Hey 2011, Don’t Let the Door Kick You On the Way Out!

2011, So long! 2012, be full of passion and fire and incredible adventure! I am ready.

With the end of 2011, I am also putting my original blog to rest…It is time to begin something new…sort of. I am taking over The Nomads’ Table as my own source of smattered yammerings. I hope you enjoy venturing through Italy with me in the coming year.



Cows Found; Hanging out with the Leprechauns

Onward to the Aran Islands, a legendary place of ambiguity and solitude. The ferry dock was about 45 minutes from Galway and more than once, Sarah thought we had surely missed it. There is nothing on the coastal road but rocks, ridges and more rocks.  Luckily, we located the dock for our noon ferry, left our car with the most adorable old Irishman and sat in a grey drizzle playing with our newfound friend.

Sarah’s cold was pretty well at its peak and Nic’s was about 2 days behind. The rain wasn’t helping, but we knew there was no rest for the weary and this would be our only shot at the Islands. We sucked it up and climbed aboard. The ferry looked brand new and shaped like a speedboat, unlike the big square ferries in Washington State. After we found our seats, we were quickly surrounded by a large beer-drinking hen party. The ladies were looking to have a good time and Sarah found them hilarious. Nic’s dose of Kwells had kicked in, as did her ability to ignore the ever-loud hens.

Sadly for the hens, and a few others, the sea was really, really rough. As waves broke over the top of the ferry and we bobbed around like a tin can, one of the crew passed out barf bags and told us we had not seen the worst of it yet. Of course, having been in Ireland for a few days now, we were pretty sure (and praying to god) this was typical Irish humor…dark and deadpan. Sarah was envious of Nic’s zen-like drug induced smile and glad she wasn’t typically prone to sea sickness. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for about 1 in 3 people around us, including several of the hen party…we imagined the warm beer didn’t help.

YEA! We had indeed seen the worst of it and arrived on the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor. To make the scenario ideal, a fine mist covered us within minutes and a low fog blanketed the island. Somehow, it all seemed perfectly suited. Inis Mor is about 9 miles long and 2 miles wide and has the largest population, about 800. The landscape is harsh with steep, rugged cliffs and windswept, rocky fields divided by thousands of stone walls.

We opted to hop in a bright turquoise van for a tour of the island before we checked into our B&B. Lucky for us, we were the only 2 on the tour and sat up front with our driver, Jon, an older gentleman, born and raised on the island. Our first stop was Na Seacht Teampall,  a monastic settlement,  also  called the  Seven Churches . Most of the buildings remain standing in ruins and the main church, Teampall Bhreacain is surrounded by a mish -mashed array of tombs, graves, alters and awe. We wandered around, inspired by the views to the sea and the fact that the 2000+ year old cemetery is still in use on the island. In August, there is even a mass held in Teampall Bhreacain!  Sarah may have to return for that experience alone.

Returning to the van, we caught Jon picking through the wild blackberry bushes along the side of the road and joined in. YUM!  We followed the road up to Dún Aengus, passing by 300 year old thatched cottages and the most famous cottages on the island, the “Man of Aran” movie cottage. Apparently, you can rent a room here and sleep under the thatched roof for a small fee.

Jon stopped the van near another small cluster of cottages and pointed up to the top of the ridge where we could see the rim of a  beautifully preserved Iron Age fort, telling us the rest of the way was on foot and that he would pick us up in 2 hours. Because of her cold, Sarah was ready for a cup of tea and a nap  but Nic, ever the mountain goat, inspired her to keep going.  And SO GLAD WE MADE IT! WOW!  The cliffs here are lower than the Cliffs of Moher but said to be more beautiful and inspiring. We agreed 100%. As soon as we arrived, the last visitors were heading down. We had the place to ourselves! For 20 centuries (!) this fort, spanning 14 acres, has been battered and bashed by waves and wind. There are no restrictions in the space and we crawled out to the edge for a view 300 feet straight down. It was amazing!

On the impossibly uneven steps down, we had a grand view of the island.  The land is so rocky, that the island looks like a drunken puzzle connecting each stone wall with the next, dotted by a smattering of cows.

