Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dublin/Galway/Ring of Kerry

Ireland was never one of the places that I sought to visit up until recently. It was always a place associated with that weird accent – or so I thought when I was in highschool (I wasn’t a very bright kid). But when I arrived in London just over 3 months ago, I realized that it had everything that I now wanted to see: natural surroundings, ocean, great food, and a varied culture. That is when the research started. While it only begun with Dublin and Galway, I soon discovered through the wonders of Google that there was much more to be seen in Ireland. One of those things was the Ring of Kerry.

As the control freak that I am, I had an itinerary in mind but what we saw in Ireland was far from what I expected. The first day began with us (Jennifer and me) spending a day in Dublin – Ireland’s capital. While Dublin was a place that you had to say that you at least saw, we were mildy disappointed by the city as it was just that, a big city. The architecture was not particularly unique to Europe but I have to confess, I don’t think I give Dublin enough credit. Well, this trip was more about the country side anyway.

After spending a day in Dublin, we took the early train to Galway in western Ireland. It was a smooth train ride and only about 2.5 hours long. Since I don’t mind long trips (good earphones will do the trick), I actually enjoyed it! We didn’t spend any time in Galway though as we caught a taxi straight to the airport to pick up our car and headed off.
The first thing I noticed about the roads in Ireland was how incredibly narrow some of them were. Lots of curves, narrow roads, blind corners, and lots of hills. That was essentially what we drove through. Some roads were so narrow that only 1 car could get through at a time yet the speed limit in both directions was 100km/h. Not surprisingly, people have been killed on this road. Driving around the Ring of Kerry, we were told by many to go counter clockwise but we went clockwise anyway because it was more convenient for us and we had a small car. The reason for this is that coaches and big buses go clockwise and well, if you went around a small bend with a coach in front of you, there is a danger you could be hit! For those of you who watch anime, it was like Initial D but with oncoming traffic lol. Eventually, when you got used to the speed and the curves though, it became a very fun drive!
When it comes down to it, the experience would not be the same if we had not driven. Those of you who are looking to visit the Ring of Kerry, you really should consider driving. Just rent a small car and drive carefully. People in Ireland are very nice and patient, they will just pass you if they get a chance but rarely do they honk on that road. By driving you can venture off into off paths and you can stop whenever you want! Plus, the drive along the coast of Ireland is incredible. There was stunning landscape after stunning landscape. You will want to stop every chance you get!

Places Visited

The first stop along the way down south was the Cliff’s of Moher. Leading up to it, the landscape was gorgeous. Rolling green hills, stones, old houses, and lots and lots of ocean. It all looked so natural and untouched. The Cliff’s of Moher are a huge landmark in western Ireland. In fact, it is being lobbied for being named one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. The first thing I noticed was just how huge those cliffs were (over 200 meters high). The sheer scale of it was jaw dropping. The waves crashed up on the foot of the cliffs and the winds carried crisp, cold, fresh air. It was really a sight that takes your breath away. I came back again during sunset the next day to get some pictures in that lighting. Note that you can stay on the cliffs as long as you want or at any time.
We then drove about 3 hours further south to reach the town of Killarney where we stayed the second night. A great town where there are loads of nice restaurants, pubs, and scenery. It is also the home to Killarney National Park, which apparently has some incredible natural green hills and beautiful lakes, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go. I did have an amazing meal there though (see below on food).

The rest of it is history. Along the Ring of Kerry, we drove through many towns but made stops in Kenmare, Sneem, Waterville, Ballinskelligs (where you can catch a boat out to the Skellig Michael). All had different characteristics but they all had that small town feel to them. People knew each other and how could they not? The houses don’t even appear on the GPS and they don’t have house numbers in some of these towns. I loved how laid back and friendly the people were and it made me realize that this is the way it should be. We have it all wrong in the city sometimes.
All in all, we saw so much while we drove around. Ireland is an incredibly beautiful country with so much to see. I might not have enjoyed this as a kid when I was less appreciative about scenery but this trip wow’d me. I will definitely be back to see the rest of Ireland sooner rather than later.

We had a total of just 3 nights to complete what we had in our itinerary and we moved around quite a bit (being a road trip and all) but we ended up staying at some nice places that were not too expensive. Call me a snob but we did not stay in any hostels along the way. A big part of the experience in places like Ireland is the fact that you get to stay in just about any bed and breakfast and enjoy the home cooked meal, the homely hospital and comfort. Of course, while I say this, we ended up staying in a hotel in Dublin (haha).

