Remembering our European travels: Ireland

We have a friend of a friend (my brother-in-law, Tom) who is going to celebrate their 15th anniversary by going to Europe! More specifically, they are going to England, Ireland, and Italy. Tom shared our London post with her, but I wanted to share our love of Ireland too. Just in case it helps with exploring and having a ton of fun.

We joined two of El’s cousins Kristen and Alanah. They were coming from the US and had purchased a vacation package that included a car rental; they agreed to tote us along if we packed lightly. I was incredibly grateful (being 7 months pregnant at the time). Having a car wasn’t essential for going from city to city as there is a national rail system (aka trains). But to see the Cliffs of Moher, which I highly recommend, you need to either have a car or use a sightseeing company/bus to drive you there.

Useful tip: Ireland, like the UK, drives on the left side of the road; the rest of the Europe for the most part drives on the right side of the road. Much like Europe, but differing from the UK, Ireland uses the metric system. Therefore, you’ll see speed limits in kilometers per hour (km/h) in Ireland and miles per hour (mph) in England. And the signage for speed limits are a black number on a white circle surrounded by a red circle. Signs will indicate km/h, but not mph; so if it is just a number, then it is in mph.

Our first stop in Ireland was Limerick. We checked into our hotel, then took a walk over to the beautiful St Mary’s Cathedral. After the ladies at the front desk of the church chatted with us about being Americans – they loved Irish Americans! We did a self-guided tour of the cathedral. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at an old book store and the Milk Market. At the Milk Market, we loved Bon-Appétit Crêperie, the Anne Lloyd’s Market Griddle, Tea4you, and Harper’s Coffee House. We also walked through the open market area just looking at all of the amazing craftsmanship.

Outside of St Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick

Wandering around Limerick allowed us to do an impromptu tour of King John’s Castle, which is a 13th-century castle on the River Shannon that offers a huge history lesson. It was October when we visited, so there was also a beer festival happening at the castle. We probably would have stayed for the beer festival, but I was 6 months pregnant and tired by this point in the day.

Our second day in Ireland was spent at the Cliffs of Moher. It has an amazing walking/hiking path, which you could walk forever. For me, the cliffs were definitely the highlight of our time in Ireland. I could go on about the scenery and the trails, but pictures are better for this.

The third day was Halloween; we spent it in Dublin. We checked out the Guinness Storehouse. Here, you can learn a little history of the famous beer and how to properly pour a pint of Guinness. There is a bar at the top of the building, but it generally gets more and more crowded as the day goes on. I suggest to get there early and leave before the crowd arrives. We ate lunch in one of the restaurants in the Guinness Storehouse (I recommend a cheeky pint and the stew). We also ventured into the Temple Bar area. Temple Bar was overly crowded, so we stopped into the Temple Bar whiskey and tobacco shop (2 doors down from the bar) – Kristen and Elliott did a tour of Irish whiskey while Alanah and I sat out of that experience. While I suggest checking out Temple Bar (Neighborhood), please not that it is a great place to party but that’s about it. From our experience, there are not a lot of Irish folks there as it is a bit expensive and a bit of tourist trap. However, it is a great for people watching as there are many Hen parties (bachelorette parties) and Stag Dos (bachelor parties).

Our fourth day was spent meandering through Trinity College Dublin and touring the Old Library Exhibition to view The Book of Kells, which is an manuscript written in Latin that contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. Its name is derived from where the book was housed for centuries (Abbey of Kells). The library displays only a few pages of the book at a time, but you can view a digital version of the book without even going to Ireland!

Our final stop was at St Patrick’s Cathedral, another must-see place in Dublin. The grounds and architecture around the Cathedral are picturesque and stunning, even in November. The inside of the Cathedral does not disappoint either. The stained glass on each arch of the cathedral is beautiful.

Our biggest advice is to book tickets online. Tickets are usually are cheaper in advance and will reserve your spot for a certain time and date. This is great for brewery and distillery tours, which can be sold out in advance.

Notable mentions for Dublin include: Teeling Whiskey Distillery, Jameson Distillery on Bow St (skip the Irish Whiskey Museum Tour). If you have the time, check out the National Gallery. We enjoyed St Stephen’s Green (and nearby shopping centre), Beehive Coffee, the Palace bar, and Peadar Kearney’s pub.

We loved visiting Ireland and hope that you will too. Happy 15th anniversary to you both!

