Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Oh the food.

People make jokes about the food in the British Isles, myself included.  I won't repeat them but trust me, they do and I have very clear memories of why those jokes ring true.  Something about boiling everything.

The jokes may have been based in truth at some point, but now they are unfounded.

Fish and chips.  One of our kids really doesn't like fish.  It's too bad because the opportunity to eat it was everywhere and I must have had fish and chips 5 times over the course of the 2 1/2 weeks.  Some were better than others, the best plate by far was at O'Donohue's in Fanore.  The above plate was not from O'Donohue's but from a small place on Baker Street near 221B.  We'd decided that 221B would be our first stop in London but discovered it was hot outside and the line was long.  We stopped in the shop, decided against the tour, and ate in the tiny Holmes Fish and Chips shop instead.  Touristy?  Absolutely.

Aside from O'Donohue's having the best fish and chips, they also made awesome other dishes, one of their seasonal specialties being the mussels.  They also had a great Irish stew and pizza.  Seriously, the pub in Fanore (there is only one) is a great place to stop.  Say Hi to Pat and Patricia O'Donohue for us.  They'll remember, we left the Jordanian Dinar on their money wall.

We ate a lot of sandwiches.  Lots.  I mean, nearly every lunch when we were out and about, which was every day, was a sandwich of some sort often with a side of chips or crisps.  It's no wonder we didn't lose any weight even with all the walking.

We had one night out with a fancy meal, that didn't come from a pub or a sandwich shop.  For that we joined 50 of our closest friends in an old castle, for the Dunguaire Castle Banquet.  Shannon Heritage does lots of activities within Ireland's castles, gardens, and parks.  For our dinner the food was hearty and plentiful and the accompanying entertainment was just that, entertaining.  It's not a place for small children, please don't think this is like Medieval Times, but the music and storytelling, and yes the food, is all worth it.

Did I mention we ate a lot of sandwiches with a side of chips and/or crisps?  This meal was from a pub on Inis Oirr, Aran Islands, called Tigh Ned.  The food was good even if the service was less than optimal.  The one waitress seemed really cranky about being there at all.  And there was this really drunk American guy, a drifter, a wanderer, who was chatting up some Australians.  When he went back in the pub the bartender was told in no uncertain terms that his glass was not to be refilled.  Not by us, we were out in the garden, but was a good move by the person who stepped up and said it.

When in Wales the farmer's market had me drooling all over everything.  OK, maybe not the duck hot dogs.  But there were tents selling beers and wines and pastries and foods of all sorts.  I bought a steak&ale pie and carted it with us all the Ireland and eventually it took three of us to eat it.  So good.

We spent a lot of time in the cafe' in Fanore.  Our cottage didn't have WiFi, Vasco did.  Suddenly everyone had a pressing desire to drink lots of coffee and the homemade sweets weren't bad at all.  They came with a side of cream or ice cream, and in the early evening the coffee shop turned into a bonafide organic restaurant with some funky menu items like grilled eggplant with goat cheese.  It served a different clientele than O'Donohue's across the street.

Ian had Irish stew at O'Donohue's, we both had it at the Guinness center in Dublin.  With heavy brown bread, it really was a satisfying treat.  Somewhere I have the recipe card for the stew and another for Guinness truffles.  I think it's more likely I'll make the stew though the Guinness dark chocolate truffle bar I'm slowly working through is quite divine.

Did I mention we ate a lot of sandwiches?  For as many times as I ate fish&chips, I had tuna and cucumber sandwiches more.  Oddly enough, we just didn't get tired of them.

This trip went a long way to erasing my memories of the food during my semester abroad in 1994.

I'm actually looking forward to going back and eating there again.

Thank goodness for that.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Yeah, the car was a pain but it got us to some cool places.

I wish I could show you more photos of particular places, but honestly, I either can't or I don't want to ruin them for you.

The car took us to Reading where we took the train to downtown London, gawked at the 200Pound jeans at the Selfridges "sale," and toured the Tower of London.

We went to Leavesden.  Seriously, if you're going to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour, you don't want to see my photos.  You want to go there and be wowed and ooh and aah.

So I give you this, because you knew you could get butterbeer anyway.  It's worth buying, by the way.  I won't give away the flavor, but ignore all those people who left their cups basically untouched on the garbage bin.  They're losers.  My only request on the review for the tour was that I wish their butterbeer came in an optional GLASS souvenir cup.  The only options are flimsy plastic so we passed.

Anyway, the Harry Potter Tour.  Go.  See.  Enjoy.  Geek out.  It's worth it.

The car took us to the place that made this guy famous: Bletchley Park.  If you like history, if you like hanging out with a lot of old people (seriously, 95% of the visitors seemed to be WWII vets), if you think codes are cool and Turing was awesome, then visit the Park. They have a really cool pigeon room too.

