April 20th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
Returning to a holiday spot does have its perks. Since Sean and I had hit most of the major sites — Newgrange, Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle and Belfast, Dunluce Castle and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland — previously, we opted to explore the less visited but no less beautiful attractions of the Republic’s west coast. Smart move! This region has it all — majestic mountain ranges, crystal clear lakes, loads of grazing sheep, quaint villages, good restaurants and a wealth of historic sites.
Portumna Castle – Built in the 16th century, Portumna Castle was left in ruins after an 1826 fire. Restoration work began 30 years ago and continues to this day. Beautiful setting. Bad camera karma. Here my latest Nikon, the D200, breathed its last breath. What is it about Ireland and my cameras?
Galway — Possessing few historic sites, this medieval, coastal, Gaelic-speaking city may not be the most obvious destination. However, fresh seafood, excellent pubs and a vibrant downtown scene make Galway a perfect stopping point. You can also catch a ferry to the Aran Islands from here.
Aughnanure Castle — Built along the Drimneen River and supported by natural archways, much of this 13th century castle tumbled into the water centuries ago. The human inhabitants may be long gone but hundreds of bats now reside in the tower house roof. Impressive tower. Cool atmosphere.
Kylemore Abbey — This 19th century castle sits beside a lake at the base of Duchruach Hill. Quite a dramatic setting for what is now a Benedictine girls’ boarding school. For 13 Euros (about $17) you can visit three rooms in Kylemore Abbey or you can just snap photos from outside for free.
The Aran Islands a/k/a Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer — You’ve read the story. You’ve seen the pictures. For more information, check out the Aran Islands website.
Connemara — A vast region of land west of Galway city, Connemara is a jumble of coastlines, mountain ranges, fjords, bogs, fields and beaches. It’s also a spectacular area to hike, photograph or stop for a picnic.
Grey Herons –Think of them as the pigeons of Ireland’s west coast; they are everywhere! Their huge nests dot the tree tops, sometimes with as many as five per tree. Look for them near lakes, rivers and streams and, if you are as lucky as we were, outside your hotel room.
April 19th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
After renting a spiffy black Corsa, Sean and I set off for the Republic of Ireland’s west coast and the Aran Islands. There we caught a stomach churning, 50-minute ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. Home to those lovely Irish, wool, knitted sweaters and to such movies as “Man of Aran,” Inishmore is likewise renowned for its rugged landscape, blustery winds and rocks, rocks and more rocks.
While most tourists opt to take a tour bus, hop a ride on a horse cart or rent a bike to see the island, we decided to hike. Little did I know that the hike would be ALL uphill. Huff. Puff. Huff. Puff. Why is it that I never can find a taxi when I need one?
Our destination was Dun Aenghus, a semi-circular, prehistoric fort perched precariously on the edge of a 90-meter cliff. This was only one of several prehistoric sites on Inishmore but, as the others were even further away, Dun Aenghus was where we went. Fortunately, Dun Aenghus is reputed to be the best site on the island so my laziness didn’t impinge upon our activities too much.
Along the way to Dun Aenghus we stopped to have a picnic of white cheddar cheese, buttermilk wheat scones, apples and soda on one of the many flat rocks covering the landscape. As we ate, the wind picked up and the sky turned an ominous gray. Miraculously, the rain never came. That might be a first for us, Inishmore and Ireland.
Lunch finished, we trudged up the narrow, winding road, passing grazing cows and calves, sleeping baby goats, a horse and her foal, seals sunbathing in an inlet, ruins of an old church, two thatch-roofed houses, and, of course, the ever present rock walls. We also strolled past more than a few bicyclists pushing their bikes up the hill. Hey, at least I didn’t have to haul a bicycle — and me — across the island!
About a mile from the fort a tour bus driver stopped and asked if we’d like a lift. Would we ever! After over two hours of walking I was more than happy to accept that free ride. In less than five minutes we arrived at the admissions gate and the driver set off to pick up some paying tourists. Rats! Here I thought that he was driving us all the way to the top of the cliff.