First Expat Christmas

Let’s first start with a new-to-me word:

Expatriate: (noun) often shortened to expat; A person who lives outside their native country.
I had never heard this word before moving to England. And based on our patriotic-ness, I definitely thought it referred only to Americans. Yes, I know that I am typical American, where everything literally revolves around us. I am wrong; the world doesn’t revolve around Americans. Because I lived in Nebraska for almost 30 years and never truly adventured too far from home, I never thought globally before moving abroad or adventuring away from home. I’m still learning about new cultures, foods, and words.

Now it is firmly the summer months in England, where the weather varies week-to-week or day-to-day. The temperature ranges from roughly 50°F (10°C) to nearly 90°F (32°C). The sun is either out in full-force or hiding behind a blanket of clouds. Yesterday was a new one for us: it literally rained all day.

A few weeks ago when the sun was always around (from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.), I had some nostalgia for winter! When the sun is never really out but the mood is bright and warm; full of holiday festivals and welcoming pubs. Winter, but specifically Christmas time, always warms my heart regardless of the temperature outside.

However, this past Christmas was difficult for me. At the time, we had only lived in the UK for 6 months, and I had only been at my job for 5. I felt like I couldn’t ask to take more than a few days off work to go home for Christmas. Any time less than a week just isn’t worth the cost of the plane tickets nor the intense jet lag. And to be honest, El also couldn’t take that kind of time off work. Instead, we made the best of our time over here! We put up the [fake] Christmas tree that sprinkles needles everywhere, adorned it with our favorite ornaments, and blared Christmas classics on Spotify (because Pandora doesn’t work in the UK). After a trip to B&Q (the British version of Home Depot – with the orange aprons and friendly smiles), we decided to use our American lights plugged in a transformer – at the time, we couldn’t justify buying new lights for the tree – they’re so expensive here.
Christmas Tree

O’ Christmas Tree!

In the UK, the winter season comes with Christmas markets and decorations throughout the city and country. Cambridge was beautifully lit up and the daily market and stores had Christmas-themed items. A specific kind of cheese that El now loves made its first appearance, but we learned that it is only available during the winter season. There was also a special Christmas Market Day along Mill Road in Cambridge; the street was closed down for the day and evening, vendors were outdoors  on the street selling everything from decorations to gift items, antiques to clothing, and of course food and drinks were available everywhere. Just thinking about the mulled wine that was available makes me almost wish for winter Christmas to return soon. But could I please request a bit more sunshine during winter this year?
Let’s discuss what mulled wine is exactly. First of all, when said aloud it sort of sounds like you’re saying “mold wine.” I promise it isn’t moldy at all! Composed of red wine, sugar, orange juice, and seasonal spices (e.g., cinnamon, star anise, and cloves), mulled wine is another reason, or maybe THE reason, that I can’t wait for Christmas this year. It’s warm and spicy, cozy and spirited! Some recipes I’ve seen call for the addition of bay leaves and brandy. I think it is just wonderful, especially on cold, dark, rainy days. One of my co-workers even has spice bags (think tea bags) that she used to prepare homemade mulled wine while we baked Christmas cookies for our workplace. I also learned how to say Merry Christmas in German from another co-worker and found imported Christmas tins of cookies and liquor that could possibly help me get through a British winter.
Christmas cookies, German: Merry Christmas, Spice sachet, Christmas goodies at Lakenheath Commissary, German Apple Liquor

Christmas cookies, Merry Christmas (in German), spice sachet, imported Christmas goodies, German Apple Liquor

I partook in a ladies-only trip down to London to explore the Christmas Markets. We visited the markets in Hyde Park and near the Tate Modern Museum. More mulled wine. More food. More Christmas goodies and gifts. Next year, I wish to visit Christmas Markets in both Germany and in other parts of the UK besides Cambridge and London.
Hyde Park Christmas Market

Hyde Park Christmas Market

El and I also had to make other tough decisions regarding celebrating Christmas. Both of our workplaces had fancy Christmas Parties, which happened to be on the same night, so we compromised. We chose to attend the Postdocs Of Cambridge (PdOC) Society’s Christmas Party this year; next year we will attend El’s work Christmas party. The Christmas Party for the PdOC was held at St. John’s College, one of the 31 colleges associated with the University of Cambridge. There were drinks, speeches, Christmas crackers, and a fancy dinner in the formal hall that made me think we were in a Harry Potter film. The dining hall was decorated for Christmas, complete with a gigantic Christmas tree.

At our first British Christmas Party.

We took a short holiday just after Christmas. There are so many choices of where to go and what to see, but we opted for going skiing in the southern part of Germany. We made our travel plans very simple; we flew from Stansted Airport to München (Munich) then hopped on a train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Neither of us speak much German (please and thank get you far though in any language). We found that traveling to, from, and within Germany easy to figure out and extremely on schedule.
Mountain view from lunch

Oh, the Alps! The view from one of the ski slopes.

