I’ve wanted to go to London since I was a little kid. It seems kind of strange – I’ve been to Antarctica, but not the popular destination of London. For some reason, I’ve just never made it there. Bryan’s been more times than he can remember though (several times for work and a few times for fun). But he was happy to go back and also wanted to see more of Great Britain than just its capital city.
We have some friends in London so the first day we went out to a pub to meet up with some of them. It really wasn’t planned, but several other travelers we met in South America (from elsewhere in England and from Ireland) were also in London that weekend. We had an awesome impromptu South America reunion. On the way home that night we had a bit of night bus trouble. The Tube (London subway) closes around midnight so we had to rely on the random night buses. We weren’t sure which bus to take back to our hostel so we kept hopping on bus after bus. To make matters worse, I had forgotten my Oyster Card (prepaid metro and bus pass) so we got kicked off the bus at one point. It took us over 3 hours to get home and I think we saw the entire city at least once. London is absolutely humongous! It was nearly five in the morning when we got back. Two hours later Bryan had to wake up to pick up his Dad (“Travelin’ Bob”) who flew over to travel with us for 9 days. Bryan didn’t realize that the Heathrow Airport was 1.5 hours away so Poor Bob was waiting in the airport for an hour. (As you can see, it took us awhile to get the hang of London’s huge, complex transportation system.)
London’s palaces, the Parliament Building, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the double-decker red buses, the old-fashioned red phone booths, the old pubs, and the fish and chips were all as wonderful as I had imagined. But what wasn’t part of my longtime London fantasies was the rain. Lots and lots of rain – cold, drenching, endless rain that soaks you to the bones. But we didn’t let it hinder our sightseeing. We spent two whole days seeing as much as we possibly could. During Bob’s first day in London, his pedometer calculated that he walked 17 miles. All that walking and I still didn’t get the hang of crossing the street. As you probably know, the U.K. (along with Ireland and some other countries) drive on the opposite side of the road than we do. Luckily, London takes care of confused tourist such as myself by writing “Look Right” and “Look Left” (along with an arrow) at the crosswalks. This is immensely helpful and has probably saved countless tourists’ lives. The good thing about the rain is that none of the sites were crowded. Our only big disappointment with the weather was that the “Changing of the Guards” was cancelled (and that we ran out of time and were unable to see a couple London friends). But those are just good excuses to come back to London someday – when it’s not raining and preferably when we have jobs. 🙂 As our guidebook warned us – one of the World’s greatest cities is also one of the most expensive. One of the plates of fish and chips we had was £16 (about $25 USD). But regardless, London is fabulous. If I had an unlimited budget I could easily spend weeks seeing everything and exploring. The amount of history, culture, business, sights, gastronomy, entertainment, and the diversity in the city is impressive. It’s a perfect mix of modern and old-fashioned. If you find yourself in London on a Sunday, check to see if Westminster Abbey is offering any free concerts in the evening. Westminster Abbey is usually £16 to visit, but with the free concert we were able to see some of the Abbey for free and hear gorgeous organ music. Westminster Abbey is where Prince William and Duchess Kate were married last year (along with at least 15 other royal weddings since 1100). Along with everything else I love about London, I also really like the people. Although Londoners rush through the Tube and seem to be in a hurry, they are extremely polite. And of course I just love their charming accents and expressions. I can see why so many people from all over the world are proud to call London their home.
After a whirlwind few days of wet sightseeing, we left London to explore more of Great Britain. We’d never thought about visiting Wales until we met our Welsh friends Bobby and Lauren during our travels in South America (they now live in London). I’m definitely glad we decided to check it out. Wales is quaint and old-fashioned. It feels worlds away from the fast pace London life. Unfortunately, the rain followed us. But despite the heavy rain and thick clouds, I could still tell the Welsh countryside was gorgeous. The grass is bright green with tons of huge herds of colorful sheep grazing. Yes, you read that correctly – the sheep are green, red, purple, orange, blue, and nearly every bright color. The herders paint them different colors so they know which sheep are theirs when the different herds converge. We first saw this in Ireland a couple years ago and I think it’s just great. In Wales (and Ireland), they say that the sheep population outnumber the human population.
