The Best of Madrid

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Madrid was the first stop of my recent tour of Spain. The city was a great introduction to visiting Spain because of its position as the nation’s capital. It is where the Spanish Royal Family live and is home to the Real Madrid football team. It is also a bustling metropolis with elegant architecture, vast parks, famous museums, and many restaurants and bars. This being the case, there is always something to see and do in the Spanish capital.

Squares and Boulevards:

Madrid is known for its squares and boulevards. Whether in the Hapsburg or Bourbon sections of the city, you would see magnificent architecture and statues dedicated to famous Spaniards. Almost all of the buildings there have balconies, come in different colors, and some of the rooftops have gold leaf! Plaza de la Villa has a statue of Don Álvaro de Bazán, who was a powerful admiral in the Spanish Armada. Both Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor include cozy cafes and shops too. Plaza de Cibeles has a fountain with a sculpture of Cybele (the Greek Mother of the Gods) and is surrounded by flags of Spain. The squares and boulevards of Madrid are wonderful places to take pictures and where you can catch events like New Years, Semana Santa, and the Madrid Marathon.

Almudena Cathedral:

Across from the Royal Palace is the Almudena Cathedral. From 1883 to 1993, it was built in the Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Romanesque styles. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to build a cathedral for 110 years but I guess the hard work paid off. The interior is massive with high vaulted ceilings, stain glass images and paintings of stories from the Bible, and shrines devoted to Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and various saints. Plus, admission to the cathedral is free of charge.

Mercado de San Miguel:

Foodies in Madrid would love the Mercado de San Miguel. It has a whole array of Spanish dishes, such as cured jamón, churros con chocolate, preserved olives, and croquetas. As a foodie myself, I loved trying many of the delicacies there, especially the ham and the desserts. The market was also a fun place for the tour group and I to go out for drinks on our last night in Madrid. We all enjoyed socializing and trying the different wines there. The attraction can be crowded by tourists but dining there is totally worth it. You would have an authentic Spanish nightlife experience at the Mercado de San Miguel. Going for a night out in Spain is all about socializing and having many foods and drinks!

The Museums:

When people think of the museums in Madrid, the Museo del Prado is usually the first place that comes to their minds. It gets a lot of praise for its collection of art from the Renaissance, Baroque, and Romantic eras. The galleries have dramatic religious art by El Greco, 17th century portraits of the Spanish Royal Court by Diego Velázquez, and the dismal ‘Black Paintings’ by Francisco Goya. I was enthralled by how large Velázquez’ portraits were because some of them covered the entire walls! On the other hand, I felt a bit disappointed that I was not allowed to take pictures of the artwork. Also, I was sorta overwhelmed by how the Prado was crowded with tourists so I left there earlier than I wanted to.

The next day, I went to the Museo Reina Sofia. The museum was different from the Prado because it is smaller and primarily features by modern artists, particularly Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. Frankly, I thought their art was more interesting because of their intricate, surreal yet disproportionate portrayals of people, animals and objects. Picasso and Dalí truly both had original ways of painting. The Museo Reina Sofia also has Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica. It details the terror of when the Basque town of Guernica was bombed by the Nazis and the Italian Fascists in 1937. The attack was ordered by the Spanish Nationalist Party during the Spanish Civil War. It was done for the Nationalists to reach power in northern Spain. I learned about the painting when I was in college and it felt pretty spellbinding to finally see it in person. Guernica was a lot bigger than I expected. Its width is 11’6″ by 25’6″! While taking photos of the painting is not permitted, it was worth seeing because it represents how horrifying war can be.

The Parks:

The parks of Madrid are perfect to escape the hubbub of the city. Parque del Retiro and Parque del Oeste are both expansive, scenic, and not overrun by tourists. El Retiro has a turquoise man-made lake (next to the monument of King Alfonso XII), where people can ride paddle boats. It also has creeks and a garden of sculpted cypress trees. I liked Oeste for its picturesque views of the Royal Palace, the Almudena Cathedral, and the Guadarrama Mountains. It even has an ancient Egyptian temple and a variety of trees. There were groups of tourists going to see the temple but they did not take up the whole park. Overall, both parks are ideal to relax and enjoy nature in a busy city.

