Friday, August 30, 2013

Dreaming of Italy... Literally

Exploring the country of Italy has been a long long time dream of mine. The past few nights, I have literally been dreaming about Italy.

Luke and I will be making our way to Italy in just a few days, and my life lately has been consumed with all things Italy. Remember when you were obsessed with Tetris, and all you thought about was Tetris (or maybe it's today and it's Candy Crush)? And you had dreams of the little blocks flying down your screen (or it's today and you see Candy match-ups or however the game is played because I have never played it)? Well, all I can think about is Italy. I haven't been able to sleep these past few nights because I wake up thinking, "What else do I need to do before Italy?", "I need to remember to do that.", "I need to print this.", "I need to pack that."

<cue the little violin>

This trip is a HUGE task to plan - we are traveling for 11 days, and we aren't even going to most of the country. We will be in Rome, Vatican City, and possibly Ostia Antica. Then to Florence and the Chianti region. Then to the five towns that make up Cinque Terre. Lastly, we will visit Pisa. From what I have experienced so far, the attractions' websites in Italy are similar to what I experienced while planning my wedding in New Orleans. Meaning extreme lack of info!

<cue the little violin>

Is it that difficult to show opening times?
Is it that difficult to show the admission price?
That's all I need folks.

<cue the little violin>

Anyway, Jill is arriving today with her friend, Kasey (from Texas) to explore London in which afterward they move on to Paris! Poor Luke will be stuck in a tiny flat with three girls for a few nights (hehe). It's going to be a super fun weekend!

I hope yours is, too!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Weekend Trip: Dublin, Ireland

Actual date of this event: 23-25 August

Normally with my trips, I can go step by step with what we did, what we saw, with a little bit of history thrown in there. Dublin... I got nothin'. 
I had been told that Dublin could be done in two days because it's small and there isn't much to see. Here is the real truth: Dublin can be done in one day. But if you plan to really really enjoy Dublin, you need a second day to recover from day one. As much as you may try to avoid it, you end up in a pub with a pint in your hand, listening and singing along to live music. And before you know it, it is 2am and you are wandering back to your place of stay while stopping in another pub because it's there. And it's open. And there are people inside. And music is still playing.

So I will start with the non-alcohol related things first, and then I will move on to the fun but painful stuff.

Luke and I took the AirLink Express (bus) from the airport. There are a few different options for transport to/from the airport, the easiest being a taxi, but according to online research, the AirLink was the most economical. It is 6 one-way or 10 round trip. It took us about 40 minutes for each trip, but it all depends on your stop.

We stayed at Castle Hotel which was about 0.8 mile to the southern side of the River Liffy. It wasn't super close to the center of town (or Temple Bar, I should say), but it was close enough and came with free breakfast and free wifi. And the price was the best we could get!

Dublin has a castle. We did not enter, but we did make our way into its square where, oddly, large sand sculptures had been built. Something to do with art, I guess. They were pretty unique. So according to Wiki, the castle was built in 1230.

The Spire of Dublin, officially named the Monument of Light (nicknamed Stiffy at the Liffey, Erection at the Intersection, and Stiletto in the Ghetto - its the beer talkin') is a really tall needle thing. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and is just so random. The only tall structures in Dublin are a few steeples of churches, so this thing towers over the city. At night, its tip lights up which to me looked even more weird. We walked by this thing every day and night as it was en route to our hotel.
Christ Church is located at the end of Temple Bar (read more about Temple Bar in a minute) and is one of two cathedrals in Dublin, part of the Church of Ireland. From the outside, there wasn't much special about it except that it takes up a large amount of space in the small city of Dublin. We walked by on our way to the Guinness Storehouse, so one quick picture and we kept going.
Note: The other cathedral in Dublin is St Patrick's, part of the Church of Ireland as well. It is the largest church in Ireland. The church was not "near" the other "things" we planned to "do" in Dublin, so we did not make it over. Eh, whatta ya gon do??
Trinity College is the oldest university in Ireland and was modeled after the University of Oxford in England. It is right in the center of the city and impossible to miss as it is surrounded by walls, although its inner square is accessible to the public. The university's library is the largest in Ireland and is the home of the Book of Kells (an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables - source). We did not enter the library as most tourists do - look at the line below!

