Monthly Archives: December 2010

Carrick-A-Rede

Part Four of Our Treacherous Ireland Holiday. 

Just East of Giant’s Causeway as you follow along the Causeway Coast Way, there is a small yet towering plot of rocky land called Carrick Island.  Between the island and the main land, among the jagged rocks some thirty meters below the cliff’s edge, exist a westward migration route for the Atlantic salmon.  These rich waters have been a local fishing ground for more than 350 years, and it was way back then that the first rope bridge was strung, allowing the fishermen to cross over to the island where the best fishing spots were located. 

The walk from the parking lot out to the rope bridge was about a kilometer long and followed along the edge of Larrybane Bay.  It was not a gentle stroll, and included descending two sets of steep stairs down to the island that jutted out into the water.  The weather was sunny but brisk, and there was just enough of a breeze to give me some concern about the adventure we were about to undertake.  Although I felt great considering the walk we had taken earlier in the day out at the Causeway, my legs were just a little bit wobbly as we approached the shack and the man in the red coat who would instruct us on the best way across the ravine.  As we walked through the doorway, we found ourselves at the top of ladder like set of metal stairs that led down to our goal.  The Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge was right in front of us.

Ok, so yes, it is a rope bridge, but a quick look around also showed it was a far cry from the rope bridge that those fishermen crossed three hundred years ago.  It is supported by steel cables and iron chains, but that does not mean that the bridge is what you would call stable.  It definitely sways in the breeze…and trust me, there was a breeze that day.  Even before I set foot on the bridge, my heart was racing already as my adrenaline level raised almost to that of a panic.  Maureen and I never talked about it, but I assumed I would cross first, and she would cross behind me.  I grabbed a hold of the ropes on either side of the wooden planks, and started to shuffle out above the water.  I was maybe about a third of the way out onto the bridge when I suddenly heard a barrage of profanity that would have made Ralphie’s dad blush, and instantly knew it was my new bride.  There was really no way to turn around while on the bridge, so I shuffled my way backwards back to where I started.

I gave Maureen a big hug, and told her she didn’t have to cross with me.  I knew that bridges, even the more solid type that you cross over in a car made her nervous, so I was pretty sure this was quite terrifying to her. She refused to listen and told me that she didn’t come all this way just to chicken out, so we set out to make the cross again.  The man in the red coat shouted out encouragement from the top of the steps as we started over the bridge again.  As I got going, once again I heard the cries of a trucker in a strip club, but a quick look over my shoulder showed me Maureen was determined to make it across.  I called back to her as we went, trying to cheer her on as we got farther and farther away from the other side.  And then, just as suddenly as the whole adventure started, we were there.  We had made it across to the island on the other side.

Of course once the excitement of making the cross has settled down, and our hearts were just beginning to return to some sort of normal pace, there was the sudden realization that the only way back was the same way we just come.  So after a few minutes of looking around on the island, we took yet another profanity laden cross of the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge back to the other side, and then back to Bushmills were we had a late lunch at The Old Bushmills Distillery.  We would have to save Dunluce Castle for another trip, because it was getting late in the afternoon and we had a long drive ahead to get all the way across the country to Westport.  We left Northern Ireland with full bellies and a sense of accomplishment. 

 We conquered the rope bridge!

Elvis Would Not Leave the Building

If I may, I would like to step away from Ireland for just a moment, but I won’t go too far.  The rope bridge will be here shortly, I promise.  Last night while most of Chicago was either home, or in their favorite tavern watching the Bears and Devin Hester topple Brett Farve and the Minnesota Vikings, Maureen and I had the great pleasure of seeing a one man acoustic show by one of our favorite musicians, Elvis Costello.  My sister Laura was there too, so she kept us up to date on the score of the game between songs.

When my older sister Carrie had first suggested seeing Elvis again, this time at The Chicago Theater, I almost second guessed myself and passed on the opportunity.  The tickets were a bit more pricey than the last time we saw him at Ravinia, an outdoor venue that is known for its cheap lawn seats and open picnic basket policy, but we had such a great time at that show that I couldn’t say no.  And if I did, Maureen probably would have just gone without me anyway.  What none of us realized until the show was almost ready to start was that this was going to be a solo event for Mr. MacManus.  Just one man, a sold out house, and about eight guitars.