From the base it was a 15-minute climb up a rocky path to the summit. There we had a breathtaking view of the island, ocean and all the poor souls struggling up to Dun Aenghus. We also explored the three concentric, stone circles that make up the mysterious fort, mysterious because no one knows who lived there or why there were only three sides to the structure. My guess about the latter is that part of the cliff fell away, taking the fourth side with it. Then again, maybe not.
April 15th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
A few weeks ago Sean and I decided to revisit Ireland. Cheap airfare and the desire to relax in friendly, familiar environs made this country the obvious vacation choice. So, setting aside more exotic locals, we hopped a flight to Dublin on Easter Sunday and kicked off our first full-fledged holiday of 2009.
As anyone who has traveled with me can attest, no trip is complete without several nerdy and culinary activities. In Dublin the nerdiness comes partly in the form of a pilgrimage to Ireland’s largest bookshop, Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street. Opened in 1786, the four-story store carries over 60,000 books. As if I need another book! That doesn’t stop me from browsing the shelves at Hodges Figgis or at other charming, well-stocked shops such as The Winding Stair near the Haypenny Bridge or even the chain Waterstones, right across from Hodges Figgis.
The fun doesn’t end there. Oh no. Along with bookstores I have to check out the city’s museum offerings. This time Sean and I revisited the National Gallery of Ireland where last year I smashed my Nikon N80, bringing an end to my film SLR days. We said a few words in front of the portrait of Bono, where my camera met its tragic end, and then poked around the rest of the art museum. We also checked out the National Museum of Ireland where the gruesome remains of 4 “bog men” are displayed. Nothing like looking at dessicated corpses right before lunch.
Speaking of food, I am always pleased to report that the days of boiled potatoes and tough mutton dishes are long gone. Ireland has undergone a culinary renaissance with chefs incorporating ingredients from around the globe while staying true to the ‘buy fresh, buy local’ movement. Sure, I can order such standards as fish and chips with a pint of stout but I can also indulge in such specialities as Cashel blue cheese tarts or udon noodles topped with squash, mushrooms and green peas.
Where to find all this great food in Dublin? We frequent old favorites such as the Asian restaurants Cafe Mao and Wagamama and the organic, locally sourced restaurant The Farm. Elephant and Castle likewise remains a beloved spot. While its flagship restaurant resides on Waverly in the heart of NY’s Greenwich Village, I am partial to the Temple Bar locale.
After a tough day of wandering Dublin’s crowded streets, checking out all the fine eating, drinking, reading and artsy establishments, Sean and I head back to our spacious room at the Fitzwilliam Hotel. Overlooking St. Stephen’s Green, the Fitzwilliam is a bit posh by usual travel standards but well worth the extra Euros. Great location, great services and a great view.
April 10th, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
No matter how many times I travel to New Orleans, I remain as in love with this city as I was the very first time. So many beautiful sites. So much wonderful food, music and drink. Is it any wonder why I return again and again to the Crescent City?
Every trip there is different. One time I might roam around the museums, taking in the Cabildo, Ogden Museum of Southern Art or New Orleans Museum of Art. Another time it might be a trip to the Audubon Zoo, a plantation tour or boat ride through the swamps. Then there are the seasonal events such as Mardi Gras, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Jazz Fest. All good stuff.
On the most recent journey I had the luxury of hanging out with a New Orleanian, my husband’s cousin Mike. Thanks to him, I could experience life as a local as well as revisit some favorite tourist spots.
Beignets from Cafe du Monde – They’re a New Orleans institution and a must-have on any trip here. Soft, warm and blanketed in powdered sugar, these French delicacies hooked me at first bite. A word of warning: Wear black and you’ll look as though you’ve had a massive dandruff attack. The sugar flies everywhere!