The Royal Palace:

This attraction is undoubtedly Madrid’s most majestic site. Though it is where the Spanish king and his family live, sections of the Royal Palace are open to the public. I had the chance to go there and it was my first time ever visiting residence housed by a current monarchy. The palace was quite astonishing to say the least. It had grand courtyards, several chandeliers, and lavish frescoes. Most of the ceilings were covered with gold leaf too. I will always remember the dining rooms for its incredibly long table and having so many chairs. I bet that going to a state dinner is an enchanting experience.

Cardamomo:

If you want to see a flamenco show in the Spanish capital, Cardamomo is the place. In one of my previous posts, I mentioned going there and how the performers were so passionate. The musicians strummed their guitars and clapped their hands while the dancers zealously tapped their feet. Singing was used in the show as well. I may not be entirely fluent in Spanish but the singers definitely sang with emotion due to the vibrato and ringing in their voices. Besides, my ticket to the show included a free drink! I drank a glass of red wine and also ordered a Spanish omelet that was pretty appetizing. The omelet was lightly flavored but the potatoes inside it filled my stomach. The wine absolutely helped wash it down!

Stay tuned for the Best of Cuenca!

 

 

Springtime in Providence

I enjoy going down to Providence every now and then. My friend, Andrew, lives there and has shown me some of its popular attractions like the RISD Museum and events such as Rhode Island Pride and Waterfire. He recently took me to the Roger Williams Park. The park is 435 acres long and offers a lot of amenities. It has a botanical garden, a natural history museum, and a zoo. Andrew and I just went to the botanical garden and we walked through the park’s many pathways. All I can say is that we had a wonderful time. The weather was sunny and warm and we revered its immense natural beauty.

Although most of the flowers in the botanical garden were not in bloom yet, my friend and I went inside its greenhouses that have an abundance of tropical plants. There were palm trees as tall as the ceiling, fountains with colorful koi fish, and pineapple being grown. The greenhouses’ staff members definitely do a great job in preserving the plants. I am from a cooler, temperate climate zone and it felt nice to get a taste of the tropics. It seemed like I was traveling in Puerto Rico all over again!

Later on, we explored more of the park. There were people out and about. We saw parents having their children’s pictures taken for their communion and college graduations. Some of the kids were having fun riding ponies at the petting zoo and going on the carousel too. We also walked by several lakes and ponds with nozzles shooting water up above the water. There were plenty of rolling hills as well as the Temple of Music, a concert venue modeled after the Parthenon. I can imagine how splendid it must be to see an outdoor performance at a site like that. Overall, it was the perfect day to spend time at the park. The weather was lovely and everyone there seemed to be in a joyful mood. This spring has mostly been cool and rainy so Andrew and I were both lucky to go to the Roger Williams Park on a luminous day!

Taking the Train in Spain

When tour groups travel around a country, they are usually on by bus or boat. My group and I crossed Spain by using its railway system known as Renfe Operadora. It was an affordable way to travel, costing us less than 20 euros ($22.38) per ticket (included in the tour). The seats were comfortable, and the trains ran mostly on time. On the Madrid to Cuenca route, we rode one of the high speed trains. It was a thrill traveling at velocities at and above 300 kilometers (186 miles) per hour. We got to Cuenca in less than an hour.