I have seen Elvis a number of time over the years, but never quite in a setting like last night.  The best way to describe it was like being at a live version of his Sundance Channel show Spectacle, only without the guests.  It was very casual with Elvis speaking to the audience almost as though all 3,500 of us were right in his living room.  What did concern me a little was that as we sat down I couldn’t help but wonder why we had been seated in the old people section, until I realized that I was one of those old people, along with most of the audience.  The crowd as a whole may have been skidding down the back side of the hill, but they were still very enthusiastic and appreciative of the night and the music.

To kick things off, Elvis just sort of walked out on stage, waved at the audience, picked up a guitar and started right in with (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes, and the night just took off from there.  It was a great mix of the old and the new, with more than a half dozen songs coming from his most recent release National Ransom which was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who also just happens to have been the producer of another of mine and Maureen’s favorite bands, the BoDeans.  In traditional Elvis style, there was also an eclectic mix of musical nods to other artists from The Animals to Van Morrison, and even included a “holiday” song entitled St. Stephen’s Day Murders which he had originally recorded with The Chieftains for their 1991 album The Bells of Dublin

See, I haven’t wandered too far from Ireland, and there will be more about the Chieftains when our adventure gets to Westport.

But back to Elvis.  For me, there were two highlights that really made the night exciting.  The first came rather early in the night when Elvis announced that he was going to play a song of his that he really hated.  That is, he hated it until he learned to play it right.  Later, he played a totally reinvented rendition of Everyday I Write the Book that brought the audience to it feet yet again.  The other highlight was getting to hear Elvis play the guitar.  Maureen had always said that she felt Elvis had a voice that sounded like whiskey should taste, and I had always known he was a great musician as well, but to hear what variety he could get from his instruments, including a feedback electric guitar solo after Watching the Detectives that was as brilliant as it was unexpected, was the real treat of the night.

Very rarely do you find yourself at a concert were it seems that the artist is having just as much fun as the audience, but last night was one of them.  It seemed that Elvis just couldn’t bring himself to leave the stage as the crowd stood to cheer him on each time the show seemed like it was at an end.  Several times, the house lights actually began to come up, only to fade quickly as Elvis reentered the stage.  For more than two hours he entertained us, and as a reward we got to hear a very cool slowed down version of (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, before he finally left the stage.

By the smiles and the goodwill being expressed by all those leaving the show, I would say Elvis really did give us our money’s worth last night.  It is just too bad that Elvis really did have to finally leave the building.

The Giant’s Causeway

Part Three of Our Treacherous Ireland Holiday. 

New readers should start here.

We woke up early and with our heads clear.  It had really been the first full night of sleep I had since the night before Thanksgiving.  And a good night’s sleep deserved a good breakfast.  I had never stayed in a Bed and Breakfast before, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect.  Well, in Ireland it includes the traditional Irish breakfast.  A couple of fried eggs, but don’t expect a runny yoke.  I didn’t get one of those until I asked for a poached egg in Dingle.  Two sausages or bangers, some Irish bacon, more like a ham than the standard American bacon, a baked tomato and some blood pudding.  Some plates include mushrooms and the meal we had in Bushmills included a grilled potato bread that was very tasty, but let’s get back to that blood pudding for a second.  It is not really a pudding at all by American standards, it is really more like a sausage except that it is really, really gross.  Now you know it must be bad if it comes from someone like me.  I will eat just about anything except for lima beans or brussel sprouts.  I even ate squirrel and actually liked it.  But you couldn’t get me to put that black, nasty gunk past my lips again.

After breakfast we had four things we wanted to do before we hit the road again.  Tour the Old Bushmills Distillery, go to Giants Causeway and the Carrick-A-Rede rope bridge, and stop at Dunluce Castle.  Most of the attractions didn’t open until 10, and since we had gotten up so early, we still had an hour to go.  So we decided to start with Giant’s Causeway.  After a short winding ride, we arrived there around 9:30.  Although the visitors center was still closed and construction was underway in several locations, we were still able to pay for parking and head out down the path to the Causeway.