On our way to the B&B we took the low coastal road, winding around cottages, farms and leprechaun houses. Jon stopped to show us a seal colony and the now defunct seaweed factory.  We shared the van ride back with a lovely couple visiting from Italy.

After settling into our fantastic room and having a lengthy discussion with the proprietor about the wonder and awe that is Bruce Springsteen (who was also our wi-fi password), we headed out for dinner.

Inis Mor has a population of about 800 people and over 1800 meat cattle! Everyone has a couple in their front yard but ship them over to the mainland to be slaughtered. With little else to eat but fine Irish grass, we knew we had to taste the local beef.  We entered the pub early and ravenous, looking for something warm and hearty. We both ordered the Beef and Guinness Stew with brown bread and when the steaming bowls of goodness arrived, we sighed contently. Our bowls were full of beautifully tender stewed chunks of beef simmering in a dark broth of goodness.

Bellys full, we headed over to The American Bar where the wee Mulkerrin Brothers would be playing that evening. These famous boys won the All Ireland Talent show and played on the island, their home, frequently. After winning the show, and 50,000 euro, they  played with Sinead O’Conner and sell out shows all over the UK.  So Impressive. We ordered a few of  the best hot toddys ever,  and settled in with our new Italian friends Frederico and Alice.

After a great night’s sleep, we packed up and made a stop by the local sweater shop before heading back to Galway on the 1:00 ferry The sun was shining and the waves settled down a bit, thank god! We were so glad we stayed here and Sarah is plotting how to move here to make cheese.

On the Road

After leaving Dingle with a bit of sadness, we headed North. We had a long day of driving ahead of us and a lot of really beautiful land to cross. To our surprise, we drove through Lisdoonvarna, the infamous town that hosts a Matchmaking Festival every September. We both thought about stopping for a fraction of a second…and then peeled out quickly after noting that the median age was 60 and dental hygiene was seemingly forbidden. If you are interested in making it part of your next holiday, Here you go!

We realized a bit late in the day that we were within minutes of missing the ferry that would take us across the Shannon River (knocking off 2 hours from our drive, and avoiding Limerick as well). As we sat in line for the ferry and watched it fill up, we finally crept into first place…assuming we had missed the boat and would be first up for the next ferry, in 2 hours…sigh. Lucky for us, the Irish rock (of course!) and know how to pack a boat. We not only got on, but the car behind us did too, barely! We were all so excited, we cheered.

Our slightly manic drive up the western coast of Ireland continued towards the Cliffs of Moher. Much to Nic’s delight (the Irish sense of humor is catching), Sarah read every bit of information she could find about the area, the cliffs, and the history of the west coast, so we were prepared for greatness. After our stomachs began to growl louder than Katy Perry could sing on the radio about her skin tight jeans, we realized it was 4:30 and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast! If you’ve been on a road trip and just want to get somewhere, so the thought of stopping for food isn’t a viable option, you know exactly how we felt at that moment…RAVENOUS. Sarah busted out a slightly smushed Luna Bar to sate us on the hike to the top of the cliffs, and we headed out. It may have been sheer exhaustion or our rumbling tummies, but we arrived at the cliffs, paid our fee and ventured up the trail in silence. Don’t get us wrong, the cliffs are glorious in their massive height and power, but we were BEAT! And we still had a couple of hours to go on the road. We made it to the top, took beautiful pictures, looked to the other side, looked at each other and, as our bellies protested in victory, we relented and headed back to the car.

One final note. All over Ireland on the sides of the road are signs that read “Safe Home” or “Slan go Foill”, instead of “Drive Safe”. We thought this message was beautifully eloquent and deserved a photo of its own. This was the sign as we walked away from the Cliffs of Moher. Sarah would like to have this printed in her own home.

Onward! We finally arrived in Galway! Sarah was especially excited to make it this far, having heard so many great stories about the people and music of the area. Galway is also the home to the Claddagh Ring, its roots beginning in 1689 with a kidnapping, pirates, a Moorish goldsmith and a love story that knew no boundaries. Of course! This is Ireland after all.

