to walk the distance, but it was worth it: we couldn't very well leave the city without riding it, after raving about it for days. While Cee went with Jae to buy his sweetie a ring, Tea and I crashed for a bit in St. Stephen's Green.

At Salamanca
We planned to meet another friend, Aye, who was returning from Prague, at the Spire around 6 p.m., so we headed back to the hotel to freshen up beforehand. That done, Cee and I were just finishing up a pint in the lobby when Tea came running back in, telling the staff to call an ambulance. She'd just gone out with Jae a moment before, so both Cee and I thought something had happened to her. As it turned out, they'd been standing on the sidewalk for but a moment when a cyclist flipped over his handlebars and landed horribly on his unprotected head, out in the street right in front of them. Some others trained in first aid took over from Jae, telling the man not to move (once he regained consciousness), as the rest of us directed traffic around him and tried to avoid looking at the pool of blood spreading around his skull. The ambulance arrived very quickly -- within five to seven minutes -- allowing us to gratefully take our leave. He seemed to be O.K. by then; undoubtedly concussed, but moving under his own steam. Always wear a helmet, kids!

We met Aye shortly thereafter and made our way to the tapas restaurant we'd spied earlier, Salamanca. The place was packed, so we put our name on the list and went to a different Porterhouse close by. Aye was shocked when they told him they didn't have Guinness on tap -- 'til we explained it was a microbrewery. The hilarity continued when we were seated in Salamanca, however, because they didn't serve it either. As he said, we probably found the two places in Dublin that don't serve it (and it was all he'd dreamed about having since his flight had touched down). We got the story out of the waitress eventually -- apparently you have to buy Guinness in such large quantities, that it doesn't make sense if it won't appeal to most of your clientele -- and consoled ourselves with a few Murphy's (and sangria for the girls, a Paulaner for Cee).

At the Mercantile
With a few dishes a piece, it wasn't long before our large table was full of delicious morsels. Tapas has to be some of the most fun you can have at a meal, picking and choosing, and all on those small plates that slows you down before you're ridiculously full. Sated again, we set out to get Aye his pint of Guinness. The Mercantile, while not much to look at (under construction as the façade is), caught our ear, so to speak. More pints, laughs, and a bit of air guitar for good measure, followed, into the wee hours -- and Aye didn't miss his flight home the next day!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Match day!

It rained heavily all morning, which was just as well, 'cause Tea and I slept late. (Cee got soaked on his morning walk, though.) It started to clear up in the early afternoon, so we went to a pub for a late brunch before heading to Croke Park for the 3 p.m. hurling match. As we got closer, you could see the crowds converging, with plenty of supporters of the boys in blue: Dublin.

Hurling match at Croke Park

I had this big ole grin plastered across my face five minutes after finding our seats: there was this fantastic cacophony and barely concealed tension in the air. Both these matches, back-to-back, were play-offs: this was the GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarterfinal was between Dublin and Antrim, to be immediately followed by the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarterfinal between Dublin and Armagh; as we found out later, the latter was a real grudge match: the last time Dublin and Armagh met in the play-offs was five years earlier, with Armagh clinching the victory.

Fans pile in for the football match

We still found so many opportunities to laugh, though, like when the five-year-old behind us squeaked, "Take their heads off!" Another time, as I was just about in the lou, this giant of a man grabbed me by both shoulders, and, staring down most earnestly, said, "Is there anything blue on my face?"

As if the question weren't strange enough, his heavy accent really threw me. "Anything blue?" I said.


"U'm, no." (I decided to ignore all the little bits of paper towel all over his face; the guy had obviously been scrubbin' somethin' fierce in there.)

"Ah, bless you!" he said, taking off for the stands.

I saw him again later as the last match was letting out, and noted that he was sporting no colours while being harassed by a crowd of his friends, all dressed in blue. Cee had speculated earlier that supporters of the boys in blue had painted a rival fan -- against his will, shall we say -- and this gave weight to the argument.

I'll close out this section with a video clip from the football match. Just after it ends -- with Dublin winning, as should be obvious -- the guy in the middle of the frame turned to us and said, "We've waited five years for that!" Awesome!

At Chameleon
For our last supper in Dublin, we decided to try an Indonesian restaurant called Chameleon. Our good fortune continued as the host said that we'd have to sit on cushions and be on our way by 9 p.m. (still two hours away). We heartily agreed and were soon reclining in our cushions like so many sultans. Another fantastic meal followed, and we were asking for the bill with mere moments to spare. (And then had to walk through a significant line of waiting diners!)

The raucous Temple Bar then greeted us, in full swing by this time, and we set a meandering course. A few streets later our way was blocked by a crowd. Peering over heads, standing on tiptoe, we picked out the band and stopped to listen. Folks of inner circle were dancing as that song finished, and then a haunting tune was struck up. We were mesmerised by the crescendo, swaying, and then clapping, faster and faster, when suddenly this "Wop! Wop!" of a police siren pierced the bubble. Against the odds, they'd decided that this was their best bet of getting through Temple Bar to whatever crime was in progress. I took a hasty video of it, and, as you'll see, they did make it.

And that, other than momentarily losing the girls as we walked along the Liffey, thanks to a series of well-built gentlemen deciding that ironing in the buff in their well-lit apartments was the best way to spend a Saturday evening, was our trip to Dublin, done and dusted.