The Giant’s Causeway is one of the most spectacular and unusual natural formations in the world.  Where the Cliffs of Moher are majestic and stunning, Giant’s Causeway is very accessible and a more hands-on experience.  The main draw of the Causeway is the strange, odd-shaped formation of the basalt columns.  These volcanic structures are a scientific marvel and a mystery, but it is the legend of the Causeway that has the most appeal.  As the myth tells us, the Causeway was actually created by the giant Finn MacCool to settle a dispute with an opposing giant in Scotland named Benandonner.  The two giants would shout across the water at each other until one day when Finn tossed a stone into the water.  Both giants continued to toss rocks at each other until a walkway was created, and Benandonner started to cross to confront MacCool.  Prior to this, the two giants had never seen each other, and as Benandonner got closer, Finn suddenly realised that the other giant was much larger than he was.  Fearing defeat, Finn quickly disguised himself as a baby, and when Benandonner saw the size of the infant, he turned and fled, afraid to face the giant that would spawn such a child.  On his way back to Scotland, he destroyed the walkway as he retreated, leaving the Causeway in his wake.

Not realizing how accessible the Causeway was, Maureen and I spent more time than we expected wandering the rocks and following the trails along the coast.  We walked out as far as the trails would let us to an edge that warned us of dangerous falling rocks, and since we took the lower trail into the Causeway we decided to take the upper trail back.  Unfortunately, that first required us to ascend the half mile of old rock stairs to the top, but once up there, the view was well worth the climb.  In all, we spent almost four hours walking around, taking pictures and talking with the few other people who were out on Giant’s Causeway that chilly morning, although neither of us could figure out how we hand managed to spend that much time there.  It didn’t seem that long.  It seemed more like just a quick walk.  The true scope of how much we had walked did not hit me until I tried to sit back down in the car, and my thighs decided to scream back at me.

But my thighs were going to have to buck up.  The rope bridge was still to come!

From Belfast to Bushmills

Part Two of Our Treacherous Ireland Holiday

I awoke the next day in sunlight and what I thought was sobriety.  But there was something missing.  Given the excess of the night before, there should have been a small man, perhaps a leprechaun, trying to pound it way out of my skull.  Perhaps I had left him down in the bar with that last can of Pringle’s.  Or perhaps I was still drunk.  Nope.  A severe case of dry mouth was telling me that was not the case.  Dehydration.  Yes, I was drinking last night.  And I did a very good job of it too.

I found my pants right were I left them, about a foot and a half from where I passed out.  I headed down to the lobby in search of a bottle of water but could not find a vending machine. I asked the lady at the front desk, not the one from the day before, if there were anywhere in the hotel I could get a bottle of water, and she pointed me right back to the scene of the crime.  The little bar that had done such a fine job of over serving us til the wee hours of the morning.

The bar was empty as I entered, but soon I was greeted by the bartender from the night before.  Not the front desk guy who served us way too late, but the first bartender from earlier in the night.  He gave that knowing smile, because at this point I am assuming I looked like hell, and I asked if it was possible to get a couple of bottles of water.

Would you like sparkling water or still water?

What?  Stillwater?  Isn’t that the band from Almost Famous?  Water.  I need water.  Just plain old water.  The bartender smiled again.  The confusion on my face must have been obvious.  He reached under the counter and pulled out two bottles as I reached into my pocket.  I suddenly realized why we had left that last can of Pringle’s in the vending machine last night.  All my pounds were gone.  I tried to give the man my debit card, but he just held his hand up. 

Don’t worry.  You can stop by and pay me later.

This guy was now my favorite bartender ever.  At least for now, or until we found another favorite bartender somewhere else in Ireland.

The water lasted about half a minute, and Maureen and I decided we needed to go out in search of something to eat and some more beverages.  But not like the ones from the night before.  More water and perhaps a coke or some coffee would be great.  But first we needed to figure out what to do about tonight.  We were supposed to meet up with Mark and Maureen again tonight, but we had booked a room at a Bed & Breakfast up in Bushmills.  And we didn’t have a phone to call and change the reservation.  Luckily the young lady at the front desk was more than helpful.  She looked up the number and even dialed for us, and Maureen talked to the woman she called Rene about changing our reservation to the next night, and we extended our stay in Belfast by another night.