One thing I loved about taking the Renfe was watching the eclectic Spanish countryside go by. We passed through dry country and later through lush fields and forests. Some of the terrain was flat while some was hilly and quite rugged. There were also times when I saw mountains and windmills from afar. On the train from Valencia to Barcelona, I saw a medieval castle perched atop a hill and later, the vast Mediterranean Sea. It was thoroughly a scenic, peaceful journey and the perfect way to get out and experience Spanish landscapes. For anyone who wants to vacation in Spain, I highly recommend they use the Renfe. It is reasonably priced, punctual, and extensive. It is certainly  less stressful than renting a car as well. Spanish cities and towns tend to have narrow, steep roads, which can be difficult for those who unused to them. As someone who is more accustomed to driving on flat terrain and wide streets, I would prefer not to drive there. The next time I am in Spain, I will stick to taking the train!

Make sure to watch the videos I took of riding the Renfe:

Dining Out in Spain

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Spain is one of Europe’s leading culinary hot spots. When tourists come to Spain, they usually eat rounds of tapas or a huge plate of paella. Spanish cuisine is packed with all sorts of flavors, from garlic to spices like saffron and paprika. Throughout my journey, I tried different Spanish delicacies, many of which I enjoyed. It was interesting to see how Spanish cuisine varied per region. In Central Spain, the foods are meat focused whereas in the coastal parts, seafood is their specialty. There were times when I had international meals as well. Overall, Spain is a foodie’s paradise!

Tapas/Pintxos:

 

When people think of Spanish food, they usually think of tapas. They are a variety of tasty hot and cold appetizers, like patatas bravas (fried potatoes drizzled in a spicy sauce), jamón Serrano/Iberico (cured ham), cheese, fried calamari, croquetas (croquettes), gambas al ajillo (shrimp sauteed in a garlic sauce), fried padrón peppers and stuffed mushrooms. In northern Spain, tapas are known as pintxos and they include meat, seafood, croquettes served on slices of bread. Although I was not in northern Spain, I tried pintxos in Valencia and they were just as delicious. Tapas are also affordable and typically cost about 2 euros per plate. It is no surprise that going out for tapas/pintxos is a big tradition in Spain. The group and I ate a lot of them and it was fun to try each dish. Sometimes we went from one restaurant to the other. They tended to be crowded. We had to stand by the bar, which was okay because all that mattered was having yummy tapas coming our way!

Paella:

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This is a must have dish when you visit Spain, particularly if you are in Valencia. Other parts of the country make paella too, but I was told that it is not the same as Valencian paella. In my previous post, I discussed about enjoying the iconic rice dish in Valencia, which came with baby squid and scallions. It was served on a huge flat pan and had pleasant aromas of saffron and rosemary. The rice in the middle of the pan was the best part because it had a crunchy texture. Plus it came with a saffron flavored mustard on the side, which gave the rice a stronger taste. I ate paella plenty of times before going to Spain but the one I had in Valencia was the best. It was so savory that I would scrape the bits of crunchy rice from the pan because they had the most flavor!

Churros con Chocolate:

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Whether it be morning, noon, or night, you can have churros con chocolate. Churros are curly strips of fried dough sprinkled with sugar and are typically served with a cup of hot, thick dark chocolate. It is absolutely encouraged to dunk the churros into the succulent chocolate sauce. Otherwise, your churros would not be as scrumptious!

Pan con Tomate:

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During the tour, I ate pan con tomate a lot for breakfast. It comes the southern Spanish region of Andalusia but it can be found in other parts of the country. It comprises of toast drizzled with olive oil, rubbed with garlic, and topped with minced tomatoes. The meal is similar to bruschetta but it is not as spicy. I admit that I have never been a huge breakfast person but I loved eating pan con tomate. As someone of Italian heritage, I enjoy any meal with garlic and tomatoes. The cuisines of Spain and Italy are both Mediterranean after all. Ever since coming home, I have made pan con tomate for breakfast and I think of Spain each time I eat it.