Merrion Square is just around the corner from the University. It is a very green park with a few statues and flower arrangements. It isn't a super big park, but its a nice place to relax for a few minutes. As well is St Stephen's Green which is located at the end of Grafton Street (main shopping street in Dublin). St Stephen's Green is larger than Merrion Square and much more touristy. If you are in Dublin for a Sunday, both parks host an art market around its borders.

The Ha'penny Bridge is a small pedestrian bridge that crosses the River Liffey. There are other pedestrian bridges that cross the river but this has the most history. It was built to replace ferries that took folks from one side of the river to the other and was a toll bridge for 100 years. Its name comes from the toll charge, "a penny and ha'penny" (half penny). I had read online that to get an iconic picture of Dublin, this bridge would do the trick. I don't know about y'all, but this one does not do the trick... most of the pics in the rest of this post are way more iconic than this bridge!

So I guess there is more to do in Dublin than I have lead you to believe, but trust me when I say that the pubs are very difficult to avoid. They are EVERYWHERE, but there is one main area that you will be attracted to - Temple Bar. It is a little bit confusing... Temple Bar is an area of Dublin, but there is also a pub called The Temple Bar (has the word THE). Temple Bar area is pretty much just pubs. Okay, there are other things too but your eyes dehydrated body only notices the pubs.
(day and night pictures of part of Temple Bar area below)

To get us started on Friday, Luke and I did the Literary Pub Crawl. We visited some random sites around the city, got a little bit of history, had some laughs, and drank some beers along the way. We don't usually do stuff like this, but it was fun and we are glad we did it. Next time, I would like to try the Musical Pub Crawl (thanks Kristal for mentioning it!).
We saw two BrewDog signs, but Dublin strangely does not have a BrewDog.
We also visited the Guinness Storehouse better known as the Guinness Brewery at St. James's Gate. We walked through 5 levels of brewing history and facts before going to the 7th level where we got our "free" pint with a view looking out at the city. The tour and building were extremely beautified, and there was loads to read and see. We also went into the tasting room which had only opened two weeks prior. We got to smell the different ingredients used in the brewing process, we were taught how to drink a Guinness properly, and we were given a teeny-tiny glass of Guinness to drink. There is also an option to learn how to pour the perfect pint, but the line was forever long so we chose to go straight for our pint on the top level.

We took matters into our own hands and made our way to a few pubs through the city. After drinking Guinness on Friday, I could not take any more (I like it, but can only take so much) and stuck with Smithwicks for the rest of the weekend. It is a much lighter beer, its delicious, and its Irish! Here are the pubs we went into where I remembered to take a picture :-)

The only one we visited twice...
Just a few, right?

Before Luke and I began traveling, we were told that once you start traveling, you wont want to stop. We had said that we want to do all the traveling we can now, so we wont have to worry about it with kids. The recommendation we got was the make a list of places you can visit with kids and places you wont want to visit with kids. Well, we never made that list, but my suggestion to those of you that plan to make a list is to put Dublin on the "do not do with kids" list. It is just my opinion of course!

Dublin is a super fun city! Super fun! Great to do with friends... we wish we could have worked it out with some other folks, but it is what it is. As for the rest of Ireland, we hear the country is beautiful and would love to take a road trip around the whole island one day. I will probably still favor Scotland though :-)

Dublin is FULL of beggars. Lots of guys walking around the streets asking for spare change.
Dublin Airport has a United States Preclearance (excludes going to Chicago and Boston airports).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Day Trip: Oxford, England

Actual date of this event: 17 August

Luke and I had a chance to visit Oxford on our drive from Aberdeen to London, but we weren't in the exploring mood at the time. I am glad that we did not stop because we probably wouldn't have been able to enjoy the beauty of the town. We thought it would make for a perfect day trip while my parents were visiting us.

The drive to Oxford is about an hour and a half from our home in Wimbledon. Before the trip, I did some research on things to see and do and used the City Guide website which has some very useful information for visitors. Most helpful is the page that tells you where to park! We chose to park on Worcester Street which was not free, but parking usually isn't free in the UK. We also decided to stay within the University grounds (for the most part), so we started on the east end of the High Street and worked our way back west where we parked.

