Our Emerald Isle Adventure

We recently got back from the country I’ve long dreamed of—Ireland! It was the trip of a lifetime, even though we were only there for three and a half days. I am so thankful we had the opportunity to go and that the Lord provided beautiful sunshine-y weather while we were there. Here are the highlights… Actually every moment was a highlight… I’ll try my best to keep this concise.

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My number one photo from the trip… Aren’t those cliffs amazing?

Day 1—Galway

We picked up a rental car from the Dublin airport, and Tex very promptly learned how to drive on the left side of the road in a right-side driver’s seat. Let me just say, he did amazing. I had envisioned it being very stressful, but it was not. Even Tex would agree. It takes a lot of concentration at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy (Note: I am speaking from my very extensive experience as a passenger seated on the left side).

Arriving a couple hours later in Galway, we made a beeline for food on Quay Street. We slid into The Quays Bar and Restaurant just in time to take advantage of their afternoon lunch menu. It is a quirky, rustic Irish pub and happened to be pretty quiet while we were there in the late afternoon. Tex ordered the roasted lamb plate, which came with a smorgasbord of yummy sides (including some very tasty sautéed greens). And I had the Irish seafood chowder with brown bread. This was when we first realized our love for Irish food!

The rest of the evening was spent browsing the sweater market nearby, grabbing (expensive) gelato further down the street, and strolling along the water’s edge. Galway is a cute and buzzing town.

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Day 2—The Cliffs of Moher and the Burren

Leaving our Airbnb fairly early in the morning, we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher around 8:30am. That was the best possible time to go, I think. We had the lush green cliffs to ourselves. It is hard for me to even know how to write about them, because they were one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen. Tall, windblown grass lay in wave-like patterns, rolling hills met with sheer-cut cliffs, and blue waves turned white as they beat the rocks far down below. There is a mortifying aspect too… Just knowing that one step too close to the edge could be your last. If you ever get the chance to go, please be careful, and please take me with you!

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We drove over to the nearby town of Doolin for lunch at a pub, where we also got to experience watching a rugby game with the locals. After fattening up on Irish beef stew and fish and chips, we took the waitress’s advice and stopped by the Doolin Chocolate Shop. We spent the afternoon making a loop through the Burren and stopping at various places. The Burren is such an interesting region and not exactly what I expected to see in Ireland, though it is gorgeous. It’s basically massive rocks. Massive hills made of massive rocks. We stopped first in Kilfenora where we picked up a map and nosed through a beautiful cemetery of Celtic crosses. A little further down the road, we found Poulnabrone, an ancient portal tomb. It was similar to how I imagine Stonehenge, though it was just four rocks total and not very busy with people. We thought it was fairly impressive, especially given the fact that it was built about 5000 years ago! Our next stop was the Burren Perfumery. It was a cute little shop but honestly wasn’t a lot to see. Driving along the coast that evening, we made a couple more stops, including Dunguaire Castle and another cemetery in the shadow of a crumbling church, and then turned in for the night.

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The cemetery at Kilfenora…
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And the Church
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The rocky Burren
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Poulnabrone portal tomb
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Another cemetery
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Dunguaire Castle at sunset

Ooh, and I forgot to mention that early in the morning we spotted a bright double rainbow just as the sun was rising. And then we actually drove THROUGH it! We had no idea that was possible and were just waiting to see a leprechaun jump out. Ha!

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The Burren at sunrise

Day 3—Aran Islands

Though I might have thought that nothing could compete with the prior day’s experience, our day on the island of Inis Mór certainly gave the Cliffs of Moher a run for its money. We expected a day of rain, rain, and more rain. But the Lord surprised us with a gloriously sunny and almost warm day. We had one fierce, five-minute shower, and that was all.

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Anywho, we took the morning ferry from Rossaveal out to the Aran Islands. We promptly rented bicycles and took off along the low coastal road. Inis Mór, the largest of the three islands, was larger and had more sites to see than I had expected. We didn’t have time to hit them all. The main attraction is the ancient, semicircular fort called Dún Aonghasa. Here’s why it is so impressive: 1) it was built around 1100 BC and is still intact, and 2) it was built directly on the edge of a 300 foot cliff. Tex was impressed by the “Chevaux de Frise,” which is a network of sharp stones placed around the fort as a defense. The views from within the innermost wall of the fort are breathtaking. I felt as if I were in another world. And we got to watch this rain cloud come straight toward us over the wild Atlantic waves. What a thought to imagine living there 3000 years ago, with the blustering wind and raging ocean and secure walls of stone and verdant grass all in one heart-stopping place.

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Dun Aonghasa

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This view from within the fort doesn’t do it justice.