Tortilla Española:

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Another popular Spanish meal is Tortilla Española or the Spanish Omelette. It can be eaten as a tapa or a main course and is normally cooked with eggs and potatoes. At Cardamomo in Madrid, I ordered the omelette and it was very thick with a fried tomato and pepper on top. Although it tasted a little bland, the fried tomato and pepper improved its flavor. I know that Tortilla Española can be cooked with garlic, which I probably would have liked more because garlic makes any dish taste good!

Ham, Cheese and Roasted Peppers Sandwich:

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After a four hour train ride from Valencia to Barcelona, the group and I were hungry for lunch. Ricardo took us all to a place near the Gothic Quarter that specializes in pork/ham sandwiches called La Xampanyeria. The restaurant was crowded and noisy with patrons but we were still able to go inside. I ordered a sandwich with seared ham, melted cheese, and roasted peppers and it was unbelievably appetizing. I have eaten ham and cheese sandwiches many times in my life but none of them compared to the one I had in Barcelona, probably because of the sweetness from the bell pepper. It was a satisfying meal to have after a long train ride.

Döner Kebab:

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In cities like Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona, there are restaurants serving international cuisines. I recall walking by eateries serving Middle Eastern kebabs. While I was on my way to the West Park in Madrid, I stopped at a Turkish place and ordered a döner kebab. It involved shaved meat (from a rotating rotisserie) on warm pita bread, topped with chopped lettuce, onions, tomatoes, cacik (a cream sauce) and hot sauce. My lunch was savory, healthy, and affordable, costing less than 10 euros. It was the perfect reasonable meal to have on-the-go.

Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce and Bacon and Nutella Ricotta Pie:

 

On our last evening in Valencia, Ricardo took the group and me to a Spanish-Italian restaurant called La Taverna di Noè. For most of the trip, we dined at Spanish restaurants so he wanted us to eat somewhere different. I grew up eating Italian food and I was wondering how it would taste in Spain. Also, I was in the mood for pasta and I ordered spaghetti with tomato sauce and bacon. After taking my first taste, I was impressed. The sauce had a savory smoky taste from the bacon and the spaghetti was tender. For dessert, I ordered a toothsome nutella ricotta pie (similar to a cheesecake). The nutella was warm, sweet, and gooey that I consumed it pretty quickly. Some of my fellow group members ordered the same dessert and they loved it, too.

Orxata:

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This beverage is a Valencian delicacy. Almost everywhere you go in the city, you will find a orxata stand. It is made of water and tiger nuts and is flavored with sugar and cinnamon. Despite there was no milk, the drink sorta had a creamy texture and I liked its nutty, cinnamony flavor. It is a little similar to the Mexican version of the drink (spelled as horchata), which uses milk, rice, and more cinnamon but the one I drank in Valencia was just as enticing.

 

Wine, Beer, and Cocktails:

 

Whenever the group and I went out for dinner, we usually ordered wine. Sometimes, we got a whole bottle. We tried a variety of red or white wines. My favorite was the pink cava at La Xampanyeria. Cava is Spanish sparkling wine, which is a bit like champagne. I loved the pink cava because of its sweet taste and pretty color. It was so good that I ordered another glass. I promise I was not drunk!

 

I drank beers in Spain as well. Most of them were light lagers but the one I liked best was Turia Marzen, an amber ale from Valencia. It was flavorful and refreshing, especially after eating a big plate of paella! I also enjoyed Mahou, Estrella, and Cruzcampo. They are the more popular brands of Spanish beer and are served at any restaurant or bar.

 

In Spain, I drank a few cocktails like sangria and gin and tonic with berries. Both were tasty but my favorite was Agua de Valencia. It is a strong drink of orange juice, gin, vodka, and cava. Although I felt tipsy after drinking it, Agua de Valencia was pleasantly sweet and not too tart. It is the perfect drink to have in Valencia since the city is known for its oranges. There are orange trees throughout the city but people are not allowed to pick them because they are very ornamental. They are not called Valencian oranges for nothing!

