Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Home Stretch

Here I sit, roughly a week and a half after returning from the trip, trying to remember the details and particulars of our last two days in Ireland. So, that I can write this entry and hopefully wrap up our account of that fast and fun ten days. I think that it says a bit about how busy Sarah and I have become, between work, family and general life responsibilities, that it has taken me this long to work through these entries. Entries which, at another point in our life, would have been done the same day we experienced things. But, so it goes, I suppose.

Thursday was our last full day at Jody and Sandeep's house, and -after the more low key previous day- we decide to make a run out West to the wilds of Connemara. Entertainingly, we'd already sort of been out that way a couple of times before, once while rushing Southwest to catch our ferry to Inishmore, and once while hopelessly lost trying to get to the Cliffs of Moher. On neither occasion had we felt like we'd really had a chance to take in the region though, in both cases, we noticed the remote, open bleakness of the area. Though, an appealing bleakness.

This time, following the directions of our trusted Garmin, we set off on the winding backroads, and allowed ourselves to travel farther and farther afield. In Ireland, or at least in this part of Ireland, it's not difficult to feel like you are suddenly in the middle of nowhere. And, sure enough, it wasn't long before we were traveling down nearly one-lane roads, with barely a house, car or even tree to be seen.

A typical view while driving in this part of Ireland. On one hand it would be easy to paint it as dull or barren, but honestly it all struck me as stunning in it's starkness and rugged beauty.
 
 Sheep. The first couple of times we came across sheep grazing like this right next to (or actually on) the road, we had presumed they'd escaped somehow, but it became more and more apparent that -in these sparsely populated areas, people probably didn't even bother fencing their pasturelands.

At one point, we passed what looked like a farm house that was being used as a staging area for a large film production, and were told later that it was likely people filming Game of Thrones. We had entered the Kingdom of Winderfell.

Eventually our winding road lead us to the tiny village of Leenane, which seemed to be composed entirely of a single strip of pubs and shops, lining a road which overlooks a gorgeous fjord. Stretching out legs, we found a small café that was just opening and dug in for tea, scones and smoked salmon. Refreshed, and with food in our bellies, we headed onward to Kylemore Abbey.

Otto in front of the fjord that Leenane hugged the edge of.

Initially, after our previous hit-or-miss experiences with the kids and castles and/or manor houses, we had ben considering just stopping for the quick photo op at Kylemore Abbey, before heading on to do some hiking elsewhere. But, as we crossed the bridge over Kylemore Lough, and got our first glimpse of the Abbey, it quickly became apparent that we would want to get out and explore a bit.

Kylemore Abbey was initially made by a Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret. Then, in 1920, it was purchased by an order of Benedictine nuns who were fleeing WWI; and -while the location is now popular with tourists- the nuns still reside there to this day.

In addition to Abbey's main building, there is also a small cathedral and a number of other features, including a walled garden. Since the garden lay roughly a kilometer from the house, we decided not to explore inside the abbey house itself, and instead wanders around it's vast grounds, taking in the beautiful lake, the gardens and generally enjoying the sunny day.

Kylemore Abbey, whose grounds were a long, thin strip pressed between the lough and the mountain the rose behind it. Coming across such a beautiful and palatial structure in such a remote feeling locale only added to it's beauty; and it speaks to the wealth families like the Henry's must have had in order to build something like this, especially when you take into account it was built effectively as a gift to his wife. (Sadly, I doubt I will never be able to give Sarah a manor house.)

 The Cathedral on the Kylemore Abbey grounds. Also built for Margaret Henry, but -sadly- built in her memory after she died from a stomach illness upon returning from a trip to Egypt.

 Local legend says that this "iron-shaped" rock ended up here after two giants (one of which had possibly the best name ever: Fionn McCool) had a contest to see who could throw it between their mountains. Purportedly, you get a wish, if you can stand on the far side of the path, throw a pebble over you shoulder, and have it go over the stone. Otto deemed that too hard, and just tried to throw it over the rock directly.
Part of the walled garden. I picked this picture because it shows how big it is (this is not even a quarter of it's entire size) and because Stella is in it. But other part were more interesting it that they had sections dedicated to herbs, vegetables, and even a "nuttery."