We started at the River Cherwell which held a bunch of colorful little river boats. We saw folks paddling around on the water down through the little trees, doing their best not to bump into each other.
We walked by the University's Botanical Gardens which lies on top of a medieval cemetery. We did not go inside - the front garden wasn't too impressive. Hopefully inside was better!
Right across from the gardens is the impressive Magdalen College (pronounced "maud-lin"). It is one of the most touristy colleges of the university as it was founded in 1458 and attended by famous folks such as CS Lewis and Oscar Wilde. It is open for visitors, but we chose not to pay the admission fee.
Wandering along, we passed by a coffee shop that claimed to be the oldest coffee house in Europe (1654).
We turned off of the High Street onto Queen's Lane which took use down a long, narrow, zig-zaggy road. But it lead us to quite a few major sights... which was the point.

We came upon a little bridge that passed through two buildings which I thought was the "Bridge of Sighs." And around the corner from that was the New College and its Chapel. The door to get into the Chapel was shorter than my dad.

By this point, Queen's Lane had turned into New College Lane. We kept walking and... oh, that other was NOT the Bridge of Sighs. THIS is the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge's actual name is the Hertford Bridge but its nickname came about because of its similarity to the actual Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy.

Right next to the bridge is an alleyway. We saw the sign for Turf Tavern which is one of the more popular pubs in the Oxford, claimed to be the best. It is hidden and you will miss it unless you spot the sign on the wall down the alley. It has a really great beer garden and I can see why the locals like it.

Back out on New College Lane, we passed under the bridge and a load of sights opened up to what seemed like the center of the university.
To the left is the Bodleian Library. There is a courtyard in the center which is open to the public. There are signs upon entering that ask you to be quiet since it is a library. It is amazing how disrespectful people are. No joke, people were talking and laughing loudly, so rude. Anyway, the library is one of the oldest in Europe (1602) and is the main library of the university.

The Sheldonian Theatre is also located in this square. It is used for various things but not for drama.

Next to the theatre is the Museum of the History of Science. We popped in a for while as it started to rain... and it was free. It was the home of... a bunch of old science stuff. One particular item was quite neat: Albert Eistein's Blackboard which is from his second lecture at Oxford. I will let you read the sign with the rest of the history. Anybody got a clue as to what the blackboard explains? I sure don't!

Around the corner from the library is the Radcliffe Camera (camera means "room"). It is used as a reading room for the Bodleian Library. Darn that scaffolding!
Next to the Radcliffe Camera and back out on the High Street is the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. For a fee, you can climb the high tower, but we chose not to do this.

After this we did a bit of wandering along. Down a narrow path lined with colorful buildings...
Past the pub claiming to be the oldest pub in Oxford and to have the lowest ceiling...

Passed a pub named after my dad... ("profile pic!!!!" if he had facebook)
Finally, we found Christ Church! Christ Church is both a college and a cathedral. Thirteen British Prime Ministers have come from this college, and there are a number of different buildings on the site. But the most important fact associated with the college is that it has inspired many scenes from movies. Hogwart's Great Hall was modeled after the Hall of Christ Church. Along with others but NOTHING is more important that Harry Potter.

Look at this this line!! That is why we did not go inside.
It was about time for a stop, so we went to dad's pub for a half-pint, I mean pint... we don't drink half-pints! Never!
Lastly, we parked near the castle, so we checked that out. Oxford Castle is now the home of the Malmaison Hotel. Some of the castle's original buildings are still standing, and the hotel has added on around it. It is a little creepy because the hotel uses old cell blocks for rooms and offices. I mean, obviously, they have been renovated, but it is still a little strange. Anyway, there is a small hill next to the castle that you can climb for a pound.
Oxford has LOADS of history! Everywhere you walk, there is some kind of history associated with a building or a site, and I love that the town preserves it with signs. Oxford is an extremely touristy town, but it isn't really touristy in the annoying way... for the most part. I enjoyed the town and the university, and glad that we were able to take a day trip while my parents visited.

University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and has 38 colleges.
It is illegal to drink alcohol on the streets of Oxford - I'm just sayin'.

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