Stockholm

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I fell in love with Stockholm on my first fully conscious day. It is a beautiful city. There is a gorgeous, pristine park every 2 blocks, spotless cobblestone sidewalks, and sweet restaurants with sidewalk seating on each street. That first day was a bit on the hot side, so I cut my random wandering around Gamla Stan (the old town) for the next day when I could get an earlier start and miss the 90-degree heat. I made that wise decision after considering “accidentally” getting onto the Japanese tour bus for their air-conditioning.

Loving it despite the heat

After my third trip to the tourist information center (yes 3, Stockholm was a bit confusing public transit-wise) I headed over to Vasamuskeet, a museum dedicated to the 17th century Vasa warship that sank on its maiden voyage after 20 minutes. The ship was the grandest and most powerful of the time, with two decks for cannons. This was its downfall, however, because the boat was very top heavy and fell over at the first gust of wind. Scientist today have figured out that the ship needed twice the amount of counterweights in the bottom to keep it from toppling over. It is almost perfectly preserved because of the brackish water in the Baltic Sea, 98% of the wood is original. It took the curators/archaeologists 35 years to excavate and preserve the ship using some science that I don’t understand.

The Vasa

After Vasamuskeet I walked along a park that is right up against the water and I began to fantasize about the US adopting Sweden’s fiscal policies and having beautiful public spaces. Sadly, I know this is a fantasy. A country founded on not wanting to pay taxes certainly will never adopt socialist-capitalism.

Look how beautiful a socialist city can be!

I then went to Skansen, an odd “open-air museum” that is best described as a zoo/aquarium/Swedish Colonial Williamsburg. It was a little strange, but I saw a glass blowing demonstration and some beautiful old homes and farms that had been transported from all around Sweden starting in 1891 when it opened. I would’ve liked a few more demonstrations, but the park was geared more towards Swedish tourists and I think the workers were tired and hot.

The glass blowing demonstration

A traditional blacksmith’s shop

Artisan’s area of Skansen

A traditional swedish building from the early 19th century. All of the buildings in this part of Skansen are original from the period and were moved from rural Sweden to be placed on the property

On my way home I grabbed an ice cream (glass, the only Swedish word I have yet learned) and then took myself out to dinner. I had a glass of wine and a bowl of spaghetti. Cost: 40 dollars. The house wine alone was 16 dollars. Once I got my check I decided that this would be my last sit-down meal in Stockholm, otherwise I wouldn’t last until Berlin. I would be eating at grocery stores from now on.

Arrival in Stockholm

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My second solo trip was slightly more adventurous than my last. After gaining some confidence in Ireland, I took an 18-day trip through Scandinavia, Russia, Poland, and Germany. I saw Sweden alone, then met up with a Contiki tour for Finland, Russia, and Poland. I briefly thought about doing the entire trip on my own, but many of the reasons why Ireland was so easy to travel in did not hold true for the countries on this itinerary, particularly Russia. Just getting a tourist visa for Russia is a hugely complicated process, even with all of the forms in English. Trying to navigate the huge country without speaking the language seemed unnecessarily complicated, so I made the choice to pay someone else to deal with the hassles. Sweden, however, is a very easy place to travel to. Everyone speaks English, it is extremely safe, and it is easy to get around, so I felt that I could handle 5 days on Stockholm before the tour started.

I made it to Stockholm after what seemed like a year of flying. I spent the long flight giving evil glares to the woman behind me and had a slight confrontation with her husband. (Apparently the way to fix a touch screen is to hit it over and over again, waking up the person in front of you repeatedly. I disagreed.)  My flight landed at 7 am, so I made it to my hostel around 9. I couldn’t get into my room, but I was able to put my bag and shoes away. (As per the Swedish tradition, we were asked not to wear shoes in the hostel.) I found the lounge with free Internet and sofas with pillows and blankets, which lead me to a 3-hour nap. Once I woke up, I explored the underground hostel, which looks like the hold of a ship, painted stark white with circular brass windows and ropes hanging from the ceiling. Of course the IKEA furniture didn’t go with the nautical theme, but it did remind the guests that this was a proud, Swedish establishment.