After hiking down to the gardens, and taking a shuttle back, it was on to the village of Letterfrack for lunch. Arriving in Letterfrack, we were all in our collective hunger-fugue state, where we were all drifting between cranky, indecisive and confused. Luckily, we discovered the Lodge, another in a string of great little Irish restaurants with a singular focus on locale ingredients.

With lunch in our bellies, and some focus back, it was on to Connemara National Park... which turned out to almost be within walking distance of where we'd parked our car for lunch. Arriving, we selected a three kilometer loop to hike and set off (albeit a little concerned that the kids would make the loop, having already put more than one kilometer under their shoes that day).

At first, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical, as we set of on the train, which began in what appeared to be simple scrubland. Then, the terrain turned more peaty, and then climbed a hill opening up to spectacular views of the coast and surrounding countryside.  As for the kids, the did amazingly. In fact, Otto practically ran the last kilometer of the hike, knowing that -at the end- there was a small playground.

 The view, once we'd gotten up on top of the hill. Photos like this never do views like this justice... yet we all keep trying, right?
 
 Otto sprinting and leaping down the path, during the final kilometer. I was pretty much ready to watch him bail completely on the uneven pavers, but somehow he made it down in one piece.

Two lovely ladies hiking.

Back in the car, we realized that we wouldn't be able to make it to our final destination of the day, Clifton and the Sky Road. The afternoon had passed quickly, and we would have to drive fast to get back to Ballinrobe for dinner.

With the kids crashed out in the back of the car, after their long hike, we raced back across the countryside one last time. Arriving at Jody and Sandeep's place, we were disappointed to find out that Jody was tied up with a work call, and that they would be unable to join us for dinner, but grabbed  meal at the cozy Lough Inn, not far from their house.

Dinner at the Lough Inn. I'm pretty sure that Otto slept through at least a third of the meals in Ireland. It's hard work being a little guy on a big trip.

The next morning, we were up early, packed and -after saying our goodbye's to Jody and Sandeep, we were on our way to Dublin. Neither Sarah, the kids nor I was particularly excited about diving into the 3 hour drive, but our flight home the next day was early, and we had decided to stay at an airport hotel the last night to avoid an early morning scramble. Thankfully, both traffic and the kids were on our side for the entire drive, and we made it back across the width of Ireland with little hassle and barely a complaint from the kids.

Arriving a little after noon, it gave us half a day to explore Dublin. After a week in the countryside, with little in the way of traffic, Dublin was definitely a shock, and I was glad I had now had several thousand kilometers of Irish roads under my belt before navigating it's confusing spidereweb of streets. Our initial impression was that Dublin felt (for lack of a better term) very "blue-collar." The buildings lacked the ornamentation and grandiose architecture that I equate with other European cities and -instead- the predominate builds seemed to be brick factories and storehouses. That's not to say the city was ugly, mind you, but instead it had a very lived in feel that was equal parts honest and charming.

Our first destination was possibly the most touristed place in Dublin: The Guinness Storehouse. It was the Guinness Storehouse that you visited to find out about how Guinness is made, how the pour the perfect pint and -of course- sample the drink itself. But, if you are expecting a folksy old factory, you've got another thing coming to you. Instead of being an old-fashioned brewery, with vats, barrels and piles of hops and barely, the Guinness Storehouse is a state-of-the-art, multi-storied, interactive experience, filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, curio pieces from Guinness' past and more than it's share interactive touchscreens and giant monitors explaining how the beer is made.

The beer itself isn't even made on the premises, so it' snot exactly even a brewery tour. But, it does make up for it through the range of activities. Unfortunately, most of the ones we were really interested in -like how to pour the perfect pint or the chance to taste different Guinness beers- also had prohibitively long lines, since we had two little travelers with us who had little interest in imbibing in beer. So, instead we stuck to the areas that had interesting things for them to look at, before finally heading up to the Storehouses Sky Bar with it's 360-degree views.

The views in the bar were, indeed exceptional, and gave us our one real look out at the layout of the city. And, the complimentary Guinnesses were -likewise- immaculately poured. But, the crowds and restless children soon brought us back down to the ground floor and on to our next location.
The Guinness Storehouse. I'm sure this entire place just confused the kids. Heck, it confused me.
 
When I picture where Guinness might be made, I think of old barrels and rough stone walls. The reality is giant projection screens and interactive displays.