If you happen to be in Madrid, Cuenca, Valencia, or Barcelona, give these restaurants a shot:

  • Taberna La Alhambra – Madrid
  • Star Döner Kebab – Madrid
  • La Casa del Abuelo – Madrid
  • La Ría – Madrid
  • Mesón del Champiñón – Madrid
  • Mesón Jose – Cuenca
  • Mamá Delicias – Valencia
  • Orio Tapas Bar – Valencia
  • Cervecería Juan – Valencia
  • La Taverne di Noè – Valencia
  • La Xampanyeria – Barcelona
  • Bodega Maestrazgo – Barcelona
  • La Platilleria – Barcelona

 

“Highlights of Spain”

Earlier this month, I went on a tour of Spain that was provided by Intrepid Travel. We visited the cities of Madrid, Cuenca, Valencia, and Barcelona. It was my first time ever doing a full-guided tour and I was feeling nervous about it. I was going to travel with people whom I never met before and I worried about having trouble socializing with them. I was used to traveling with my family or by myself and I can be pretty shy around people I do not know. In the end, the “Highlights of Spain” was a life changing experience for me.

My fellow group members were all pleasant to travel with. Each of us came from different corners of the world, some as far as Israel and Australia, and we always talked about where we were from. I liked chatting with Lisa about her hometown of Toronto and she was pleased to know how I enjoyed traveling there in 2017. Every group member was nice and I always went out with them on orientation walks and for dinner and drinks. Even during our leisure time, I hung out with them. Bar, Josh, and I went to the central market in Valencia and saw the variety of foods they sold, including some I had never seen in American grocery stores, like pig heads! In Barcelona, Bar and I spent a day seeing the unique Gaudi architecture, eating delicious tapas, and relaxing on Barceloneta beach. Sometimes I ran into the other group members while exploring. When Josh and I climbed up the Miguelete Tower in Valencia, we saw Karen, Darwin, and Michaela and we marveled at how the tower offered glorious views of the city. Each of us took many pictures. At Parc Güell in Barcelona, Bar and I ran came across Brittany and we loved checking out its intricate architecture by Gaudi, the city’s famous architect. Brittany even helped Bar and I get around the park because it was huge and had a bunch of trails. It was easy to get lost there!

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Photo Courtesy of Ricardo Cazorla

Overall, everyone seemed to get along well with each other. Now that I think of it, we all got along because we loved to travel. We have all been to many countries and we talked a lot about our previous vacations. They went to places that I have not gone to, like India, Japan, Colombia, and Morocco. Bar recommended going to Thailand so maybe I will go there next, since I would love to see the Buddhist temples and try its foods.

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Photo Courtesy of Ricardo Cazorla

Each of us wanted to see what Spain was all about, especially when it came to its history, culture, food and current events. We liked going on orientation walks and trying traditional Spanish meals. With all that is said and done, we were a spectacular group of travelers.

Spain was magnificent. Each city we visited was fascinating in its own way. Madrid is the country’s thriving capital with world class museums, elegant boulevards and squares, and a majestic royal palace. Cuenca, on the other hand, is a smaller, hilly medieval city with scenic views of the Castilian countryside and hidden alleyways everywhere you go. Valencia is the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea and has a rich culinary scene and vibrant street art. Barcelona is Spain’s booming second city with diverse architecture, fun nightlife, gorgeous beaches, and is the center of Catalan history and culture. I loved getting to know each destination and would absolutely visit Spain again because it has an array of regions to explore. Next time, I would like to stay in Andalusia and see how it compares to the places I saw on this trip. I was told by our guide, Ricardo that Andalusia is the center for Spain’s flamenco dancing and Moorish architecture and has sunnier, warmer weather. Sounds good to me!