First Night - We stayed at the Central Hotel  (1-5 Exchequer Street, Dublin, Ireland) for our first night in Dublin. It was only €89 for the night and it was situated within the centre of the city so it was very convenient (ie. Temple Bar, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ’s Church were all within a 10 minute walking distance). The room was also very clean and lots of natural light came in as well. Wifi was also provided for free all over the hotel. Believe it or not, this is a huge benefit as you have to pay for this service in most metropolitan tourist hotspots such as London and New York for example. Overall, I would recommend this place for a short stay.  

Second Night - By the second night, we had taken a 2.5 hour train ride to Galway and driven over 5 hours south so we were fairly tired. Eventually we made our way down to Killarney within the County of Kerry. We booked our stay at the Earls Court House (Woodlawn Road, Killarney, Ireland). From the outside, it looks like a very nice country style home. You could tell that they placed an enormous amount of attention to detail as it was very presentable both inside and out. The bedding and the room itself was spacious, clean, and in many ways, looked quite luxurious.  The great thing about a bed and breakfast is how there is a distinct lack of commercial feel to the surroundings. The lady we spoke to at the front desk (who, I’m not afraid to say was easily the prettiest girl I saw all trip long haha) gave us great advice for places to eat for dinner. The breakfast that was served at the B&B was also extremely tasty and very filling. Be sure to try their porridge! I highly recommend this B&B not only for value but for convenience as well. It was only €99 per night for our room and it was a 10 minute walk into the main road where a number of great restaurants are situated.

Third Night – On the third evening, we chose to stay nearby Galway but out far enough that we could still enjoy the country side. We ended up booking a room at the Atlantic View B&B  (Pier Road, Doolin, Ireland) in Doolin (which was about an hour and a half drive from Galway). Situated right by the coast, you get a fantastic view of the coast straight out of the bedroom window and you can see the cliff’s that lead up to the Cliff’s of Moher (only a 10-15 minute drive). The other side of the house, you could see fields with cows grazing on the grass. You get the picture, this place is situated right in the midst of the country side and that in itself is the experience. The decor was very country style but again, very homey. It wasn’t quite as luxurious as the Killarney experience but it was a fine place for a one night stay. We were also provided with a decent breakfast before we headed back to Galway for our train ride. Overall, I would recommend this B&B for its location and simple hospitality. 

Dublin - When I thought of Ireland, I did not originally think of the food as being a major highlight. I thought, bacon, sausages, poached egg and black pudding, but did not think about how good this food might be. In Dublin, we had quite simple meals such as Irish Fish and Chips at the Elixir (not too different from English fish and chips but the sauce was distinctly more citrusy than that of the regular tartar sauce we get). Not a place I would necessarily come back to. 

We also found a cafe called Queen of Tarts which was packed with tourists. Providing caffeinated drinks as well as many different types of desserts and pastries was their specialty. I enjoyed a carrot cake (dubbed the best in Dublin) and double espresso for an afternoon snack here. Overall, nice out door setting and the food was quite decent. 

Killarney – On the second day, we didn’t have a proper meal until dinner since we were driving around and did not have much time to waste but after we checked into our B&B, we asked for a recommendation for good ol’ Irish cuisine. The pretty lady suggested Bricin down in the heart of the town. It was only a 10 minute walk and when we arrived, we found the place was very busy (always a good sign). We ended up getting the 3 course set menu for €26 and enjoyed it thoroughly. The last time I had such a good meal was... probably back at Vij’s in Vancouver! The seafood chowder made me want to take my friend’s plate and finish it all off for her. I couldn’t put the spoon down it was so good. For the entree, I had the boxty (an Irish specialty that is essentially a potato omelette) filled with chicken and vegetables in cream sauce. Now, if that isn’t like a home cooked meal, I don’t know what is. It was delicious! Absolutely, I would recommend this restaurant to ANYONE in the area. Though, I heard that there are impressive restaurants all around Killarney, this one definitely stood out to me. 

For breakfast the following day, we ate at the B&B (breakfast provided) and it was great. There is a self serve counter filled with all your essentials such as cereal, porridge, milk, coffee, tea, juice, fruits, etc. Their porridge had won awards in past years and it was indeed so good that I had to go back for seconds. They also serve a great Irish breakfast as well (consisting of sausage, bacon, poached egg and tomato). 