 Our "prefect pints" in the Sky Bar. Despite the crowds, I will say they really were quite good. Sarah looks happy in that reflect on the table.

A short drive later brought us to a parking garage (my first European parking garage!) a short walk Stephen's Green, one of Dublin's city parks. Our initial plans had been to wander through the park before moving on to Trinity College and it's promises of Harry Potter-esque libraries. But, it quickly became apparent that the kids would be happier with some time at the playground to run free and relax.

The kids strike a pose in front of some pretty flower beds at Stephen's Green.

Finally, it was on to our last tourist destination of the trip: The 800-year-old Brazen Head. The oldest pub in Dublin. While we knew that the "oldest pub in Dublin" would obviously be a draw for tourists, we were actually surprised by how fun and homey it felt, and how much we enjoyed it. To enter you passed through a courtyard bar, with it's obligatory smokers and revelers, and into the pub itself, which was actually a series of small rooms, each seemingly sporting their own bar. While some rooms were cramped and others more specious, each seemed to have an authentic sense of history to them. One wall, for example was covered with hundreds of patches. Closer inspection of the patches revealed that most of them were patches off of police and fire jackets, left by visitors from the states and other locales. Otto, for his part, slept curled up on the bench next to me, which led to more than one joke with the wait staff about how he'd already had enough Guinness for the day.

 The kids and I, outside the Brazen Head. 800 years is a bit weird to imagine. I mean, that was before the America's were even "discovered." There was no Guinness then. 800 years is a lot of history and -I imagine- revelry.  
 
Sarah, in our final pub of the trip. One last Guinness and hearty meat and potatoes meal, and then back to the States.

While both the Brazen Head and the Guinness Storehouse were tourist draws, it will definitely be the Brazen Head I look back on more fondly.

Done with our dinners, it was time to check in at the airport hotel. After all the events of the day, I think we were actually all sort of looking forward to the predictable comfort of our hotel room. Stella, upon seeing it declared: "It's like staying in a castle, except nice and new."

Then, the next morning it was home again. The flight back was long. Frustrating at time, tedious and times and challenging at time. But, never quite the gauntlet that flying out there was. Movies were watched, hobby-kit-style meals were consumed and the kids eventually nodded off in the final hours before landing. Returning through customs proved challenging since, in the heads of both the kids and us, it was something like 3 in the morning. Otto, having spilled juice on himself in the flight, became the first person I've known to pass through customs not wearing pants.

And then, we were home again.

Since pretty much every entry has featured at least one picture of the kids sleeping, I figured it was only fair to include one of me too. Especially after finally wrapping up these entries.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Castle Life, Country Life


After our more ambitious outing the day before, we arose on Wednesday with the plan of staying closer to our base camp, and give the kids a bit of a break from all the driving around. It was also a suitable break for Sarah and I, since we were both sore from doing more bicycling than either of us had in, well, years.

First off, we piled into the Skoda with Jody and the kids, and she took as too a nearby woods that she and Sandeep ran and walking in from time to time. The woods themselves were amazing in their lushness, covered in deep emerald moss that made you realize why green was Ireland's national color. Before heading out, Jody also told Stella and Otto that in the olden days the Irish believed their forests to be filled with fairies and other magical creatures. Both of the kids loved the idea and spent the majority of our walk shouting out that they had just scene a fairy, or speculating about whether or not a particular hold in a trunk or root bundle might be a fairy home.

 Otherworldly beds of thick, green moss.
 
Fairy hunting.

We then emerged from the woods at the lough's edge, and (while it was obvious that local teens probably used this as a place to hang out), the view of the lough itself was stunning, and gave us a sense of the surrounding countryside.

An always-rare picture of the whole family. Even more rare because Otto decided to actually face the camera... even if his tongue is out.

After dropping Jody off back at her place, we were on to Cong. We had actually passed through Cong two days previous when our Garmin had lead us to Ashford Castle through the back door, and -since our ultimate plan for the day was to show the kids the castle- we figured it would be a good chance to check out the quaint village too.

Super-quaint Cong.

Cong itself is tiny. Really just one circle of streets, lined with pubs, shops and various plaques and shrines about the 1952 John Wayne movie, the Quiet Man. Neither Sarah nor I had ever heard of the movie before, but it had apparently been filmed in Cong; which is a fact that the village is still quite proud of to this day, commemorating it with not just a number of plaques, but a full sized bronze statue of John Wayne character a women who we can only presume is the female lead.