Jen mountain top post lunch 2

Lunch on the ski slopes.

Kindergarten 2

Learning on the “Kingergarten” slope.

Prior to this ski trip, El and I had only ever skied once. In Iowa. For those of you keeping track, Mt Crescent, Iowa is not a mountain range. It is barely a bunny hill. Let’s just say that the ski instructions in Garmish-Partenkirchen were well worth the money spent. We skied for several days at Zugspitze on the Garmisch-Classic. We picked up the sport quickly and have plans to return! El has even proclaimed that skiing is his new favorite sport. By the end of a ski-cation (our fourth day of the trip), El went down the face of the entire mountain with our ski instructor, Jon-O. I gleefully took the ski lift down the mountain with my eyes tightly shut most of the way down, humming songs to myself to preoccupy my brain. Heights are scary for me. And I was alone in the cable car with no one to distract me.

Jen and El skiing

Selfie on the slopes

We were told that our timing for our vacation was impeccable. The schools would be starting on our second day on the slopes, so the ski lifts would be relatively empty. They couldn’t be more right! On that second day, the weather was perfect and there were very few people on the mountain. It was blissful. Being able to see the whole town and Munich from the ski slopes and lift was priceless. The next time we go to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we’ll try to stay for a full week and book it just after kids are back in school.

I can see for miles!

I can see for miles!

After the ski-cation was over, the rest of the time we spent in München. We stayed near the Marienplatz and Viktualienmarkt in a wonderful bed and breakfast. The lady who ran the B&B was so inviting and made some of the best breakfast platters on our travel adventures so far. If you’re ever in the München area, contact us and we’ll give you the name of this cute B&B.

In München, we did plenty without having a real agenda or itinerary. This El’s style of vacation, not mine. However, we agreed to it prior to going, so I made due without knowing where we’d be going (wherever the wind blew us that day), what we’d be doing, or when (and what) we’d be eating that day. Overall, it was great! Even without knowing, we essentially saw most of the city. The first night we were in München, we stopped by the Haufbrähaus for an “obligatory” brezeln und biers (pretzels and beer).

The outside of Haufbrahaus.

The outside of Haufbrahaus.

We also toured the Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg Palace) and strolled through the Englicsher Garten (English Garden) complete with watching crazy surfers on the river.

Nymphenburg Palace

Nymphenburg Palace

We also toured the Residenz München (Munich Residence) and Neus Rathaus (New Town Hall) – with the Glockenspiel am Rathausturm. We climbed the tower of St. Peter’s Church to get a bird’s eye view of the Glockenspiel and plaza.

Inside the Neus Rathaus, there is an American stained glass window.

Inside the Neus Rathaus, there is an American stained glass window.

Bird's eye view of Neus Rathaus.

Bird’s eye view of Neus Rathaus.

I smiling even though terrified.

I’m smiling even though I’m terrified.

We also visited München’s Botanical Gardens and ventured over to the BMW Museum and Welt. Somehow, Elliott was able to talk me into going up the Olympic Tower in the Olympiapark. The top of the Tower a great view of the city and the stadium while having some really awesome pictures and signatures from famous artists.

The view from the Olympia Tower.

The view from the Olympia Tower.


How far is Garmisch?

Olympia Tower at dusk.

Olympia Tower at dusk.

BMW Welt.

Outside the BMW Museum and Welt.

Dear Santa,
Below is my Christmas list for this year. I promise that I’m on the nice list!
1. A real Christmas tree to decorate
2. A week in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to refine my skiing skills
3. Attend Christmas markets in Germany
4. More sunshine during the British winter
5. World peace

Our Year Five Began in Paris

Before we moved across the pond, my friend Mary Anne suggested that we should celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary by being in Paris and in the Eiffel Tower. I become fixated on doing this because I thought it would be a very romantic way to celebrate. I was envisioning eating chocolate and drinking champagne at the top by ourselves – yes, in my mind, all of the other tourists would just not be in the tower with us. Maybe El rented the tower for the day to celebrate. Who knows? It could happen, right? Let’s just say that I can be a little delusional at times!

This was our second holiday (the first being a tour of East Anglia in July), but our first one to “the continent.” By which, I mean continental Europe, which excludes all of the islands that are associated with Europe. In other words, Brits refer to Europe as this other place that excludes them. And while I don’t disagree that British people and their customs are wildly different from other Europeans, I find it strange that the Brits commonly exclude themselves from the rest of Europe. Examples include: UK is the only place in Europe that drives on the left side of the road, thereby needing to have right-side driver seats; the UK is the only country (edit: one of ten countries, soon to be nine) in the EU that does not use the Euro as currency. The other countries that do not use the Euro are Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and Lithuania. However, Lithuania is set to start using the Euro in January 2015. (Thanks Nesrin for the information about the EU countries that haven’t adopted the Euro!)