Wales also has a plethora of very old and well-cared for castles. They are everywhere! We picked out a couple of the most highly recommended to visit (Conwy and Caernarfon). Caernarfon Castle is where the first official Prince of Wales was invested. In 1969, it was the site for the investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales (performed by the current Queen Elizabeth II). We also stopped in the tiny town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Yes, that’s really its name. This is the town with the longest name in the world (though there are some reported wannabes). Translated from Welsh to English the name of the town means “St Mary’s church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool the church of St Tysilio of the red cave.” That’s a mouthful. Make sure to ask a local to say the name – it sounds awesome (our friend Bobby and a shop worker said it for us). We wanted to see more of Wales (such as Cardiff) but we ran out of time before our flight to Dublin.
Two and a half years ago when we left Ireland after vacation, we vowed to return someday and venture into Northern Ireland. I didn’t expect to be back so soon, but I definitely didn’t mind. Ireland is on my lengthy list of favorite places. Our longtime friends, the Fogarty’s (from Stafford), planned a week vacation through Ireland so we decided to go meet up with them. It also gave us the chance to show Bob some of the country and visit Northern Ireland for the first time.
Our crazy, unplanned timing struck again. Much to our surprise, we landed in Dublin on a very special day in Ireland – Arthur’s Day. Arthur Guinness is the man who invented the infamous Guinness Beer. Arthur’s Day is the anniversary of September 27, 1759 when Arthur Guinness first began to brew Guinness. We saw huge banners all over the city and couldn’t believe our good luck. We took Bob on a whirlwind tour of Dublin to all the sites that we considered a must – Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Brewery, the Brazen Head Pub, the Temple Bar area, and dinner at Burdock’s for fish and chips. Because it was Arthur’s Day, the Guinness Brewery and the local pubs held plenty of festivities. Guinness really does taste better in Ireland. It’s served at the perfect temperature, is poured with the perfect technique, and some places even top the pour off with a shamrock shape in the head.
Crossing from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, we expected some sort of sign or border station. There was neither. The only reason we knew we were in Northern Ireland was because the speed limit signs changed from kilometers to miles. Northern Ireland uses miles and British pounds. The Republic of Ireland uses kilometers and euros. Most of the Catholics in Northern Ireland consider themselves Irish, fly Irish flags, and travel with an Irish passport. On the other hand, many of the Protestants in Northern Ireland fly British flags and travel with a British passport. This division is extremely apparent in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. We took a city tour that briefly highlighted the city’s turbulent history. Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful protest for more rights for African Americans inspired Catholic citizens in Northern Ireland to begin a peaceful protest for more rights for Catholics. The protests eventually became violent and eventually led to a 30-year period of turmoil in Northern Ireland known as “The Troubles.” Derry is the city where the massacre known as “Bloody Sunday” occurred (the U2 song was written about this massacre). Bloody Sunday happened on January 30, 1972, when British troops shot 26 unarmed civil rights demonstrators. Fourteen of the demonstrators died. For decades, neither side would take the blame for instigating the violence. Only recently, in 2010 Great Britain declared the British troops’ violent actions on Bloody Sunday “unjustified and unjustifiable.” In 2005, the Provisional IRA finally announced a full ceasefire. The tensions in Northern Ireland have eased tremendously since the Troubles, but remnants of division can still be witnessed in Derry today. While walking in a Protestant section of Derry (with many British flags flying and the curbs painted red, white, and blue), a group of pre-teen boys on a nearby overpass were yelling to us, throwing rocks, and waving an Irish flag. I was tempted to take a picture but realized this was only encouraging their negative behavior. Our tour guide told us that the local schoolchildren are being taught peace and respect for both groups; I guess this group of kids haven’t received the message yet. Hopefully, this education will bridge the gap for future generations as tensions fizzle. The many reminders of the tragic effects of conflict throughout the city will hopefully also remind the younger generations to seek peace. There are numerous murals in the city painted by artists, including one extremely poignant one of a schoolgirl who was killed in crossfire on her way to the grocery store.