Doolin – By the time we checked into our B&B it was already 9:45pm and most restaurants in the small town of Doolin were closed or no longer serving. However, we were recommended to go to the O’Connors Pub just down the street and grab some grub there. Now, I don’t know about you but I have learned not to expect much from pub food. So we went there and noted right away how busy it was despite it being based in such a small town. It was loud in there but not in any way that would be obnoxious, people were greeting one another and they all knew each other it seemed (other than the tourists) and this made for a great atmosphere! We quickly ordered our meals (lamb stew with mash and baked salmon) and grabbed my first of a few pints of Guinness and sat down. The food came within 10 minutes and we were given a table even though it was packed with people (the waitress had taken the initiative to ask others to give way for us – talk about service!).

Now, on to the food: Remember how I said that I don’t expect much from pub food? Well this was on a league of its own. The lamb stew was mouth wateringly good. The meat was tender and the stew had enormous flavour. It was the best meat stew I have ever had. I also then tried my friend’s salmon. If you are like me, I am always afraid that salmon would be overcooked. Well, we were very happily surprised. The salmon was delicious and very moist. Far above average... in fact, if this had come from a Michelin star restaurant, I would be surprised in terms of texture and overall flavour. Really great food and a great atmosphere, what more could one want from a neighbourhood pub? Sorry, no pictures of this since we were too hungry and forgot to take pictures before scarfing our food down haha. 

Guinness – Since this beer is world famous and is from the country of Ireland, it deserves a section of its own. I love my beer and Guinness is definitely high on the list. It doesn’t matter which country you are in, you can find some good Guinness wherever you go. However, it is different in Ireland. If you get a pint from the tap, you will taste the difference in that it is smoother and somehow seems more refreshing than compared to the other parts of the world. 


All in all, we saw so much while we drove around. Ireland is an incredibly beautiful country with so much to see. I might not have enjoyed this as a kid when I was less appreciative about scenery but this trip wow’d me. I will definitely be back to see the rest of Ireland sooner rather than later.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

m a d r i d

This past weekend was one that was spent in a country known for its tapas and fun, relaxed culture. If you guessed, Spain, you would be correct. For the most part, people know Spain for its football, love of food, and the infamous siesta. Since my good friend Sue was in Madrid for a few days on vacation, I thought it would be a great excuse to travel and see the city while catching up over some beers and some tasty tapas.

I arrived in Madrid on Saturday and immediately noticed one vital difference from London. It was warm and the sun was out! Funny how a factor like that can change your whole outlook on a day isn't it? Alike many other European cities, the metro system was easy enough to navigate and it only took about 45 minutes to get to the Plaza del Sol where we were staying. By the time I got out of the station, you could already see the immense activity in the plaza. The atmosphere was lively and upbeat and people were just roaming around and having fun. Once I met up with my friend, our first task was, you guessed it, food! The fact that I was starving from not having eaten breakfast did not help but it certainly increased by appetite for some of Spain's authentic tapas - but I will get to the food in a second.

In terms of sights, the striking thing about Madrid was the color of the buildings. Soft shades of yellow, orange, and red were prominent as well as intricately shaped iron fences. Similar to Paris in that the architecture is unique to its region, you could tell right away that you were in a different world - even if you didn't hear the Spanish being spoken. I couldn't help but be aw-struck over the buildings and how photogenic this city was. Everywhere I looked, I snapped away while looking up. Couldn't help but feel sorry for Sue who had to turn her head back every minute (much like a mother would when looking out for their infant) to see if she had accidentally lost me.

We visited the Plaza Mayor which is a huge square bordered by a stream of residential properties on the top floors, coupled with restaurants and shops on the bottom floors. Cobble stone, huge open area, an abundance of street performers and widget sellers and loads of seating space for those that wanted to eat outside and watch the mass of tourists pass by - that is what the square essentially was to me. A bigger and more lively version of the Dam in Amsterdam (well, to be frank, the two can't be compared). All in all, I think I must have passed by this Plaza 8-10 times during this short weekend.

Plaza de Cibelis

After this, we continued to roam around, seeing sights such as the Royal Palace and its court yard as well as the crypts within the Cathedral. Spain's Royal Palace and court yard were so vast in size.

It is amazing how the people of the past were able to construct such works of art on such a grand scale. What is also amazing is the amount of creativity and detail that went into each piece. Sometimes you have to wonder how you look like, standing in wonder, staring at an ancient, inanimate structure.

Royal Courtyard
An aspect of Madrid that I loved, which is also a product of the amount of sun that this country gets, is the vast amount of greenery around such an urban region. Probably the biggest reason why I love my home in Vancouver is that we are surrounded by trees, mountains, water, etc. In Madrid, it was very noticeable, the amount of natural color which were in abundance even along busy streets. Just over the Royal Court Yard, you could see a huge garden of green in the distance that makes you think, "this can't be the same Madrid we are currently staying in, it has to be a small town of some sort."