We located O’Maille,  an amazing woolen shop where Nic picked up a beautiful woolen cap for her Pops, and Sarah picked up a hand-woven blanket. We also found a Sheridan’s Cheesemonger! We ventured inside to say we had actually located one, only to hear again how difficult the Dublin shop really is to find, and picked up a couple of carrot orange smoothies to beat down the colds we were catching.

While walking around town, we enjoyed the street market full of the typical hippie fare, and plenty of buskers. As a college town, Galway draws in transplants from all over the world and many of them seem to stay. We had originally only planned to stay in Galway for one night but, after seeing the potential, we decided to head out to the Aran Islands for a night and come back for another night in town.

How could we pass this up?

I Found My True Love In Dingle

OK, that is not really the case, but Nic assured Sarah that this would make an excellent song to include on our travel album. And honestly, if you are to find a true love, it might as well be on the most beautiful Dingle Peninsula.

After leaving our sweet cottage in Sheep’s Head, we headed into the most widely touristy-traveled area of our adventures thus far. Using suggestions and advice from trusted locals, i.e. the Bonars, we decided to skip the full Ring of Kerry drive and enjoy only a small portion as we continued north. The eastern portion of the ring includes a stunning drive through the rugged McGillycuddy’s Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland rising over 1000 meters and settling among the lakes and streams of Killarney National Park. Nic opted to drive this leg of the journey, and was forced to slow to a snail’s pace after flying past a beautiful old church ruin surrounded by waterfalls and mossy woods never to be seen again. It was one of those drives where each turn introduced another jaw dropping view that really couldn’t be missed.

Sarah perused the maps and books for good stopping points along the drive as Nic stoically navigated the tiny windy roads, happily stopping as Sarah called out a new and not-to-be-missed site. We discovered a beautiful and secluded spot along the road with a mucky path down to Lough Leane, and a short hiking trail that climbed up along the edge of a river to some  waterfalls. This part of Ireland was so similar to the Pacific Northwest, Sarah wanted to post side-by-side photos and let you guess what country we were in!

Ireland? Oregon? Crazy huh?!

We’ll never tell!

We also made a stop to stretch our legs at the Muckross House, built in 19th century and surrounded by acres of beautiful gardens, lakes and Nic’s favorite tree. After a quick bite, we had only a short drive around Dingle Bay and out onto the peninsula.

The town of Dingle is known for its ridiculous number of pubs per capita and crazy roads that wrapped up and around a large hill. We decided to stay out of the madness and opted for a small guesthouse located down on the bay, within walking distance of town.

For dinner that night, we ventured into town to check out the local cuisine. The menu exclusively held such delights, including duck, lamb and rabbit. Sarah opted for the duck and Nic selected the steak. Both were deliciously prepared, of course! The highlight of our meal, however, began when a large group of gentlemen arrived and took a table near the back of the room. About halfway through our meal, the singing began. Although a rather stuffy couple next to us fled in disgust, we pulled out our cameras and enjoyed the entertainment. You can enjoy it too!

The next morning, we loaded up our car and made our way slowly around the Dingle Peninsula. What a treat! What truly amazed us were the differences each of the Cork Peninsulas supplied. Each had the glorious sheep spotted hills with ragged cliffs jutting out of the tropical green sea, but saying they were all the same would be like saying that all cheese tasted the same! To truly appreciate the splendor, all we had to do was take a deep breath and savor it.

Sarah took this chunk of the road, so that Nic could sit back and enjoy the day. The Slea Head drive is a 30-mile drive that wraps around crazy drops and steep farmlands. Along the drive, we visited a wildly remote beach lagoon, paid a woman 1 euro to explore 4000 year old beehive huts on her property, crossed a stream, checked out the Blasket Islands (because apparently Dingle was not remote enough for some), and managed to pass a broken down tour bus with only minimal paint scraping. Again, we were so glad we opted for a small car as larger vehicles had to turn around and abandon the loop!