The square where my hostel was located

I then grabbed some pizza and headed to the Centralbadt, an early 20th century bathhouse that had not changed a bit since the last turn of the century. It had underground whirlpools in what felt like a marble cave, traditional Swedish sweat lodges, and an indoor pool that looked a bit like Coney Island, with wood beams, Christmas lights, and candy colored murals and wall accents. I spent 2 full hours soaking, seeing how many people thought I was Swedish (about 8/10). I then got a facial where the facialist told me it was time to start using eye cream. Happy 25th birthday to me! Afterwards I went straight to my hostel, took and shower, and went to sleep. I had been hoping that I would have been revived by my long soak and would be able to explore the city that night, but I think my time at the Centralbadt made it even easier to be asleep by 8 o’clock.

The gates for the Centralbadt

Underground whirlpool

The indoor pool

Quick tip about Sweden that surprised me: Throughout my international travels I have learned that it is polite to first ask if someone speaks English before you launch into your questions and pleadings for directions. NOT TRUE in Sweden. Only the very uneducated do not speak English, so it is polite to assume that they do. Asking someone in Sweden if they know English is like asking someone in the states if they know how to read. The more you know.

Galway and the Cliffs of Moher

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On my last day in Galway I woke up early to take a bus to the Cliffs of Moher. I had diligently planned my trip to the cliffs months in advance through time tables posted on the Internet. I did not want to miss my train back to Dublin that night, so I decided that the 8:30 am bus would give me all the time I needed at the cliffs. I rushed through breakfast and checked out of my hostel, only to discover that the 8:30 bus runs in the summer. I had two more hours before the first bus so I walked around Galway, taking advantage of no crowds and glorious morning light. As someone who loves to have a plan, I was surprised at how easily I adapted to the hiccup. I thought that I might perhaps be turning over a new leaf and becoming a go-with-the-flow kind of person, but in retrospect I think I was just too sleepy to be overly concerned. I got some great pictures of the cute town then sat in the town square and chatted with people next to me on my bench. After speaking to some tourists who has visited the cliffs the day before, I happily discovered that my pervious estimation of 5 hours at the cliff was far too long.

Galway’s central square at 8 am

I boarded the bus at the far more reasonable hour and arrived at The Cliffs of Moher 90 minutes later. The cliffs are absolutely stunning. The cliffs in the Princess Bride are based on the Cliffs of Moher and if you look at the pictures you can absolutely see the resemblance. They’re very dramatic and, much to my dismay, extremely high. They have recently roped off direct access to the cliffs because people keep falling/being blown off. People still go over the barricades though, even with a memorial marked for the people who have died at the Cliffs of Moher.  Since I can’t even do indoor rock climbing, I clearly didn’t even think of going to the edge. It was a lovely trip, the sun was shining and there were musicians playing Irish music along the path. I ate lunch gazing at the cliffs while listening to the flute music and the waves crashing.

The warning sign

Just in case the first sign wasn’t warning enough

When I got back to Galway I went to an open-air farmer’s market and grabbed dinner for my train back to Dublin. From there I went to a hotel by the airport and flew home on a 7 am flight. Despite the stress of the long trip back to Dublin for a very early flight, I was still relaxed by my day spent at the Cliffs of Moher. I couldn’t have asked for a better final day for my trip. I was not as peaceful when I woke up at 4 am the next day, but since I was traveling alone, I can pretend that I woke up looking fabulous and feeling refreshed. Another plus to traveling alone: no one sees me disheveled and cranky.

Perhaps some strength for an early morning wake-up call?

Dun Aenghus

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I left Dingle for Galway at 6 am, taking 3 separate buses to arrive in the university town. Only 1/3 of the country’s population lives outside of the Dublin area, so there aren’t many direct buses/trains in the more rural parts of Ireland. I arrived in Galway in the late afternoon, completely exhausted, but I managed to find the central square and a place to eat. Galway is a happy medium between Dublin and Dingle: it has the charm of Dingle with the sophistication/variety of a larger city. I walked around the city until it was a respectable hour for me to go to sleep.