"A quiet place to rest and remember 'the Quiet Man.' Dedicated to all those who made this modern legend for the village of Cong."

After lunch in a pub, we set off to explore our way to the castle itself, which lay just outside Cong. First we wound through an abandoned church and grave yard, before crossing two bridges (and passing an old monk's fishing house) to the far side of the river. A short walk down a wooded trail, and then the path opened to a large, well-maintained grass field, with Ashford Castle on the far side of it.

 The monk's fishing house. Apparently, there used to be a bell, that the monk would ring when he caught a fish, so that the people working the kitchen would know to get ready to cook.
Crossing the bridges, from Cong to the woods around Ashford Castle.

Now, one would presume that presenting two young children with an actual, real-life, honest-to-goodness castle might impress them and capture their imagination. I mean, Ashford Castle is a huge, sprawling buildings with a bridge spanning a moat-like river, huge gates, crenelated parapets and pretty much everything you'd want out of a castle, short of a dragon in the dungeon. You would think that it would be something noteworthy to a 6-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy. You would also be wrong.

Frankly, they were more interested in the grass field and adjacent helicopter landing pad.

Giant, sprawling castle that looks like something out of a fantasy film? Meh. Big-ass grass field? Woo-hoo!

Unfortunately, because Ashford Castle is still a functioning (and fancy) hotel, it's not just the type of place that a bunch of sweaty tourist can wander into with children in tow. So, instead we wandered the grounds a bit, until hunger drew us back toward Cong and it's cafes.

On the hike back, the kids were being annoying. Or, rather, I was being annoyed with the kids. They were both being sort of shout-y, and insisting on wrestling with each other. For my part, I was sort of barking at them, "Stella don't be so loud!" "Otto, don't roll through those bushes." "Quit fighting!"

Finally, Sarah -ever the beacon of reason in these situations- suggested: "You might want to try saying something to them that doesn't start with 'no' or 'don't." And, honestly, it was that little comment that allowed me to step back and look at them in a new light. Because, really, they were having fun, just not the type I had thought they should be having.

Wrestle-battle on the grass next to the road from Ashford Castle. Through the trees, you can still make out the once-in-lifetime castle viewing opportunity that they were completely disinterested in. But, at least they are enjoying themselves... I think.

After letting them play and wrestle a bit longer, it was back into Cong. There we were thwarted by having the two cafes already be closed, but were at least able to procure a scone for Otto to munch on, before driving back to Jody and Sandeep's house.

Back at their house, Sarah was pulled away to take care of some work related problems, and I was left to play with the children outside. And first, half bored, we tossed a football of Otto's around a bit; until we saw the sheep coming.

Jody and Sandeep's neighbor and another man were leading a small flock of sheep down the narrow street toward us. The kids watched, fascinated while the two men struggled to keep the sheep from ducking into the Bed & Breakfast's car lot, or from bolting back up the road the way they had just come. Finally, the neighbor's friend approached us and asked us if we could stand and block the driveway into the Bed & Breakfast (though, honestly, it took a moment for me to decipher his request through his thick accent).

The kid's were super excited. They were getting to help herd sheep! While the three of us stood in a line, as sort of human wall, the two men finally go the flock back together and coaxed them by us. It was fun watching both the kids, both excited and a little nervous watch the sheep flood past.


Helping to "herd" the sheep.
Watching the sheep continue off down the road.
 
More play time in the grass. This time, behind Jody and Sandeep's house.

With the sheep gone, the kids and I played in the backyard, enjoying the grass and setting sun, until Sarah was able to wrap up her business and then it was Date Night! Jody and Sandeep had offered to watch the kids for us, while we went out for a nice meal. So, on Jody's recommendation, we decided to try out the restaurant in the dungeon of Ashford Castle.

My lovely date, crossing the bridge to our first dinner in a castle.

Just getting into the restaurant was interesting, because it involved going to the hotel lobby, and then being effectively escorted down into the basement. The walk through the hotel was amazing though, with a sort of lushness and almost opulence that you rarely see in real life. We passed by a giant, chandeliered dinning area filled with empty table, save one family, and passed through a high-windowed hall in which two men sat, half-asleep, while a pianist played.