We visited this splendid place, a palace we see all the time on TV in Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Can you tell which one?  Yes, it's in the UK, cheater.  Do better than that.

And we stopped in at Oxford.  We Love Oxford.  Oxford is lovely and fun and vibrant and just all around wonderful.  Yes, we love Oxford.  We could live in Oxford if that was an option.  We bought shoes in Oxford and ate pizza in Oxford and walked around Oxford just for fun.  We also went to Oxford Castle Unlocked which was not a showstopper but fun nonetheless.

We drove out of England and discovered Wales. If you don't know what this is, we can't be friends anymore.  Sorry.

Then the car headed to Eire (NOT Ireland).

There's a story behind finding our cottage in Eire, but that's for another day.  Suffice to say that our cottage was on a farm. A pretty cool farm.  We enjoyed a morning of walking through fields and taking photos, and finding the area with all the babies.  If you want to stay in Eire, on a farm, next to a beach and a bay, I have a recommendation for you.  The landlord was pretty awesome too.  The house was... unique.  More on that later too.

While in Eire the car drove to more laid back spots, as Eire tends to be.  How about some Birds of Prey?  The Aillwee Caves and Birds of the Burren was one of those "sure, why not?" quiet places that turns out to be pretty darn cool.  The caves don't match, say, Shenandoah, but caves are cool no matter where they are.  One of the best stops was the shop.  Awesome cheeses (taste them all) and jams and Bunratty Mead.  Crackers and sauces and fudge.  Buy one of everything, you won't be disappointed, promise.

What's a visit to Eire without dinner in a castle?  

Or time on an island? We took a ferry to Inisheer/Inis Oirr and spent the day walking and hanging out at the beach.  Someone (many someones) said Ireland is cold all the time.  We visited during the two weeks of warm and wonderful weather, where going to the beach was the thing to do.  Inisheer is the smallest of the three islands and the closest to Doolin and well worth a day trip.  There are places to stay overnight, but for Inisheer you don't really need it.  I imagine the other islands are a different case.

And there's no trip to Eire complete without a trip to Dublin.  Our return ferry left from outside Dublin, so though Ian had busted his ankle he still found the strength to climb the stairs and wander around the Guinness center.  The kids decided Guinness was just OK, but the Guinness stew is not to be missed.  

We returned to the Heathrow area and spent a day back around Reading.  Newbury to be exact.  If you don't know where this is, again, we can no longer be friends.  Sorry.  I'll miss you.

And back in town again.  An afternoon at the RED 2 red carpet affair and an evening split between "Book of Mormon" (for the older ones) and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (for the boys and I).  Thankfully our theaters were only a few blocks apart and the red carpet was right in the middle at Leicester Square.  Another place we all enjoy, Covent Garden.  Touristy? Absolutely.  But not every tourist spot is a mess.  Covent Garden has charm, so nyah.

Just like that our trip was done and we dealt with the misery of returning the car.  But right before we passed Jonathon off at the airport to my dad who brought him to the U.S. for a couple weeks.  It's been a year since my folks have seen him, that's a long time for an 11 year old.  As if you couldn't tell, one of the first things on the To Do list is a hair cut.

A relatively whirlwind tour where we saw a lot and didn't see a whole lot more.  We're actually talking about going back for our next R&R in 2 years, for Scotland and Northern, um... Eire.  

We won't be renting a car from some No Name place that nickles and dimes and costs time and sanity, that much we know.    

What we don't know... recommendations on what to do and what to see?

We're home, had a great time, and R&R is a lie.

You know you've had a good trip when just enough things went wrong (or, to put a positive spin on it, differently than you'd expect) to make some great stories, and just enough things went right that everyone was happy.

Take, for example, our car rental.  Started bad, ended bad, traveled bad, but in between was a fine little car that got us everywhere we wanted to be.  Do not, I repeat DO NOT, rent a car from Green Motion in the UK, and especially not from the Holiday Inn off the M4 at Heathrow.  Just don't do it.  From the moment you stop you're considered an inconvenience and the hostility that rolls out of their shop is palpable.

Wait let me go back a bit.

I made the reservation through some generic site like booking.com, or maybe it was expedia.com.  Doesn't matter.  Anyway, rented it through a no-name place and reserved a car off-airport at ACE car rental because it saved a couple hundred pounds.  There's the Hoppa bus service from the airport to a number of hotels and it all worked out, only to find that ACE car rental was no longer at that hotel and hadn't been for at least a year.  Now, I'd made the booking in May, a mere two months before the trip, so that was, well... odd.  Had the desk folks call the number on my reservation sheet and then Ian talked to them and had to convince them to come pick us up. Oh, and ACE car rental was no more and we were actually dealing with yet another party, the aforementioned Green Motion. They figured it wasn't their problem that the reservation had been sold to them with no updates sent to us about where they were actually located.