The main drag of Galway. Cars are only allowed on the street from 12 am-8 am

The central square in the afternoon

The next day l took a day trip to the Aran Islands, specifically to Inis More, the largest of the islands. I took a bus then a ferry over and as soon as we landed on the island, it started to pour.

Not many were taking the horse drawn carriages that day

I got on a minibus anyway and we drove to Dun Aenghus, ruins of a 2500 year-old fort on a cliff. The rain wasn’t as bad when we got there, so I trudged up to the cliff, my hair and umbrella whipping around in the wind. It was pretty once I got to the top but because of the wind and my fear of heights, I stayed very far from the edge. There is absolutely nothing along the cliff to keep you from plunging to your death.

The long walk up

The fort

I made it. My hair, not so much

View from inside the fort

The seaside wall of the fort had been worn away leaving nothing but the cliff. This guy was nuts, there was no way I could get that close

That is as close as I could get. Next to a giant wall.

On my way back down the rain stopped so I got some lovely pictures of the green countryside. The island used to be all sheets of rock until 300 years ago when people made top-soil out of sand and seaweed to grow potatoes. The landscape now consists of rolling hills divided by stone walls that separate people’s agricultural property.

What the island’s surface used to look like

What it looks like now

After the tour of the rest of the island I met a family formerly from San Francisco. The next ferry leaving for Galway wasn’t leaving for another hour, so we sat in a restaurant in the only hotel on the island. When I told them I taught in Richmond, they treated me to dessert. “For being Mother Teresa,” the father said.

I got back to Galway around dinner and found most things closed for Good Friday. All of Ireland was dry. The pubs were closed and sale of alcohol of any kind was illegal. I was able to find one Italian place open for dinner and it was completely packed with tourists also unprepared for the shutdown. I had been hoping to check out the music scene in Galway, but the entire town was deserted by 6 pm. I went to sleep early wishing I hadn’t missed my chance to go out in Galway, cursing the mandatory religious observances. Ireland without pubs? Really?

Lies, all lies

Dingle

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Dingle is a beautiful small town, population 1,500, with rolling green hills right against the water. Mostly a fishing town, the local economy is supported by tourism in the summer, which has skyrocketed since Rick Steves “discovered” Dingle. I must admit, the only reason I went to Dingle is because of his recommendation. I stayed at a bed and breakfast and decided to brave the Irish fry breakfast (fried eggs, fried sausage, fried Bacon). The cook was surprised that a small American girl wanted the traditional fry, so I think she gave me a smaller portion than most. That was fine with me; I could barely handle what she gave me. After breakfast I walked around Dingle a bit, which only took about 30 minutes.

The View from my B & B

Dingle

 I then rented a bicycle to ride around the peninsula. It was sprinkling off and on, but nothing my hooded sweatshirt couldn’t handle, so I went along with the bike ride. Not my best plan. For the first 3 days of my trip, I was feeling very smug about the beautiful weather I’d experienced in Ireland. I began to think that people were exaggerating the rain in Ireland and I would have beautiful weather every minute during my trip. I realize this thinking is similar to tourists who come to San Francisco in the summer and, despite being warned by locals, bring only tank tops and shorts to wear. Nevertheless, I was confident that I wouldn’t need my umbrella. And, like the tourists who are shivering in their brand new sweatshirts purchased at Fisherman’s Wharf, I was sorry for my arrogance.

Before the rain

About 10 minutes into the bike ride, it started to rain harder. Then harder. About 20 minutes in I had water dripping from my helmet down my face, squinting to see the road. But I was determined to see the peninsula so I kept going. Then my asthma started bothering me. When I pulled off the road to take a few pictures and get out my inhaler, it started pouring. Cars were whizzing by me and I know they were all thinking, “look at that stupid tourist” as they enjoyed their heated cars and windshield wipers. I then decided to find some sheep, so I could at the very least get some pictures of the fields and sheep before I went to get a pint. Only there were no sheep. They had all gone inside, proving to me that the sheep had made better decisions than I did.