On the street towards the Museo de Prado from the Fountain of Cibelis, you could see that it was just bordered by luscious green trees and bushes that provided cover from the sun and the traffic. Along the centre of the street, there was a walkway that had fountains and benches for people to sit on and take a bit of a break from the pace of the city. This made the city even more eye catching for me as too often you go to a big city and get lost within its vast array of concrete. Alright, maybe that is just me.

In terms of food, we had this on a grand scale. A huge variety of tapas is what Spain is known for offering. Generally served on small plates (you have to look for the racions signage), you can get a huge amount of variety in a single sit down session. Of course, you don't have to get full in one sitting and why would you? There are so many places to visit and try! As a result of realizing this notion and through sheer greed, I ended up eating the entire two days I was there... not giving my stomach more than 2 hours rest at a time haha. As my good friend would say it, I felt roly poly the entire time.

To me, tapas mean variety and in manageable portions. I think I tasted over 10 plates of different items over the course of the two days which isn't really enough but it gave me a taster for what Spain offered. I find it hard to find pick a favourite but some of the plates that really peaked my taste buds were the fried baby squid, chorizo and serreno, egg, potato, and chorizo omelette, gumbas, fresh steamed mussels, stuffed mushrooms, and chicken legs. Some of these dishes sound so simple and they are, but the flavour is fantastic. They use a lot of salt but luckily, I am one of those salt lovers so I thoroughly enjoyed the extra seasoning.

We went to a number of restaurants during our trip but the ones that stood out was the Museo de Jamon and the Las Cuevas de Luis Calendas. The Museo de Jamon is a popular chain restaurant but the food it offers is delicious. Along the bar are dozens of cured meat, hanging from the low ceiling. You can order a bite to eat (you guessed it sorreno and chorizo, amongst others are offered here) along with your preferred beverage. It was just jammed pack when we went here but they do offer a sit down area upstairs that just does not have the ambiance that eating at the bar provides. Do the bar if you get a chance.

The Las Cuevas de Luis Calendas was a recommendation made by a flickr contact who is a local to Madrid. And what a great find! We got there around 10:30pm for a late night dinner after having just eaten about an hour beforehand, but we arrived with the anticipation that we would have a some drinks and eat some good paella mixta! The paella was so good and had a healthy mixture of seafood along with some chicken and pork. The taste was authentic and it was very well presented. We also caved and got some nice baby suckling pig (one of the two specials for the night). It was so tender... never had pork that soft and juicy before. Bottom line, the food was great. As proof, we also drank a couple of bottles of wine while we were at it to celebrate J

All in all, you can find little bars and restaurants with great food all over the place in Madrid. We ventured into about 3-5 different bars for tapas and drinks during our two days there and each had great dishes that made us forget the fact that we were bursting at the seams (or maybe that was just me?). The drinking and eating culture has got to be the single biggest selling point to Spain and for good reason. Having said that, the architecture mixed with natural greenery and the high energy that Madrid gives off is a big competitor for that prime selling point as well. Anyone who is travelling through Europe should make sure that they put Madrid on the itinerary. For me, I think the next spot has to include Barcelona but no love lost with this city, I would gladly come back for a visit (and ensure that I come with a big appetite)!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

b a t h

This past week has been a bit of a strange one in London. The sun came out shining at the beginning of the week and has stuck around since! So, with that in mind, I went with a group of friends to Bath. It is a place only 1.5 hours out of London by train so it makes for a great weekend getaway. Originally, we had planned to go for the whole weekend but had trouble securing a bed and breakfast for 7 people so we had 1 day. 

We took the 9am train and got there fairly early. Right away, we noticed how quiet a town this was in comparison to the pandemonium that we witness on a daily basis in London. As I've traveled, I've realized that big cities is not where my heart lies. I long to travel to quiet towns and country sides where the things to appreciate are not the shopping and the museums but the natural surroundings and the atmosphere. Bath definitely had both :) 

A small town with great architecture. It is much cleaner than other big cities and it has that small town feel. While there are your chain stores like Disney, Gap Kids, Costa, etc., there are also lots of small boutiques which are independent and carry unique items all around. There were also lots of great restaurants in town as well. Oh... another great quality I look for in any place I go to :D