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Honestly, our trip would not have been as successful without Ricardo. He really was the best tour guide. Ricardo was smart and taught us plenty about Spanish history and culture. I learned that the most popular newspaper in Madrid is actually the football (soccer) newspaper, though I was not surprised because football is Spain’s biggest sport. He was also kind to give us advice and directions of places to see during our free time. In Madrid, I wanted to see a flamenco show and Ricardo recommended Cardamomo to me, a flamenco restaurant that was close to where we were staying. The performance was quite entertaining and it felt invigorating to see the dancers sway their arms, clap their hands, and tap their feet hard against the stage.

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Ricardo took us out to his favorite restaurants as well. He encouraged us to try an abundance of food and beverages, some that I had not eaten before. I tried pig ear, frog legs, and baby squid, which were all pretty tasty! We went to a restaurant in Valencia that serves one type of paella per day and we ate a yummy one with baby squid and scallions. Paella is the city’s famous rice dish flavored with saffron and traditionally served with chicken and rabbit. Although I did not get a chance to try the paella with chicken and rabbit, I am sure it is just as exquisite! According to Ricardo, Valencians take their paellas seriously and if they are served a paella where the rice was not measured correctly, they refuse to eat it! The proper measurement has to be one finger of rice. With that being said, it was nice to learn more about Spanish culture and history from a local. If you are ever on an Intrepid tour of Spain, I hope your guide is Ricardo. He is a wonderful expert on Spain and is always there to help you have a good time.

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When I returned home, I felt very sad that the tour was over. I explored Spain with a fantastic group of people. It was an unforgettable experience and coming home made me wish to relive every moment of the trip. I feel proud of myself to go out of my comfort zone by going on a full-guided tour. At first, I was concerned about socializing with the other group members and I ended up making connections. Since “Highlights of Spain” was a triumph, I would love to go on another Intrepid tour again in the future.

Stay tuned for more articles about Spain!

Click here to learn more about the tour.

Ireland 2007 – Doolin, the Cliffs of Moher, and the Burren

Doolin:

Doolin was quite different from the other places my family and I stayed in Ireland. It was a small, remote village with few shops, restaurants, and pubs. However, the village had beautiful green pastures and stunning views of the North Atlantic Ocean and Doonagore Castle. It also had an assortment of hotels, guest houses, and bed and breakfasts. We stayed at a family-run guest house called Cullinan’s, which was recommended to us by family friends who were there the previous year. The owners gave us a room with our own beds but it did not come with a TV. On the other hand, our room was next to a lounge that had a TV and a fireplace. Cullinan’s felt homey to say the least. The guest house also had a restaurant but it was always booked during dinner time. Luckily Cullinan’s was across from Fitzpatrick’s, which was both a pub and a restaurant. I cannot remember exactly what I ate but my mom thought their pasta was perfectly cooked. Another great quality of the guest house was that its proximity to popular natural sites like the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren.

The Cliffs of Moher:

The Cliffs of Moher is one of Ireland’s most photographed sites. They are majestic sea cliffs that stand 390 feet above the ocean, with the waves crashing against it. My family and I were especially awestruck by its dramatic view and we took lots of pictures. The colossal cliffs go on for miles and miles, with parts of them open for visitors and parts of them not. We only went to the areas that were protected by fences but we saw a number of tourists who went close to the edge of the cliffs. There was a sign that told them not to go past the fences but they ignored it. My family and I thought they were out of their minds because the weather was very windy, which could have caused them to fall into the ocean. Fortunately, we did not witness any calamities!

One moment I will never forget about the Cliffs of Moher was seeing Tina Mulrooney perform. She is a local artist who both sings and plays the harp for visitors who come to the cliffs. I remember her voice being soft and angelic, which brought tears to my eyes. Maybe I teared up because of the song’s solemn melody or maybe it just felt surreal to listen to a heavenly tune at a breathtaking area of Ireland. Tina’s performance was a wonderful surprise. My mom bought her CD at the gift shop and played it in the car. It felt fitting to listen to traditional Irish songs as we drove around County Clare.