The restaurant itself was great too, living somewhere between elegance and kitsch. The menu itself was a mix of old and new (literally, the menu was divided into two sections), so while I got corned beef (I mean, when do you get to have fancy corned beef?), Sarah had lamb shank prepared in a more modern style. We also, owing partially to some ordering confusion (again, the accent tripped me up), ended up ordering a whole bottle of wine to split. All in all, it was an excellent meal.

After dinner, we considered popping in to a pub but -considering both the split bottle of wine and the previously mentioned narrow roads of Ireland- we decided best to get home again.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Running an Aran.


On paper, everything about our plans for Tuesday looked like the makings of a fiasco: Get up early. Drive an hour to Ireland's western coast. Take a ferry to the remote Aran Island of Inishmore. Then bike around the island's dirt roads.

First up, so far, we hadn't been doing a good job waking up before 10am each morning. Second, the weather had been cold and touch and go since we arrived. Third, Sarah does own a bike, but it's been sitting in our garage with flat tires... since I met her. That should give you a good idea of how big of bikers we are.

As we struggled through the morning routine, I had my doubts. As we raced to catch a ferry we thought we were going to miss, I also had my doubts. And, as we rode the choppy waters across to Inishmore, Sarah struggling against her tendency toward sea sickness, I really had my doubts.

While Sarah struggled to not let the rolling waves get to her, the kids struggled to work through their sticker books.

But... as so as we had our bikes and were on our way, I realized this day was going to be amazing.

The Aran Islands are everything you'd expect from Irish costal islands: Remote and windswept, with the omnipresent threat of a storm blowing in at any moment. Almost without trees, the island seems to be a simple patchwork of cattle and sheep pastures, framed in with high, rough-hew rock walls. Simple farm houses are scattered sparsely around, and the few cars that would pass us were usually small tourist buses. In many ways, it reminded me of Isla Del Sol, on Lake Titicaca.

Some of the rock walls that line the islands. Impressive in their size and construction. 

Some of the rugged coastline of the Aran Islands.  

Distant farmhouses, across the stone strew plains. Real "edge-of-the-world" stuff.

To get around, we rented two bikes. My bike was a "tag along bike," which was basically a bike with a smaller half-bike attached that Stella could ride on. Meanwhile, Sarah's bike had a buggy attached to the back of it for Otto to ride in. I'd sort of expected that it would take us some time to get up to speed, but -surprisingly- we were up and on our way quickly, making our way down Aran Island's winding, windy, gravel roads almost immediately.
Stella and I on our bike. Since she still rides with training wheels, I was pretty convinced that it would be a struggle to ride with her on back, but she did amazing, and it ended up being a great chance to bond with her.

While biking, there actually wasn't much in the way of distinct destinations, instead if was more a matter of biking along, appreciating the rough coastline, with it's clouds rolling overhead; and imagining what it must have been like for generations of people living out on this distant corner of the world.

At the far end of the loop at most bicyclists followed was a small string of craft shops, a small café and -down a short road- the entrance to Dun Aengus. Dun Aengus is a pre-historic fort, consisting of a number of concentric stone walls perched atop of vertigo inducing cliffs. To reach the for itself you walk across a desolate stone plane and then pass through an entrance in the first wall.
 

The fort entrance (though looking out, from inside the fort).


The location itself is stunning and beautiful. But, if you have a rebellious 3-year-old who is stubborn enough to literally jump off a cliff to prove he should get his own way... well, it's also a little anxiety inducing. Still, we explored the grounds and appreciated the feeling of being on the very edge of the world.
Stella strikes a pose, near the cliffs edge. 

The cliff's that we hoped Otto wouldn't dive off of. 

Leaning into the wind. 

A rare family photo... though, as would become a reoccurring trend, Otto refused to look at the camera out of stubborn rebellion. (Thus our cliff-diving fears.)
 


Returning to our bikes, we headed back to the small town that surrounded the ferry landing. While waiting for our return trip, we bought a couple of wool sweaters (and stuffed animal friends) and had a surprisingly good plate of fish and chips.
Otto and his new stuff sheep, which he named... wait for it... Otto.

That evening, when we returned to Jody and Sandeep's house, we had dinner with them and their neighbor, Raychel, who was an easy going and entertaining lady (and who made a great nettle soup). But, Sarah and I both found ourselves fighting an uphill battle against the fatigue of biking all day and had to retire earlier than we would have liked.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Seaweed Baths and Garmin's Favorite Backroads

The next morning, it was time for something a little more unusual: Seaweed baths!
Seaweed baths!!