Once back in Dingle, we made our way out of town and headed ever northward.

but not that way.

Off the Grid to Sheep’s Head

We headed out of town with Cormac to spend a few days at his family’s property in Sheep’s Head, the smallest and least known of the West Cork peninsulas. Simply put, this means less traffic, tinier roads, a smattering of people, and more unbelievably wild and breathtaking views. Sitting in the family room with a roaring fire, while watching the sea and rocky hills beyond is more of a spiritual experience than one could imagine.

After arriving, we walked to the town of Kilcrohane, a half block comprised of 2 pubs, a gas station and a market. Only the pubs were open. We continued down to the beach, and passed numerous hand-painted signs for hiking trails along the way, criss-crossing creeks with stone bridges. We ended at a stone pier jutting out into the crystal clear Atlantic Ocean, and surrounded by rocky crags.

We took the beach trail back to the house, and passed a picturesque old farmhouse complete with apple-laden orchards, fresh duck eggs for sale, and several signs pointing hikers off to various trails.

We headed home, looking forward to all the goodies we had picked up earlier. Sarah made a piccata with the pork chops she picked up, while Cormac mastered the fire. Nic opened a bottle of Verdejo, and nibbled on the plate of goodness piled with cheeses, meats, duck pate and olives. Every delicious component from Cork’s English Market. We enjoyed a lovely dinner, swapped some music, and curled up by the fire for a movie.

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up feeling happy and refreshed. Time enough for a quick breakfast (granola, yogurt, blueberries), and we set off for a morning hike. Cormac navigated us to his favorite trail – a slow descent towards the lighthouse on the tip of the peninsula, which then looped back around the other side. Sarah had her camera at the ready commenting several times that she felt like she was in Lord of the Rings, and Nic was stoked as hell – an avid hiker who misses the abundance of mountain trails she left behind for the big city. Our first leg over the ridge was so windy that each photo was a battle to remain upright and not fly off the edge.

Fortunately, as we crested the ridge, the winds died down, the sun broke through the clouds, and we began our descent towards the lighthouse.

The mountain views against the bluest of blue waters were a majestic sight indeed. It felt like we were in uncharted territory. Of course, we weren’t. We spotted a helipad right at the coastline. In any case, this was a pristinely kept piece of nature complete with bogs and old farmhouse ruins.

Nic took the lead on our way back, and Sarah had a wide smile as we spotted 3 sheep moving down a clearing towards us. She greeted them with her usual “Hi, babies.” They sized us up with no fear, and stood quietly as we snapped a few pictures. Together, we climbed the final ridge and then went our separate ways. How fun!

Two hours later, we were back in the car & feeling great from the fabulous hike. We dropped Cormac off in Bantry to catch his bus back to Cork. There was time for a quick drink, and many thank yous for being such a good friend and guide in Dublin and throughout Cork.

After our goodbyes, we opted to explore Bantry for a spell. The town is nestled along the bay and known for its mussels, which Nic intended to eat. We found our way to The Fish Kitchen, up above the local fish market and well-known for its mussels and shellfish. Sarah ordered the sea scallops and Nic promptly ordered mussels, right from Bantry Bay! The mussels were perfect – steamed in a broth of white wine, garlic, butter, shallots, tarragon. Very French, and so delicious in its simplicity. Sarah loved the sweet scallops and tasted her first mussel, which she shockingly loved! Who knew?

On our way back to Sheep’s Head, we took Cormac’s advised, more scenic route. The coastal views alone would have been enough to delight us, but we also encountered a herd of cows in the road…twice. Most people might be annoyed with this, but not us. We weren’t in any hurry. The first encounter was heaven for Sarah, but a bit jarring for Nic. She’d never seen a family of cows before, and the steer looked more than a bit perturbed with us being so close to his family. Nic was sure that this steer, about 3 paces in front of our little Hyundai rental and looking huge, could easily take us down, car and all. Nic took a deep breath, and Sarah’s calm reassurance and quiet instruction not to stare him down got us through. After an ominous drive-by stare down from the steer, he moved his family along, and off we went. Our next encounter consisted of about 20 cows being lead back to pasture by a farmer on his tractor. This was followed by several cars, and, bringing up the rear, a diligent herding dog, making sure everyone stayed in line. We pulled over as far as we could in order to make room for the parade. The cows plodded briskly, looking forward to dinner and their evening milking, and the sweet farmer smiled & tipped his hat to us.