A short walk from the hotel we found the same petrol station with the same ATM from the day before.  After retrieving the much needed pounds, we stepped inside to find some water, and much to my delight I also found a bottle of Dr. Pepper.  This was the best petrol station ever!  The woman who rang us up overheard us talking about getting something to eat, and she highly recommended the bakery across the street.  We each ordered an egg sandwich with sausage and Irish bacon on soda bread.  After a short wait while they made the sandwiches, we were each then handed a flat bread sandwich about the size of a turkey platter.  There was no way that either of us would come even close to finishing a quarter of our sandwich, but they were mighty tasty.

From the bakery, we took a bus to the town center.  Now under normal situations, I would have questioned the sanity of jumping on a bus in a country I had never been in before, and going to who really knows where.  Maureen, being the more seasoned traveler, assured me that the trip would be easy, and as always she was right.  The bus system in Belfast was just that simple.  All routes start at or end in the town center, so once we got on the bus, it was just a simple matter of making sure we got back on the same route to get back to our hotel.

Downtown Belfast is actually quite stunning.  It is a clean city with lots of shopping and for a Monday morning, it was quite busy.  We found a mall and picked up a disposable phone, and learned another new term.  Top Up.  The phone itself was only 8 pounds, but we needed to “Top Up” the phone, or put money into our account to activate it.  A quick conversation with the sales person and another customer assured us that we would be able to use the phone even once we left Northern Ireland, in fact, the phone would also be good on The Continent.  No, not back here in America.  It would still work if perhaps we made a trip to main land Europe.  Something that was not on the agenda for this trip, but perhaps we would stash the phone away for a future trip to The Continent.

From the mall we made our way to City Hall and we were pleased to find they had already set up their international market for the holiday season.  We have a similar market each year in Chicago over at the Daley Center, but in all my years in Chicago I have never been to it.  I may have to make a special trip this year, because unfortunately, we could not take advantage of all the good things to eat because our bellies were still way too full from the gigantic breakfast sandwiches.  But we did have time to do a little shopping before nature took its course and it was time to head back to the hotel and “set a spell.”

When we got back to the hotel, Maureen used our new phone to try to contact Maureen and Mark, but it appeared that our late night out had not been as kind to them in the morning.  Mark had a touch of a hard time heading in to work, and Maureen had been woken up by a sick baby.  Needless to say, our plans for that night were put on hold, and we decided to make a break for the north and keep our reservation up in Bushmills.  But first we needed to call Rene and get our room back for the night.

With that accomplished, and after I repaid my favorite bartender for the water, we left Belfast but first stopped to see the castle on the way out-of-town.  Belfast Castle is not nearly as old or as large as many of the other Castles of Ireland.  The original castle burnt down in 1708, and the new one was not built until the late 1800’s.  But what it lacks in style and size it makes up for in view.  Situated on a hill that overlooks the city and Belfast Harbour, it is open to the public and free of charge.  It has also been the sight of countless weddings for more than a hundred years.  I am sure the courtyard is much grander when it is not covered in snow.

From there it was back to the maps to continue our adventure.  My eyeglass lens was still MIA, although Maureen seemed to think it had fallen into a vent under the driver’s seat, so she continued behind the wheel while I was in charge of music.  You see, Maureen had already warned me about the lack of good radio in Ireland, and in Northern Ireland it got progressively worse.  So we opted for a little Elvis Costello for our traveling tunes.

We decided that the A26 was our best choice of roads, as it would take us mostly north past Ballymoney to Coleraine before we needed to jog back east to Bushmills.  Leaving the motorway gave us our first exposure to the more narrow regional roads, but this was still nothing compared to some of the roads still ahead.  Although one of the good things I can say about Irish roads is that the roundabouts and most of the bigger intersections are very clearly marked.  They don’t always tell you what road you are on, but they do have arrows on the signs pointing you in the right direction.  That is as long as you had a good understanding of where you were going.  But of course that is where the maps come in handy.

We made good time, and we arrived in Bushmills just as the sun was almost set, but we were still too late to try to visit the distillery, it had closed shortly before we arrived in town, and the final guests for the day were already making their way out of the parking lot.  We could not meet Rene until after 5, so after we located the B&B we were staying in, we headed back into town to look around.  And look around once was really all you need to do in Bushmills.  It is a small town with just one conveniences store but several places to pull up a bar stool and have a pint.  And that was just what we did.  But one pint was going to be it as our eyelids started to get heavy and we could not wait until we could find Rene and check in.