Our friend, Jody, is currently working on a cook book incorporating Irish food and traditions. As part of her research, she had discovered that recently Irish spas has begun to re-embrace the tradition of using seaweed for it's health and healing properties. Purportedly, the oils in the seaweed are both good for the skin and -when paired with the warm waters of a bath tub- are good at helping leech the toxins from your system. (Something that, frankly, I felt like I would be testing after drinking my share of the four bottles of wine we'd polished off the night before.)

Now, frankly, I had never thought I would be traveling to Ireland to soak in seaweed, but I'm always game for an unusual experience, and something that would -if nothing else- make an interesting anecdote so... it was off to Voya Seaweed Baths in beachside, surfer village of Strandhill, a little over an hour north.

The actual experience is pretty close to what you would imagine. We ended up renting the "Family Room," which was two steam/shower booths, and then two claw-foot tubs each filled with warm water and their fair share of seaweed. Since the water itself was fresh, the salt-water-ocean smell was fairly minimal, but -climbing into the tub- you quickly discovered that the seaweed made the water very oily (or, in less charitable terms "slimy"). With the kids there, I'm not sure I could call the experience relaxing, but it was definitely entertaining.

After rinsing the seaweed oils off ourselves, and grabbing a tasty lunch at Shells Bakery and Café; we decided to do a little beach combing. Not unlike Alki in Seattle, Strandhill is a tiny community with a surprisingly beachy feel. Beyond Voya and one or two restaurants, most of the businesses near the waterfront are actually surf shops and schools; which felt a little incongruous given the cold winds blowing in the day we arrived.

Still, for a couple of hours, we all enjoyed collecting rocks and exploring the high sand dunes that formed a sort of natural barrier from the ocean.

 Otto atop one of the sand dunes. He and I enjoyed clambering around on top of them, and then sliding down them.
 
A panorama of the beach: The ocean to the left and a giant sand dune center stage. You can see Standhill in the distance, beyond Sarah and Otto. Stella, for her part, was content combing the beach for the perfect rock.
 
 
Eventually, though, it was time to make our way back to the car, and on to our next destination. Before we'd left, Jody had also recommended a small wooded walk on one of the loughs not far from Strandhill. Unfortunately, while the drive was a quick one, it was just enough time for Otto to knock off, meaning we got to take turns caring him around the woods.
 
While my experience with them is limited, coming from the Pacific Northwest, I always find European woods sort of quaint. Charming even. Where the forest of my own home state are deep and sprawling beasts; most of the woods I've encountered in Europe feel like they are one step up from a park, with their defined edges, and networks of trails. They are beautiful and neat to walk through, but definitely different.
 
Stella strikes a pose in the woods, while the sun sinks in the background. (Also note Sarah carrying Otto.)
 
Looking at the ruins of a small church on the lake.
 
After exploring around for a bit, and taking in the views of the lake; it was time to head out. We had initially planned on going to a small lake side restaurant; but we were running behind schedule, so we headed straight back to Jody and Sandeep's place; the kid falling asleep as we went.
 
Each trip seems to have one day that is sort of a wash. A day where your well-intentioned plans are thwarted, and you do you best to turn the proverbial lemons in to the proverbial lemonade. That day was Monday.
 
Initially our plans were to head south for the day, to visit Ireland's famous cliff's of Mohor, and explore the surrounding area. Our Garmin had a different plan for us.
 
I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about the 5th passenger on our various, daily road trips: The Garmin. Wisely, Jody and Sandeep had suggested we spring for one with our car rental, and -by-and-large- it proved to be a wise decision, given the fact that Ireland rarely builds a straight road, and often forgets to name them. That said, our electronic navigator was a wee bit overly fond of back roads. Rarely would she (the voice was female, so we are going with "she" here) direct us to a major thoroughfare when there were a readily available side road closer. The unofficial slogan of our Garmin was "Want to Get Off the Beaten Path? Try Garmin!"
 
A typical Garmin-chosen road. Beautiful... but questionable.
 