The Burren:

The Burren was unique because it was a region of landscapes covered by various types of rocks. Geologists claim that the Burren was formed due to glaciation millions of years ago, particularly during the Ice Age. Overtime, the glaciation resulted in the fossil formation of corals, crinoids, and creatures. My family and I were walking around the Burren and we saw many ferns and flowers coming through the rocks. It was interesting to see new life emerging through millennia-old limestone, though we were careful not to trip through the wide gaps that were between the rocks.

We also came across Poulnabrone and the Burren Perfumery. Poulnabrone was a prehistoric stone tomb that reminded me of Stonehenge because it was built like an arch. I wondered how it was actually constructed because people back then most likely did not have any sort of building equipment. Whoever built Poulnabrone must have been very strong! At the perfumery, we saw all of the flowers that were used to make the perfumes. The company had a gorgeous garden that smelled good too. It was a lovely place and my mom even bought one of their perfumes.

The next day, it was time for my family and I to return home. As we were driving to Shannon International Airport, I felt sad that our trip was over. We spent 10 days exploring the Emerald Isle and we loved experiencing its natural beauty and historic sites. I was going to miss Ireland very much so I took one last glimpse of its patchwork-shaped countryside as the plane was ascending into the clouds. Twelve years later, I still think of Ireland every now and then. I particularly get nostalgic around St. Patrick’s Day and I imagine myself driving through the green fields and wandering around a medieval castle. It always makes me want to go back in a heartbeat! I hope that someday, I will go on another Irish trip and see places that I did not go to, such as Donegal, Sligo, and Galway. I would also not mind visiting Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Like the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland is abundant with natural and historic attractions.

Most importantly, I feel that our family trip to Ireland helped shaped me as a traveler because it taught me to explore a country more in depth. My family and I did not just stick to one part of Ireland and we experienced a lot of what it had to offer, from being in the bustling city of Dublin to staying in a quaint village like Doolin. Dublin, Cashel, Killarney, and Doolin were all different but in their own special way and had fascinating places to see. If we had just spent time in one section of Ireland, it probably would not have been as much fun. I understand that some people might get exhausted traveling from one place to the other, particularly if they are away for 10 days. In the end, our trip was a success. Stay tuned for my upcoming adventure in Spain!

Ireland 2007 – Killarney, the Dingle Peninsula, and the Ring of Kerry

Killarney:

The town of Killarney was another marvelous destination in our Irish adventure. It is abundant with shops, restaurants, and pubs. My family and I went to a store that sold traditional Irish instruments. In those days, Becca (my sister) and I were quite musical because we were both in the school band. She got a tin whistle while I got a bodhrán, a frame drum made out of goatskin. We both had a lot of fun trying to play them in the car and our parents enjoyed the “concerts.”

The restaurants and pubs were better than the ones in Cashel. One night, we dined at an Indian eatery that served delicious curries. At the pubs, I mostly ate chips (French Fries) and even tried an Irish cheesecake. The dessert had a sweet taste but I did not care for its spongy texture. I was more used to the thickness of American cheesecakes at the time.

We stayed at the Gleann Fia Country House, which was close to the center of town. Honestly, this was the best hotel we stayed at throughout our vacation. The hotel’s owners provided us with two spacious rooms and we slept in our own beds. For most of our trip, I either shared a bed with my dad or slept in a cot so I felt very relieved! Gleann Fia also had a large breakfast buffet plus gorgeous gardens. It was fun to try all the different cereals and yogurts and lovely to walk by the blue hydrangeas outside. Sometimes the owners’ Irish Wolfhound and cat would come out to greet us. The dog was huge but he never got aggressive with us. The owners also gave us directions to the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, which we saw the next few days.

The Dingle Peninsula:

Years ago, my dad loved to surf and he heard of a popular surfing spot in the Dingle Peninsula. Thus, we packed our swimsuits and towels and headed over to the beach. It was not easy to get there because we drove through mountains on narrow roads. Sometimes, we were very close to the edge! Although the drive was intimidating, we made it to the beach in one piece. On the good side, the mountains looked spectacular with their deep valleys and vibrant colored heathers. We saw plenty of sheep frolicking the mountains and drove through clouds too.