Only when we finally got to the B&B to meet Rene, her name wasn’t Rene at all, it was Rea.  And I know both Maureen and I had called her the wrong name on several occasions, but she had never bothered to correct us.  Even with the wrong name, Rea still talked up a storm and told us that we would probably be the only guests tonight and that unfortunately not much was open in town this time of year.  Which in the end suited us just fine.  We did manage to find a nice meal at The Bushmills Inn which included a butterscotch sundae that sounded too good to pass up even with the cold weather.  And then it was back to the Bed and Breakfast to retire early.

As it turned out, it would be our last early night of the trip.

Our Treacherous Ireland Holiday (Belfast or Bust)

I knew something was wrong as soon as I lifted the shade to peer out the window of the airplane.  The pilot had announced that we were beginning our descent, and would be landing in Dublin at about 8:45 local time.  He also told us that the temperature was a frigid 2 degrees (around 35 or 36 fahrenheit), and that it was a very rare occasion when the temperature was actually colder here than when we left Chicago.  I was anxious to see what the guidebook described as the green quilted landscape that was visible from the air, so why was it all grey?  I believe it was at this moment when Maureen’s mouth actually fell open.  The quilt was still there, but this landscape was covered with ice and snow.  We landed in Dublin in a snowstorm.

After a quick snafu at the rental car counter, we soon found ourselves standing in the Avis lot with a midsize Toyota covered in snow.  The young man who drove us over in the shuttle bus did the best he could to clean the snow with the only item he had for the job, a push broom.  Although it did knock off the loose snow, it did nothing to break free the thick layer if ice that encased the windshield.  I tipped the driver with the only thing I had in my pocket, three American dollars, and I know, I am not supposed to tip in Ireland, but some habits are hard to break, and at least Maureen was able to reel me in so that I was only leaving a “small” tip at each restaurant and pub.  The driver gave me a quick smile, and soon we were left by ourselves with a halfway frozen car somewhere just outside Dublin.

After pulling the last few chunks of ice of the windshield with my hands, we hit the road for our first destination, Belfast.  The tank was full, and the sun was out and it was actually much warmer than the snow would indicate.  As we pulled onto the M1 heading North, me in the American drivers seat sans the steering wheel, and Maureen adjusting very quickly to driving on the left side of the road, we decided to make a quick stop to get some euros, water, coffee, and a little something to eat, before our adventure was to begin.  About an hour into our drive, as I was looking over our maps, the left lens of my glasses popped out and rattled to the floor between our seats.  I gave it a quick look, but it became apparent the search was going to have to wait until we stopped again.

The actual drive to Belfast was not too bad.  The weather changed about every ten minutes as we would go from snow to rain to bright sunlight within just a few miles.  The road was what they called a dual carriage Motorway, or the basic two lane highway here in the states.  Even with the snow, this would be one of the best roads of the trip, but there will be much more about that at another time.  It wasn’t until we actually got into Belfast that things started to get a little hairy.  Maureen had made a reservation for us on the North side of town, but the road we were looking for was not on our map.  To make matters worse, Irish street signs are almost non-existent.  To figure out what street you are on, you have to look for signs on the side of the buildings, and since Maureen was trying to maneuver slim one way streets, I was stuck trying to look for signs through the one lens I still had in my glasses.

It became apparent that we needed to make a stop, so while Maureen looked through the maps, I searched for the missing glass that had fallen between our seats.  But the lens had pulled a David Copperfield and had disappeared.  Front seat, back seats crawling on my belly, I searched all to no avail.  I should probably add at this point that we had both become a little agitated from our travel, but to be fair, I was in a much fouler mood than Maureen.  I was not able to sleep at all on the seven hour flight, which we boarded at 7 pm Saturday in Chicago, flying right through the night and landing Sunday morning in Dublin.  With very little sleep after the Friday night wedding, I was now passing the 24 hour mark without sleep, with maybe just a few hours of sleep over the past two days.  To put it bluntly, I was a tad bit crabby.