I digress. Back to France! We had an ambitious list of things that we wanted to see and do in Paris, but we’d only be around for two and half days. Therefore, we opted for subway tickets that would let us freely roam within Parisian Zones 1-3 (the main portion of the city) and tried to group together things based on their locations. We still have a few things that we would have liked to do, but we plan to be in France again in the next few years. We envision the possibility of stopping in Paris for another day or two on the way to somewhere else.

Here’s a photo-essay with a sprinkle of information and/or history on what we did for the ~70 hours that we were in Paris:

Musée du Louvre
Famous for the pyramid shaped sculpture and for being the site of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting, the Louvre is a fantastic museum full of sculptures, paintings, and textiles. The museum contains thousands of works of art divided into several departments: Near Eastern Antiquities, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Islamic Art, Sculptures, Decorative Arts, Paintings, Prints, and Drawings. The span of the museum is extensive because it has been so much more than just a museum. In 1190, The Louvre was built as a fortress to protect Parisians from possible invasions from the north (I would have feared Viking attacks too). In the 16th century, the Louvre was reconstructed as a royal palace. And finally, in 1793 the Louvre became a fine art museum.

Louvre 5

We roamed through the never-ending hallways and stairwells for hours with Nintendo 3DS consults as our tour guides – they are totally worth the 5 Euro. There is at least one stairwell that goes under the museum, which is pretty interesting to see the foundation of the original building! I was really struck by various artists sitting in front of fantastic pieces of work with their own paintbrushes and canvas, trying to recreate the original. I also found one of my new favorite pieces of artwork by exploring the Louvre.

Louvre 2

Fun fact for others (and maybe ourselves): on the first Sunday of the month during off-peak travel season (from October until March), all visitors can access the permanent collections of the museum for free. It is not free between April and September. Also, the museum is closed on Tuesdays year-round.

Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile
This arch monument is not to be confused with the one just outside of the Louvre Museum – that one is the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and is about half the size of the one in Place de l’Étoile. This monumental and triumphal arch was inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus, which was built in 92 BCE. The construction of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile started in 1806 (completed 30 years later) and is one of the largest triumphal arches in the world, standing at 164 ft (40 meters) in height, 148 ft (45 m) in width, and 72 ft (22 m) deep. To put that into perspective, after the hostilities of World War I ended, Charles Godefoy (aviator in the French Air Force) flew his Nieuport fighter biplane through (THROUGH!) the arc. This event has been captured on film and in photos.
Currently, there are two larger triumphal arches: the Monumento a la Revolución in México, D.F. (Mexico City) standing at 220 ft (67 m) tall, which was built in 1938, and the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea standing at 197 ft (60 m) tall, which was built in 1982. The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary War and in the Napoleonic War. The names of all the French victories and generals on carved into the surface of the arch. Beneath the vault is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider from World War I. Many days, there is also a colossal French flag flying under the archway as well.

Arc 1

As we approached the Arc de Triomphe, we couldn’t figure out how exactly to get there. The Métro (Parisian subway) stop is Charles de Gaulle – Étoile station, which plops you out close, but on one of the adjacent streets coming off of the roundabout. Did I mention this arch happens to be in the center of a roundabout? And this roundabout is at least a few lanes deep and is the intersection of 12 roads! Because of the traffic, it is highly recommended to use the pedestrian underpass (located at Champs Élysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée). In fact, I don’t think you could make it across the roundabout road without getting injured.

After marveling at the outside design of the Arc de Triomphe, we decided to go to the top. The spiral staircase to the top consists is just shy of 300 steps. At the top you arrive at a small gift shop and exhibition to learn more about the monument’s history. There are about another 50 steps to reach the rooftop of the monument, where you have a panoramic view of Paris. One can see the Place de la Concorde, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Louvre Museum, the Basilica, and the Eiffel Tower. I personally believe that this is one of the most amazing views of Paris.

Arc PANO top-001

The 18th Arrondissement
The 18th arrondissement (district) is on the north side of Paris and is known for a many things. One of which is the Sacré-Cœur Basilica (Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris). After researching a little bit about what exactly a basilica is, the word has three separate meanings, which is why I’m probably still a little confused. A basilica can be used it to describe a building, usually Roman and an open public court building. Another way it is used is to architecturally describe Christian churches that have a central nave and aisles. The third way specifically describes churches that have Papal rights to perform specific ceremonies. One thing is for sure, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica is a Christian church with a central nave and aisles.