There is much more to Northern Ireland than history. Giant’s Causeway is a major draw to the area and a spectacular sight to behold. Giant’s Causeway is a large area of breathtaking and unusual geometrical shapes caused by a massive lava explosion that occurred 60 million years ago. The molten lava spewed during the explosion cooled and formed approximately 37,000 polygonal basalt columns. Not far from Giant’s Causeway is another popular site – Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. The narrow rope bridge was used 200 years ago so that fishermen could check their salmon nets in the clear waters below. It’s not as scary as I had anticipated but it’s somewhat thrilling to look down below into the water and feel the bridge sway with the strong winds. And if that’s not enough reason to visit that area, the Old Bushmills Distillery is also a few minutes away (offering tours and samples). Bushmills is the oldest licensed distillery in the World! Not far from there, there is also a scenic stretch of road and great photo-op with twisted trees known as the “Magical Dark Hedges.”
Doolin, Ireland is my favorite Irish town and is also home to the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher. The tiny town only consists of a few streets, a couple pubs, and some places to stay. The small size, along with the spectacular surrounding scenery with the green pastures, tiny Doolin Castle, and rugged cliffs overlooking the sea is what makes this place so special. Doolin is also the home of traditional Irish music so it’s a great place to enjoy a few pints in one of their pubs. We went to Doolin on our last trip but wanted to take Bob there.
Our next stop was Galway, Ireland where it was time to send “Travelin’ Bob” on a bus back to the Dublin airport, and then meet up with the Fogarty crew (at where else other than an Irish pub). We spent nearly all our time in Galway in an Irish pub with a Guinness in our hand and catching up with our good friends, the Fogarty’s. Good friends, good beer, and good music – what could be better? I LOVE Ireland and wish I could live there. The people are just so happy, friendly, and outgoing. The scenery is beautiful and the atmosphere is fun and laid back.
The old fishing village of Claddagh in Galway is also home to the infamous Claddagh ring. The ring was first produced in the 1600’s and is now worn around the world as a sign of friendship, love, and loyalty. You can even buy a Claddagh ring made from the original mold from the first jeweler who made them – Thomas Dillon’s Claddagh Gold on Quay Street (Bryan actually bought me one!). 🙂
And now that I’ve gotten the shoppers attention – it was time for a visit to Waterford Crystal Factory (the World’s top producer of crystal). The guys (especially Sean) were just thrilled about this as I’m sure you can imagine. 🙂 I couldn’t convince Bryan to buy me any crystal on this trip (What are we going to do with crystal? We don’t even have a place to live!). But even if you aren’t in the market for buying, a trip to the factory for the tour is worthwhile. It’s incredibly impressive to see the talented Waterford artists hard at work through the whole process, from molding the molten crystal to hand-cutting the intricate designs. If a piece is anything less than flawless, it’s shattered (we saw this firsthand). We also got to see the famous pieces Waterford makes such as sports trophies for major events, and even one to commemorate September 11th. The show room is filled with massive pieces that sell for thousands and thousands of euros. That night it was a special treat when the Fogarty’s let us crash in their Ritz-Carlton suite (Thanks guys!). I think there was even more crystal in the hallways of the Ritz than in the Waterford Factory. 🙂 After staying in Irish Bed and Breakfasts and the Ritz, I’m not quite sure how I’m going to stay in hostels again!
I’m really grateful to our family and friends for meeting us abroad. My homesickness has been much better on this leg. I haven’t even had a single breakdown (yet)! We were sad to say goodbye to Dad Waugh (aka “Travelin’ Bob) and the Fogarty’s. Bob has definitely caught a serious case of the travel bug though, so I’m sure he’ll be abroad again in no time. Now it’s off to Munich for Oktoberfest and quality Munch family time with my parents. Time to trade in our Guinness for some big German beer steins! 🙂
Note: Photos with the Fogarty’s were taken by the Fogarty’s