I turned around and headed back to Dingle, laughing at how ridiculous I felt. I was sopping wet and holding out in the storm for a glimpse of some sheep. The entire excursion took a little over an hour.

No sheep

Soaking wet, feeling like a complete idiot, beginning to understand why pubs are so popular in Ireland.

I parked my bike back at my B & B and dried off. For whatever reason I did not want to admit defeat to the bike rental man, so I left my bike at the hotel and sat in a pub for 2 hours or so, chatting with others doing the same. When I returned the bike the rental guy was none the wiser.

Despite the tiny population of Dingle, I happened to have a connection to an ex-pat living there. My friend’s Uncle Harry owns a museum in the outskirts of Dingle and kindly agreed to meet up with me in the evening. It was surprisingly comforting to know that someone was expecting me at some point on the trip, even though he was a complete stranger. We met at his friend’s pub to grab a pint, ate fish and chips for dinner, and then went to see his house/museum. Harry has a huge collection if ancient artifacts. I can’t be more specific than that because he has everything. Including a woolly mammoth. And a live goat named Sally and an iguana.

The museum/home

Harry’s Iguana

Harry and Sally

Sally

Harry asked me if I had seen the peninsula, and after I sheepishly admitted my failure earlier that day, he kindly drove me to show me what I missed. I was grateful for his help, because the peninsula was incredibly beautiful and I would have been sorry to miss it.  We headed back into town and grabbed another pint, listening to some live Irish music. The music was fantastic and was far better than what I had heard in the touristy Temple Bar. Thank goodness for Harry, he really made my trip to Dingle.

Dingle Peninsula

Kilmainham Gaol

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My last day in Dublin I went to the 18th and 19th (and some 20th) century jail called Kilmainham Gaol, which has a rare 3 triangle rating from Rick Steves and therefore is a clear must-see. By the way, gaol is pronounced “jail”, as I discovered from my rather amused cab driver. I felt like a bit of a noob. I usually have a no-taxi rule when I travel, but I broke it so I could have enough time before my train left. The taxi cost almost as much as my train ticket to Dingle and I was quickly reminded why I have my rule in the first place. But the price was totally worth it, especially with the 2-euro “student” price to the gaol. (Here’s hoping I can continue to milk my graduate school ID until I can get a senior discount!)

Outside Killmainham Gaol

The gaol was absolutely fascinating. It was initially built as a “model” prison, the first to separate prisoners from each other and prevent bad ideas being spread around. During the Great Famine, the jail swelled 20 times its capacity because people were jailed for begging, stealing food, and prostitution. They jailed children as young as 10. Prisoners received their food in the same bucket that they used as a toilet, they slept on the stone floors, and the tiny windows were open to the elements. The limestone walls kept the cells so damp that most prisoners developed breathing problems.

The old section of the Gaol

Then the Victorians came along and made things nicer with a new wing, straw beds, sanitary food preparation, and glass in the windows. They did, however, have mandatory 24-hour silence to encourage prisoners to reflect on their wrong doings. I might have preferred sleeping on the floor. Eventually it became a prison mostly for political prisoners, and it is said that the horrible treatment of the Invincibles by the British government in the gaol began the widespread support of independence.

The Victorian section of the gaol

See? So much nicer! As long as you’re fine with complete silence during incarceration

At the end of the tour I learned about the symbolism of the Irish flag, and as I am close friends with our generation’s leading vexillologist, I was probably more interested than the rest of the tour. FYI, the modern flag was designed by the first governor of Montana (not sure of the connection there). It was a symbol of peace: green representing those who supported an independent Ireland, Orange for British loyalists, with white in the middle as a symbol of peace.