We finally arrived back at the house, and plotted our course for the next day. There was lots of driving to come, but tonight we were still in Sheep’s Head. Sarah lit a fire, Nic brewed some tea, and we enjoyed our last quiet night in this beautiful space.

Cheese and Ale Tasting Anyone?

The cheese and ale tasting capped off our Slow Food activities in Waterford. Heading over to the Tower Hotel 45 minutes early, we took a seat in the front row, and fought every instinct not to preemptively devour the goodness placed in front of us – five seductive hunks of Irish cheeses, artfully displayed with a come hither leer. We agreed to be strong, under the watchful eye of the producers.

Both of us have an intrinsic draw to cheese: Nic as a cheesemonger, and Sarah, the cheesemaker. Our discussions about a new cheese make us as starry-eyed as if we were discussing a new love interest. This day we were not only graced with great cheeses and beers but also with an esteemed panel leading the event: Owen Bailey of Neal’s Yard Dairy, Oliver Hughes of  The Porterhouse, Kevin Sheridan from Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, as well as Cormac from Dungarvan Brewery and Anna Lévêque, an up-and-coming cheese maker who creates an ash-covered, fresh-ladled Triskel pyramid raw goat cheese, straight from heaven.

Neither of us are huge beer drinkers, but after enjoying our introduction to Dungarvan beers a few days prior, we were intrigued by another round of Irish beers. Coming from the Northwest, where microbrews are a dime a dozen, we were struck by the limited number of microbreweries in Ireland. One of the selections, an Oyster Stout, adds fresh oysters in the initial phase of brewing. Bizarre to wrap your head around, we agree, but the flavor imparted was so slight – a wee note of saltiness. This brew ended up being one of our favorites and beautifully paired with the Triskel goat cheese.

The other cheeses we sampled were a Knockanore smoked, raw cow’s milk naturally smoked in county Waterford, Knockdrinna Meadow, a sheep’s milk semi-hard from county Kilkenny, a Crozier, sheep’s milk blue from county Tipperary, and a beautiful Hegarty aged, cloth-bound cheddar from county Cork. Yes indeed, the Irish don’t mess around with their mastery of cheese.

With the panel discussing the quality of each pairing, and those of us in the peanut gallery loaded with questions, the hour flew by. There was much interest in the importance of restaurants paying as much care to their beer lists as they do their wine lists. We knew that if more people were given such a substantial opportunity to taste the unique flavors imparted with the pairings of foods, such as cheeses, and good beers, there would be no question of its place at the table.

To Market To Market

After our meal in the Croft, we weren’t sure how it could get much better. The next morning, still smiling dreamily about the delicious meal, we packed up the room, bid farewell to our charming innkeepers and meandered down to the Quay where an enormous Slow Food market was waking up.

Lucky for us, we arrived early, before the massive crowds and rain appeared. For breakfast we enjoyed piping hot crepes. Filled with local goat cheese, roasted tomatoes, arugula and Sarah opted for the addition of bacon…surprise!

While sitting in the morning sunshine, it was fun to watch the different farmers and crafters set up their booths. We noticed we were right next to the elusive Sheridan’s Cheesemongers tent and had to pay a visit. Sarah was introduced to her new favorite beverage (next to Guinness, of course), a Luscombe Elderflower Soda. Nic spotted, or more accurately, smelled her way over to a fantastic Indian spice booth called Green Saffron. We both loaded up on fat packets of spices, including attached recipes and complimentary reusable bags.

As things picked up, we meandered around tasting beautiful cheeses, and pates, testing local soaps and lotions and snapping photos of everything.

After a delicious lunch of Lebanese food, we headed down to the end of the quay for our Dublin Ale and Cheese tasting session.

But more on this later :)