Basillica 4

Sacré-Cœur Basilica is a Roman Catholic church at the summit of Montmartre, a 427 ft (130 m) tall hill, which happens to be the tallest point in Paris. Also on this hill is another church; the Saint Pierre de Montmartre, the older of the two churches on the Montmartre hill, which claims to be the location where the Jesuit order of priests was founded.
Montmartre also describes the surrounding neighborhood, which is part of the 18th arrondissement. This area is also known for Moulin Rouge (we only stopped outside of to take a photo or three) and the Place du Tertre, which is a square where some artists make portraits for tourists while other artists are painting landscape scenes of Paris – to sell to tourists. This area is apparently also known for being the night club district and has been the site where many artists have lived in Paris. The museum of Salvador Dalí‘s drawings and sculptures is also within this district. I think our favorite part of this neighborhood was the views of the city and watching a mime entertain the crowd outside of the basilica.

Basillica 1Moulin Rouge

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Notre-Dame de Paris is a historic Catholic cathedral in the 4th arrondissement of Paris on the eastern part of the Île de la Cité, one of two natural islands* in the Seine River within Paris. The architecture of the cathedral is stunning along with the stained glass and sculptures within the cathedral. It is also the location of the Archdiocese of Paris and contains the treasury notable for its reliquary; it is the home of the Crown of Thorns, part of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails. There are ten bells in the cathedral, which to my amusement are all named. The largest (and oldest), Emmanuel, is original to 1681 and weighs over 13 tons. That’s a BIG bell! It is mostly used to mark the hours of the day. The other nine bells (names are: Marie, Gabriel, Anne Geneviéve, Denis, Marcel, Étienne, Benoît-Joseph, Maurice, and Jean-Marie) were replaced in 2013 and are rung for various festivals or ceremonies. My friend Dan also recently pointed out that just outside of the main entry, there is a small octagonal brass plate set in the ground which marks “Paris Point Zero” – the  exact spot from which all distance from Paris are measured. We completely walked by it without noticing it.

Notre Dame 5

*As a side note, there is an artificial island on the Seine River. One of them is Île aux Cygnes, which is where there is a replica of Statue of Liberty. This statue is one quarter of the size of the one located in the USA.

The Eiffel Tower

On to the grand prize of this adventure. The Eiffel Tower happens to have many replicas – one of which we visited in June of this year in Las Vegas, Nevada. But we wanted to see the real thing. Remember? El was to have rented out the tower for a day to celebrate our anniversary without other tourists. The iconic iron lattice tower is located near the Seine River and on the Champ de Mars. It was named after the engineer (Gustave Eiffel) and was constructed to be used as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. Gustave Eiffel has an impressive list of things he has designed; another popular attraction he designed is the Statue of Liberty.

Eiffel Tower 1

We first admired the tower from the Champ de Mars, the adjacent park. The park has a lot of history that goes with it. The world’s first hydrogen-filled balloon was launched from there in 1783. In 1790, the first “Federation Day” (Bastille Day) celebration was held there. A year later, the massacre on the Champ de Mars also took place. And he first mayor of Paris (Jean Sylvain Bailly) was guillotined there in 1793, becoming a victim of his own revolution. Only the French.

We had a little picnic with some wine and soaked up the sun on the green. Our nearest neighbors in the park were also soaking up the sun in swimsuits, which we found to be pretty awesome since they all looked to be around our grandparents’ ages. We then took a few pictures “with the tower” before climbing all of the stairs. All 704 of them to the second level. There are three levels for visitors – the first two levels have restaurants and gift shops on them. There was also a movie showing the construction of the tower and views of the tower throughout its history; the film ended with panoramic views of fireworks at the tower. One the day that we went, the third and final level was inaccessible by stairs, so we stood in line to take an elevator to the top deck observatory. The top level is 906 ft (276 m) from the ground, making it the highest accessible public platform in the EU.

Eiffel Tower Picnic 5                 Eiffel Tower Picnic 4

My thoughts of the City of Lights

From what we did see and experience of the city: the food and culture are nothing like we’ve experienced. Every wine we tasted was fantastic, but I couldn’t tell you what type of wine. The city views from the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Basilica are all very different, but my favorite was from the top of the arc. With an app, the subway system was easy to navigate. The local people (away from the city attractions) were quite friendly – we used an app that had common French phrases, which helped with communicating to non-English speakers (they appeared to be thankful that we were trying to speak French). The lesson we learned for our next adventure: bring a second pair of shoes! The pedometer on my phone estimated that we walked about 100,000 steps the four days that we were in London and France. I say that this was by far our healthiest vacation!