After I left the Gaol, I hopped on my train to Dingle. The train ride was gorgeous, my favorite image being men playing golf next to sheep. My peaceful train ride became more stressful at the end, however, when there was a 45-minute delay, meaning I would miss my connecting bus to the tiny Dingle Peninsula. In most of Western Europe this would be fine because there are several trains and buses a day, but in Ireland during the off-season there is one bus to Dingle a day. My mind began spinning as I thought about my options and I started to picture myself in a tiny rental car, swerving into the wrong side of the road while attempting to read the Gaelic road signs. The train conductor saw my distress and asked if I needed help. When I explained the situation, he smiled and said, “I know the bus driver, let me call him.” He then proceeded to take out his cell phone and ask his friend to hold the bus until the train arrived. Man, I love the Irish. The 60 other passengers on the bus, who were delayed 45 minutes because of me, probably didn’t love them so much that day.

My seat assignment- living in the future! Although I have to say this wasn’t necessary, the train was less than half full.

3 days in Ireland, and still no rain.

The Rock of Cashel

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On my second day in Dublin I went to the Rock of Cashel: a fortress that’s about 1,500 years old in a tiny town 3 hours from Dublin. I decided that I was not brave enough to attempt driving on the opposite side of the road in addition to navigating the notoriously confusing Irish countryside, so I took a bus there and back. Cashel is an incredibly beautiful town and quintessentially Irish. The Rock sits on a hill overlooking a green valley with cattle grazing. I just sat and gazed out for an hour after my tour.

The View from the Rock

The Town of Cashel

The Rock was built with security and nothing else in mind, much like most other Anglo-Irish structures if the time. They had a bad rep for being very uncomfortable. There are no windows in the Rock, just arrow slits. The nobles lived with almost no furniture because it got in the way of battles and the doorways were purposefully too small to trip invaders. For that same reason the stairs were uneven and never lit. If that wasn’t enough, the Rock was built with secret passages to drop things on people’s heads, although those passages have disintegrated over 1,500 years.

The Rock of Cashel

A gorgeous “window”

The Rock was given to the church to keep it out of rival clan’s hands (and as a bribe for favoritism) in 1100 and a cathedral was then built as well. It is said that St. Patrick baptized a king there and accidentally stabbed him in the foot. The king thought it was part of the “painful re-birth” into Christianity and said nothing. There is a graveyard there that modern people are buried in (those connected to the original clan). There are fresh flowers on some of the graves and some plots are reserved for people still living. I spent all day there.

When I got back, I got dinner on my own (and a free dessert out of the deal, traveling alone has its perks). I then went to a pub advertising traditional Irish music, finding a man singing Lady Gaga’s Pokerface. I guess it was Irish because an Irish man was singing it, but I decided to find something a little more traditional. I headed over to a less touristy pub off of Grafton Street that had been recommended to me before my trip. After people watching the locals, I overheard some Americans talking. This pub was a favorite of James Joyce and was the final stop for their literary pub-crawl. I decided that I would have a lot more fun that night if I had some people to talk to, so I walked over and introduced myself. I spent the rest of the night with them. The Americans were 2 teachers from New York, and a midwife and musical theater teacher from Chicago. We went to several other pubs including one with real Irish music live. No Lady Gaga I am happy to say.

“Traditional” Lady Gaga

Dublin at night

At the end of the evening, I walked back to my hostel, feeling rather proud of myself for being so fearless. The Bulmer’s cider also probably helped my general sense of well being. A little.

Two days in Ireland and still not a drop of rain.

Dublin

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It is a wonderful thing being a teacher. I develop young minds, bring positive change to our society, and get vacation time. A lot of it. While this is a great blessing, and I am certainly not complaining, there is a slight catch to having these predetermined vacation blocks: no one else is on vacation when I am. When I decided that I wanted to do some traveling, I realized that my friends who could afford to travel with me couldn’t take the time off to do it, and those who had the time off (i.e. were un/underemployed) couldn’t afford to go anywhere. My first reaction to this discovery was pure disappointment. I was itching to travel and didn’t want to spend my breaks sitting at home watching re-runs of the Real Housewives. After some contemplation I realized that I shouldn’t let a lack of travel partner keep me from traveling. For the average 20-something, I had a lot of experience traveling. I’d been to 15 foreign countries, some of them multiple times. I’d traveled with family, friends, and my choir. The logistics of travel weren’t intimidating to me. The solitude, I wasn’t so sure about. Which is what brought me to Ireland. As a first time solo traveler (female I might add), Ireland seemed to be the perfect place. Ireland is safe, the people are friendly, and I speak the language. And I’d never been before. I bought my ticket to Dublin.