Since our cell phones were now useless, and after a bit more driving in circles, we stopped again at a petrol station to get directions.  I made another futile attempt to find my missing lens, but the directions turned out to be helpful and we soon found Antrim Street and our hotel.  We must have been quite the sight, two tired, dirty Americans walking into the lobby.  And the poor lady behind the counter probably didn’t fully understand how desperate for sleep I was when she first told us that check-in time was not for another hour.  When it quickly became apparent to her that room or no room, I was going to lie down, even if it was on one of the couches right there in the lobby, a key and directions to our room were quickly handed over.

As Maureen will tell it, I was asleep before she even set down her purse, and what seemed like a quick snooze turned into a two-hour nap.  I probably could have slept for about ten more hours, but we decided we needed to push through the night and get adjusted to the new time zone.  We decided to take a quick walk before we were to meet some friends later that night.  And that turned out to be a good idea.  After I apologized for being so short earlier, the woman at the front desk told us to be careful because the walkways were “treacherous” and they had not all been properly “gritted,” two terms we came to be very found of while in Ireland.

Despite the warning, we heading out into the late afternoon to find the air was brisk but not windy.  The sun was already setting, this time of year it is dark by 4:30, and many of the shops were already closed up.  It was after all Sunday night.  We did find an ATM, because the euros we picked up were no good here in Northern Ireland, British rule still made the Pound the correct currency.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat as the sun set, and then walked back to our hotel to get ready for the night.

Long before I had met Maureen, her family had hosted a young child from Belfast.  This was some time in the early nineties, and that child was also named Maureen, or Little Mo as I have been told they called her.  Well, Little Mo is now all grown up with a husband and three great kids of her own, and Maureen and her husband Mark were to be our hosts in Belfast that night.  My Maureen was a little nervous about the meeting.  They had reconnected through the wonderful world of Facebook, but when you haven’t seen someone in almost twenty years, it is understandable that things might not be as easy as before.  But all the worries were for nothing, and very soon we were all laughing and drinking like old friends.

As a quick little side note, I did find it interesting that while I was drinking a Harp, I was holding off on the Guinness because I was afraid it might speed up the rate of how quickly sleep took control, Mark had opted for an American import.  Budweiser. 

After a few drinks at our hotel, we called a cab and headed back to Maureen and Mark’s house to meet her mother and the kids.  I was thrilled to find out that even though we live an ocean apart, kids are still the same everywhere.  Grumblings about washing hands and brushing teeth are no different in Belfast than they are in Bolingbrook.  As the kids were sent to bed, the real adventure was about to begin. 

On the cab ride to our next stop, we learned a little about the strife that still exists in Northern Ireland.  Similar to the way racism can still haunt us here in the states, the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics is still cause for tension, although it was not so overwhelming as to detour us from traveling to Belfast again.  We probably wouldn’t have even noticed it at all if we had not been with locals, or visiting a local night spot.  That aside, we were made to feel quite welcome in the pub we ended up in, where we met another nice couple from Dublin, Tom and Margaret, and another gent we just refered to as Strange Martin.  Even for a Sunday night the place was hopping, and a band played as we drank, danced and talked.  That whole sleep thing had passed me over, so I decided it was time to move onto the Guinness.  And as the pub was closing and I thought our night was coming to a close, Mark informed us of a fun little Irish fact.  Guest in a hotel can continue to order drinks from the hotel bar, even after hours!

So needless to say, we were back in a cab and at our hotel to continue our night.

I am really not sure how late we stayed in that closed down bar off of the lobby, but Mark was indeed correct, and the man at the front desk continued to serve us pint after pint until the wee hours of the morning.  Thankfully the bar also had a vending machine that dispense those tiny cans of Pringle’s.  The salt and vinegar ones were an especially tasty treat and went well with the overabundance of beer.  When the machine was empty of all of its little cans except for one, I finally hit that wall and needed to hit the sack.  Reluctantly we parted ways, and we made drunken bar plans to meet up the next day, even though we were supposed to move on to Bushmills for the next night.  The last thing I remember was watching a pillow meet up with my face, and then there was darkness.

Our first night in Ireland, and I slept like a baby.  A 250 pound drunken baby.