Fast forward, they picked us up and brought us to their counter.  Our car for "7 people + 4 bags" was a joke.  If we'd had 7 people we could have fit 2 carry-ons.  With 6 people we were lucky we only brought one real suitcase and the rest were carry-ons.  Even with that Jonathon alone in the third row had no room to move.  Apparently it's a law with Green Motion that the trunk cover (you know, those things that you pull over to cover up what's in the trunk) is a must for every car, so even though we couldn't use it because suitcases were stacked on each other and on people, we had to cart the cover around with us too.  Careful not to close the trunk and shatter the glass with the bar that went from Jonathon's feet to the back of the vehicle, we managed to cram everyone in.  I get that cars in the UK are small, but there's a little deception going on with the claims of how much they can carry.

We were going to Ireland.  There was no where on the reservation request to put anything about our travel plans and we learned going to Ireland was a no-no without hundreds of pounds of added fees.  We changed our plans and decided right there in the office we weren't going to Ireland.

It's OK though, they nickel and dimed us so much on the rental fees that weren't listed in the flat rate that I'm surprised we could even afford to take it off the lot at all.

We needed a GPS.  What an annoyance to customer service.  I didn't reserve one beforehand, it wasn't an option on the website.  They gave us a TomTom and we quickly discovered as we pulled out of the lot it didn't work.  After finding our way back to the rental office they exchanged it for a Garmin which saved us the rest of the trip. The Garmin was our very best friend, and while it took us on cow paths and past fertilizer plants and around hairpin turns, it eventually always brought us to our destination.  We loved little Garmin to the fullest extent one can love a canned British voice that literally guided us through the days.

I kid you not, from the time we got to the wrong hotel to the time we finally drove off with the car 90 minutes passed.  From here on out... Enterprise at the airport.  Or Avis.  Or Hertz.  One of those awesome places where you show them a credit card and they hand you a key and off you go.

Ian managed the right-side manual drive like a pro.  We stalled, we got stuck along tiny roads after pulling off to let tour buses fly by on roads not big enough for two cars, but through it all he kept his cool.  Even after he sprained his ankle he kept it together and got us safely to each destination.  He's a rock star.

Two and a half weeks later we returned the car to Green Motion.  Just as frustrating, just as unpleasant.

The guy checking in cars was essentially annoyed that we were there.  Hey, you know those marks that get left on a wall when you bump into it, say, with a shoe, or a suitcase, or the vacuum?  Yeah, those.  This guy found 2 of those on the rear bumper and one slightly larger rub (not a scrape, not a scratch, like from a tire or something else), and the office took the full 1000 Pound liability off our card in anticipation of what the body shop will require to "fix" it all up.

Hand me a buffer, I'll do it.

This was one on my big screw-ups on our trip.  Renting through a no-name to save a couple bucks and spending far far more time and money than any other place would have required.  Waste of time, waste of money, I cried over this.  It wasn't a good start to our time in the UK, that's for sure.

And my own wish.  I wish I knew how to drive a stick shift.  I need to know how to drive a stick shift.  My husband should not have had to drive 8 hours with a busted ankle because I didn't know how the car worked.  What if his leg had broken instead? What if something worse? What if what if what if?

Anyone in Amman want to teach me how to drive?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

It's a good thing I waited for a few days

Day one brought me to tears.  Day two brought me to tears.  Day three started with tears.  By day four I was more reasonable.... No tears!  I'm sure there are more in the future though, that's practically guaranteed.

There's been drama.  Day one we saw what appeared to be an engagement breakup, live and in-person on the sidewalk in front of a pub.  Screaming, crying, cursing, it was all there on a Sunday night in sleepy Hungerford as we waited for our food truck dinner.  Yesterday we tried to to get home from Bletchley Park only to have the (one) road blocked by a burning thatch roofed pub fire response.  Ian pled American to get directions rather than just "turn around" and we ended up on yet another one lane farm road, passed a chicken poop fertilizer plant, and came out... Right back on the same road only this time Right At The Fire.  We started over, quickly passing the same cop who initially told us to turn around... Got stuck in an hour's worth of traffic on a narrow two lane road, and followed the GPS home that refused to give us directions using anything but horse cart trails.

Obviously we made it home.  Driving here has been the most difficult part of our trip.  From the fact that the roads at the roundabouts are stupid to the horrible fact that our car barely seats us, much less fits our bags, the wheel is on the right, and it's a manual.  It's a wonder Ian is in as good mood as he is, really.

But here we are anyway, heading off to more historic sites with the kids in tow.  I'll update on what's keeping us busy later.