Witnessing a prostitute getting arrested as I stepped off my bus marked my arrival into Dublin. That makes it sound as if I was staying in a questionable area, but my hostel was in the middle of the Temple Bar area, walking distance from Trinity College. There were more pubs around than anything else (and obviously the occasional prostitute, but think of it more like Times Square than Skid Row).

See? Not so bad?

That evening I went directly to sleep and slept very deeply, apparently, because when I woke up I saw that the man in the bed next to me was completely naked, passed out face down on his bed. I did not wake up for his naked arrival nor did I remember being in a co-ed room. It/he was not a pretty sight, so I got out of my room right quick. I was not entirely sure what to do with myself, despite my absurdly detailed itinerary I compiled months earlier, so I decided to try and get a feel for Dublin. First I went to the National Museum of Archaeology, but it was closed until 2, then I went to Trinity College’s library, but that was closed until 12. I forgot that in Europe things are actually closed on Sundays for church! I mean seriously, who goes to church anymore? So I ended up just walking around the city, mostly along the river, taking pictures and asking people to take pictures of me. It was my goal to avoid having every picture of myself on the trip look like a MySpace profile picture.

Myspace in Ireland. Yeah, there will be a lot of this

That’s better

Next I went to the Trinity College Old Library where there is a bible that is 1,200 years old AND they filmed scenes of Harry Potter. (Can you guess which fun fact I was more excited about?) The librarian there turns each of the books of the bible one page every night, so if I went back the next day if would be a different page than the day before. Very considerate of slow readers. I wasn’t there for very long but luckily I did not have to pay the 9-euro admission. I asked a tour guide standing in line behind me if I already needed a ticket and he offered to have me walk in with his group for free. I wasn’t sure if I was posing as a high school student or a teacher, but I was grateful nonetheless.

Trinity College

After sneaking into the library I walked down the main touristy shopping street, Grafton Street, where I ate lunch and saw a puppeteer have his marionette dance to house music. I found that to be very entertaining. Across the street from Grafton is St. Steven’s Green, a smaller and less crowded version of Central Park, where again I took pictures and asked people to take pictures of me.

St. Steven’s Green

         I then went back to the Archaeology Museum and went to the Viking and Ancient Ireland exhibits. I loved seeing the ancient side of European history, since most museums in Europe focus on the Renaissance or after. And Vikings are badass. Did you know that Vikings popularized the modern form of the shoe, with the sole separate from the rest of the shoe?          They spread the awesomeness of the shoe through their plundering. They also introduced the ax as a weapon, making the ax wielding very scary when they fought the Brits.

After my history lesson I headed to the Guinness Storehouse, ended up getting lost, and then was assisted by some friendly older pub goers. The Irish really are nice. The storehouse is basically a shrine to Guinness and while rather masturbatory, I still really enjoyed it. I made some friends in the tasting room as well as the Gravity Bar, which has a 360-degree view of the city and is probably the best part of the tour. Not sure if it was worth 17 euros, but I lied and said I was a student, so it was only 10. I decided I liked paying discounted prices and vowed to continue to try and get out of paying full price for things.

The Storehouse

        For dinner I decided I should be Irish and get Fish and Chips. I could have gotten a little more adventurous, but I’ve had rough times in the past with German and Czech food, which in my mind are pretty much the same as Irish food. I brought it back to the hostel and ended up meeting some American girls who has been living in France for 6 months. They were very glad to be done with their 6 months, saying that while they loved France, they hated the French. The European travelers in the hostel kitchen began chiming in about how they too, hate the French. It is the one consistently common belief I have found throughout my travels in Europe. No one likes the French.         After sharing a bottle of wine, I left the girls and went to sleep to prepare for a 6 am wake up call. I was relieved to see that the Naked Man had checked out.

        1 day in Ireland and there wasn’t rain yet. As far as I can tell, Dublin has the same weather as San Francisco. True story.

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