The Kerry Irish Pub — Located on Decatur Street in the heart of the French Quarter, the Kerry Irish Pub was recently voted the best place to spend St. Patrick’s Day by USA Today. Perhaps I’m a tad biased but I think that the Kerry is the best place to while away any day. Warm atmosphere. Friendly patrons and staff. Cold drinks. Free, live music. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 — Live below sea level in a city with strong French ties and you end up burying your dead above ground. An unexpected outcome is that you attract not only mourners but also tourists to your grave sites. The oldest and most famous, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, has been drawing crowds since 1789. The cemetery houses both the famous and infamous. This includes the city’s first African-American mayor, Ernest “Dutch” Morial” and voodoo queen Marie Laveau. You decide which is which.
Delectable dining — With world renowned restaurants from Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme and local hot spots such as the French-Italian Irene’s Cuisine and the Spanish-Mediterranean Lola’s, I never go hungry in New Orleans. After this trip I have two new favorites to add to my list, Coop’s Place and Cafe Envie, both on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Fresh, wholesome food, New Orleans style.
Sazeracs at Tujagues — It wasn’t our drink of choice but a Sazerac from Tujagues is another New Orleans original. As the bartender stated, it’s ‘alcohol, alcohol, alcohol’ and a tiny bit of sugar. Made from rye whiskey, bitters, herbsaint, a sugar cube and lemon peel, it packs one huge punch. Once again, as the bartender said, instruct your friends to sip it; tell your enemies that it’s a shot.
Live music on every corner — In New York it seems as though almost every other person is an actor. In New Orleans it’s musicians who reign. As a result, whether in a club or bar, on a street corner or in a square, you’re bound to hear incredible blues, jazz, rock or even folk. Great music. Great fun.
April 3rd, 2009 § Comments Off § permalink
Every now and then I ponder why I love soup. Is it because it comes in so many forms – hot, cold, chunky, smooth, clear, thick – and from so many cuisines? Perhaps it’s the wealth of flavors. Chicken, clam, lobster, yogurt, garlic, corn, potato, tomato, melon . . .. The list goes on and on. Or is it simply because I’m too lazy to chew solids and instead prefer to drink pureed food? Nah! Can’t be that!
Although it’s been served since roughly 6000 B.C., “soup” first entered the English lexicon in the 17th century. Derived from the French word ‘soupe,’ it initially referred to broth poured over bread. The dish quickly evolved into a liquid consumed on its own, without the sodden hunk of bread. Later it came to include not only consommes but also bisques and meat- and vegetable-laden fare.
Because heartier soups often appeared as the sole dinner offering in poor, rural areas, many deemed them to be peasant food. Even today people frequently think of soup not as a meal in itself but as accompaniment – “soup and salad” – or as the first course. Yet, these thicker offerings can be the perfect supper. Simple to make, yet still nutritional and filling, they remain a time-pressed cook’s dream. Throw everything into the pot, bring the ingredients to a boil, allow the flavors to meld together and - voila! – dinner is done. Guess those peasants knew what they were doing!
Soup — it’s one-pot cooking at its best. And that’s why I love it so.
POTATO LEEK SOUP
6 ounces leeks, cleaned and diced
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound Idaho or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups chicken stock
splash of heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in small stockpot. Add the leeks and sweat until transparent. Add the potatoes and cook for 5 more minutes.
Add the chicken stock and bring to boil. Skim then reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. Season with salt and pepper then pour into a blender and puree. Return to the soup to the stockpot. Check seasonings and add a splash of cream. Stir then serve.
Also known as “white gazpacho,” this chilled Spanish soup is a refreshing repast on warm nights and hot days.
Serves 4 to 6
7¼ ounces blanched almonds
4 cloves garlic, skins removed
1 slice stale white bread, crusts removed
½ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Handful green grapes, cut in half lengthwise
Dash of paprika
Place ice cubes in 2¼ cups water to chill. Place almonds, garlic, bread, salt and olive oil in a blender or food processor and process until finely chopped. With the food processor or blender running, slowly add 2¼ cups ice water. If the soup appears too thick, add more water. (It should be creamy but not thin or runny.) Add the vinegar and white pepper and pulse a few times.
Pour the liquid into container or soup tureen and refrigerate until chilled. Ladle Ajo Blanco into bowls and gently place several halved grapes and a sprinkle of paprika on top of each bowl. Serve immediately.