In terms of attractions in Bath, we had a chance to go to a few of them. While we wanted to go to the Thermae Spa, the queue was just massive! Plus, they didn't take reservations so that was unfortunate. I am not normally a spa going person (I've never been once) but I did want to go this time. The reason why I wanted to go is because I have seen some pretty amazing photos of people in the pool, overlooking the sunset with the glass of champagne in hand. I still want to go and do that one of these days but not this trip :) 

We visited the Roman Bath's which were constructed during the times of the Roman empire. A natural hotspring heats the water at this historic location. While the bath sits in the center of Bath amongst more modern buildings, some of the structure you could tell has Roman origins. It is really quite neat to see. Too bad we weren't allowed to go in the water haha! It was dirty anyway - it was actually filled with rain water! 

We also saw the Bath Abbey - located right beside the Roman Bath. What most people see in post cards of Bath though is the crescent and the Circus. Those two sites were pretty amazing to see simply because of the way the buildings and the architecture were designed. The Royal Crescent is so vast, it was impossible to capture in just one frame... You have to make a panorama of it! I can imagine that one of the best parts of living in one of the townhouses would have to be the fact that the properties overlook a park. It was littered with people just picnicking and relaxing and it was good to just sit there and be a part of that. Though... we unknowingly climbed the fence into residential park property haha. 

Food for the day

Foodwise, we had feast upon feast that day. That may have been the best part of the day. I'm a huge foodie (in the sense that I love it and it is my favorite pastime) and I thoroughly enjoyed the meals I had that day. The first place we went to was Sally Lunn's. Their buns are known in Bath to be the oldest and the original Bath bun. Round in shape, it is a brioche bread that tastes amazing when toasted and topped with butter and jam :) But Sally Lunn's was not only a place to eat the original bun, it was also a great tea house. The location is like a house converted to a restaurant so it had a very homey feel to it.

Another first I had was high tea! We went to the Roman Bath Pump Room for high tea in the afternoon. I had always thought that high tea would be somewhat pretentious and not a manly thing. Boy was I wrong. The food was great and the tea was... well... pleasant. Oh and the scones! ... I've said too much. 

Finally, for dinner, we roamed around the city, trying to find a place for 7 people but failed to find one for the longest time. By the time we found a place, we were like zombies... willing to eat just about anything. We did find a place just 15 minutes away from the train station called the Tramshed. Great atmosphere and good food. It was a great way to end the day :) 

Overall, a great visit to Bath. While we did not stay the full 2 days as originally intended, we did have enough time to see everything we wanted to see.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

d e b u t a n t e

Coming to London has made me realize a few things and one is that photography is a passion of mine. I guess I knew that beforehand but coming here has made me think that there is potential in trying to incorporate it into my future plans. We will see... I don't plan on trying to be a full-time photography at any point but maybe as a side gig?

Anyway, on to the matter of this post. Yesterday I shot an event for a Filipino 18 year old birthday party. Now, I thought a birthday would be... a birthday party. But this one was different - at least in comparison to my experiences. Apparently I hadn't enjoyed my birthday the way it was meant to be enjoyed based on last night :) 

It was Kaycee's 18th Birthday yesterday and I had the honor of being able to shoot this event with a friend. I wasn't the main photography but it gave me the chance to see what this event was all about. It is too bad I was stuck with just one lens... my handy 35mm. But at an event, 35mm is REALLY restricting... I think I am going to have to get my 85mm or 135mm soon... and I mean really soon. That, and I really need to learn how to use flash. It has come to that point :p.

When we first got there, I got a chance to shoot some details inside the conference center. Not that much to it but what do you expect? It is not an actual wedding - ie. still more extravagant than any birthday party I have ever been to. 

Now, I did say that this was not an actual wedding... but we had to get some shots as she prepared. Just like at a wedding haha.

During event, the debutant (the birthday girl in this case), gets a celebration that includes several dance performances and other special performances by other guests. As part of the ceremony, 36 of her friends and family (18 girls and 18 boys) will take part in the dances and the other rituals. These traditions were very interesting to see in person though :) For one, Kaycee would receive 18 roses from the 18 boys (yes, boys because they were all 18 or younger) and receive a dance from each of them. After this is over, she would get a testimony from the 18 girls and she would blow out a candle from each one of them. It was a long event (as you can imagine) but they were so enthusiastic about it. I mean, you should have heard some of the testimonies... Tears and all haha. But as much I had a bit of a chuckle about it, the most important thing was that Kaycee had a great time. So with that, Happy Birthday Kaycee! Hope you had a great one!