Now, don't get me wrong. Honestly, when driving, I prefer small, side-roads to highways. That said, I do like to be relatively certain that the road I am on is, in fact, a road, and not just a very long drive way. I also like to have some vague degree of confidence that the road I am on will actually let out somewhere useful. I also don't need to double the drive time for the sake of seeing sheep pasture.
 
All that said... This time out we got lost because of user error. Sarah, in typing in the first destination on our trip, selected one of three options available. The incorrect option, in this case. This fact only became apparent about an hour and fifteen minutes into what was supposed to be a 45 minute drive. At that point, we realized we were hopelessly off course, and well into a windswept wilderness. The area was actually stunningly beautiful, in a rolling, barren sort of way; with sheep seemingly roaming wild, and hardly another soul to be seen.
 
Unfortunately, it was hard to appreciate the beauty through our general frustration. A frustration that was only multiplied by the fact that it was 1:30 and we hadn't eaten lunch (oh, and I had to pee super bad). So, instead of redirecting the Garmin and driving for another hour or more, we decided to cut our losses and head to Galway, which was considerable closer.
 
Galway. We actually didn't see that much of it. But did appreciate the pedestrian streets we spent some time on, if only because it limited the Otto's capacity to lunge in front of traffic.
 
After arriving in Galway, and managing to park our car with little difficulty, it was off to find food. Sarah had borrowed a guide book from Jody, and it had several suggestions. And, while the first one was closed, the second -a cozy and suitably authentic place called the Dail Bar- seemed a good fit. (Though this may be the first place that Stella asked: "Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?")
 
"Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?"
 
A short time later, with food in our bellies and our moods improving, it was time to check out the one thing nearly guaranteed to make Sarah happy: A cheese shop. Specifically: Sheridan's Cheesemongers. As Jody had explained to us a day or two before, Ireland's economic crisis had fostered a newfound sense of pride in food and goods made in Ireland. And, sure enough, in our visits to grocery stores and other shops, it was hard not to notice all the labels declaring "Made in Ireland," "All Irish Beef" or similar. It also makes sense that in a country known for it's sheep (and with it's fair share of cows too), there would be a tradition of well made cheeses... and the wares at Sheridan's did not disappoint.
 
Sarah in her territory: Sampling cheese.
 
After the cheesemongers, it was on to the bakery for some much anticipated sweets for the kids. After that, we explored the pedestrian streets around us briefly before realizing that we should be on the road again, in order to make it back to Jody and Sandeep's place, since we'd previously promised Jody we would do dinner with her.
 
On the way home, we had planned on stopping briefly at Ashford Castle, just to take a peak at it, and maybe let the kids run around a bit. In the end, the kids were both asleep, and the Garmin -forever in love with a good backroad- decided to lead us down a single lane road that ended up being a service road for the castle (rather than taking us to either of the large front entrances the castle actually had). This provided us a weird, covert thrill as we found ourselves in the parking lot reserved, presumably, for guests of the hotel... the Skoda sharing the parking lot with bright orange Lamborghinis and similar, unattainable vehicles.  
 
I don't think we were actually supposed to be in this lot, but made for a good, quick photo opp.
 
Back at the house, Jody took us to see the sheep. While Jody and Sandeep's cottage was part of a larger Bed & Breakfast, their other neighbor was an old fashioned sheep farmer. ("One of the lone men of Ireland," I believe Jody put it.) They were on good terms with him, and so Jody explained it was fine if we went out into his pastures to see his flock of sheep. Walking down the quiet, dirt road, and opening a metal gate, we made our way into the green pasture, surrounded by rustic rock walls. Being careful to avoid the mines left behind by the flock, we made our way up the hill toward where they all stood alternately grazing and eyeing us warily. Then, as we neared them, they made their break for it, bolting past us and charging down the hill, back the way we had come.
 
 Peering over one of the omnipresent rock walls of Ireland at some of the sheep.

Sheep making a break for it! Since it was early Spring, every flock we saw had tons of lambs, which made them extra charming.
 
It wasn't just the kids that found the scene amusing.
 
After collecting Jody back at her place, we headed out to find a place to eat, only to discover that most of the pubs and eateries around Ballinrobe seemed to close on Monday's. Still, eventually, we found a pub that Jody and Sandeep had visited before. ("Why do we keep having to eat at pubs?") And, together, we enjoyed a hearty meal and a couple of pints of Guinness.
 
"Why do we have to keep eating at pubs?"