My dad rented a surfboard at a surf shop near the beach. Both he and Becca were excited to surf whereas I read my book and my mom went for a walk on the shore. My mom and I were never into surfing and the water was way too cold. Becca and my dad were brave to face the cold water, especially my sister because she was only wearing a bikini! They were both surfing for a while so I guess they were having fun. Also, the beach was gorgeous with views of the mountains and I enjoyed watching people riding horses by the sea. It would have been nice to join them because I liked horses. Sadly, I had no horseback riding equipment. Oh well!

After hitting the beach, we saw more of the Dingle Peninsula. We felt shocked to see houses having palm trees in their front yards. Ireland is not a tropical country and it felt hilarious to see palm trees there. Even today, my mom wonders how they came to be popular in the Emerald Isle.

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Another fascinating Dingle moment was visiting a gaeltacht, a town where its citizens primarily speak Irish. Although they speak fluent English as well, they prefer to speak their mother tongue. We saw the ancient Celtic chapel, Gallarus Oratory in Ballydavid and the lady on the loudspeaker was speaking in Irish. It sounded different from foreign languages commonly spoken in the USA like Spanish or Chinese. Needless to say, it was interesting to experience a unique aspect of Irish culture. When the Irish were conquered by Britain, a lot of them were forced to only speak English, which resulted in their native language becoming endangered. Since the foundation of the Republic of Ireland, the Irish education system has managed to teach their students the language and there are still some communities who mainly speak it. Also, almost every street sign is in both English and Irish. It is wonderful that the Irish government works hard to preserve the country’s Celtic roots.

The Ring of Kerry:

The Ring of Kerry is a circular tourist route that features stunning natural sites in the county. Killarney is part of the route, so it made sense for us to see more of the region. It was similar to the Dingle Peninsula because we drove by several mountains and crystal blue coastlines. My family and I hiked up one mountain and as we got higher, we saw rocky hills and islands in the distance. The Ring of Kerry is well known for its rugged islands and we visited one called Valentia. The island felt kinda remote because it had very few stores and there were cows grazing the lands. Surprisingly, we drove by another house that had over ten palm trees! Whoever lived there must love the tropics.

Later on my family and I came across St. Brendan’s Well, which was in a barren part of the island. It is a holy well dedicated to St. Brendan, making it a popular pilgrimage site. During Celtic civilization, St. Brendan was a navigator who came to Valentia, where he converted two dying pagans to Christianity. Eventually, the people of Valentia converted to the faith. The well is believed to have been used by the saint to baptize the islanders and because of that, pilgrims have come there to pay their respects to him. It was embellished with figurines of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and the water had hundreds of coins inside. Perhaps a bunch of pilgrims came to the well before we got there. The attraction also had ancient stone crosses that were neat to check out. I thought that maybe St. Brendan carved them. Although I am not religious nor Catholic, it was fascinating to see one of Ireland’s holiest sites. The well was immaculate and peaceful, just how a sacred place should be. Also I learned about St. Brendan and how he impacted those of the Catholic faith. If you are looking for holy sites to see in Ireland, do not miss out on visiting St. Brendan’s Well!

The next day, my family and I saw Killarney National Park, a place known for its lakes, mountains, forests, and wildlife. We did not notice animals but we loved taking photos of Muckross Lake and the lush mountains that surrounded it. There was also the Muckross House, a 19th century manor that overlooks the lake. Even though we did not go inside the mansion, it had a magnificent exterior, with vines covering the walls and a garden of many flowers. Afterwards my family and I drove up north to Doolin in County Clare, which was our last destination. While I was feeling sad that our trip was coming to an end, there were still more sites for us to see before returning home!

To be continued…