After the fort, we decided to make a stop at the medieval ruins known as the Seven Churches. That was where we found the oldest gravestones I’ve ever laid eyes on—from the 800’s and 900’s AD. Crazy! From there, we started the long cycle up the high road. It was tough, but we found some horses to pet/laugh at along the way. We finished off our day on the island with some shopping for Aran sweaters and wool-knit goods. The ferry took us back to the mainland (if Ireland can be called that…?), and we made our way back into lively Galway for supper. Tex had an AMAZING dish called Fisherman’s Pie that was similar to Shepherd’s Pie but with a seafood chowder-like filling. I had a hamburger that supposedly contained black pudding.

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The Seven Churches and cemetery
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We made friends with this sweet horse.
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And this guy had somehow gotten up ONTO the fence and was just hanging out!

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Day 4—A Bit O’ Dublin

To wrap up our time in Ireland, we wanted to get a taste of the capital city. While we did enjoy it, I am so very glad that we chose to spend most of our time near Galway instead. Dublin has some lovely churches, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral. But we didn’t feel like paying the money to go in, so we enjoyed the architecture for a moment and moved on. We grabbed a bite at the South African food chain Nando’s and moseyed on down to Trinity College. It would be cool to go back there and see the Book of Kells. But that’s really the only thing I feel like we missed.

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Christ Church Cathedral

All in all, this is a trip I would take again in a heartbeat. The outdoor wonders were more stunning than I ever dreamed. God did a mighty work when he created that country.

Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart

Anyone remember the old cartoon Anastasia movie? I made Tex watch it with me a few weeks ago, because he had never seen it. The result: I’ve now had the song “Paris (Par-ee) holds the key to your heart” stuck in my head for basically a solid month, in anticipation of our trip to the City of Lights.

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Let’s start with the gritty truth. Paris is crowded as all get-out. And it has been romanticized beyond any hope of actualization. And ultimately, it (along with any other place) does not hold the key to your heart, or at least not mine. I was reminded once more of our human expectations for the world to satisfy the longings within us, and how they will always remain unfulfilled. Only when we turn to the Maker of all and the Lover of all mankind, can we truly live abundantly and be made whole.

That being said, we did have a lovely time in Paris over New Years. I’d like to share with you some of the things we did…

Day 1: Versailles

>> After stopping for the night at a French gas station and bedding down in the back of our car (which was its own little adventure), we made our way to the Royal Palace of Versailles. What a grand place. It was filled to the brim with paintings and sculptures, rich floral draperies and rugs, fine furnishings and lavish chandeliers. Ever since I first read about Versailles as a child, I have wanted to see the Hall of Mirrors… Being there and imagining it full of great lords and ladies decked out in their finest– wow.

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The Hall of Mirrors

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>> Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the day was the fact that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were almost completely glossed over. Though we saw painting after painting of Louis XIV, also called the “Sun King,” and others much more obscure (to us, anyway) in the royal lineage, I truly don’t remember seeing a single one of Louis XVI and only a couple of his famous queen. The audio guides also said next to nothing about them. We were able to walk down about a mile from the palace to the Petit Trianon, where Marie Antoinette spent most of her married life. It too surprised me. This queen known for saying, “Let them eat cake,” lived a much less frivolous existence than I had ever imagined. The two-story house boasts a very minimal ground floor with empty stone walls and a tiny but tasteful upstairs suite as sleeping quarters. During her time as queen before the Revolution, she had a small, fairy-like hamlet built along with a small functioning farm. This was within walking distance of her home, and was delightful to see.

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At Marie Antoinette’s hamlet

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>> The two of us were famished by the end of the day’s constant walking. So we stopped at a small bakery on our way to the car. That bakery is where I found my new favorite pastry: pain au chocolat. This croissant-like bread filled with soft, but not completely melted, chocolate might be Tex’s new favorite too. So stinkin’ good!

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Day 2: The Louvre and a full-course French meal

>> We learned the public transportation system fairly quickly, as our hotel was in the nearby town of Meudon. This has become one of our favorite things in all the big cities. Using buses and trains to get from one place to the next still feels like a grand adventure, and yet is also far less stressful than actually driving through the center of Paris with a confused GPS. We bought a 2-day city pass for both of us, which allowed us to hop on any subway at any time. That is definitely something we would do again.

>> We spent nearly 7 hours perusing room after room in the Louvre museum, and still didn’t see everything. I had no idea how huge that place is. It’s hard to even know what to write about it, because there was so much. Some of our favorite exhibits were the medieval and Renaissance Italian paintings, the ancient Egyptian artifacts (and real mummy!), and the ancient Persian art. It is just amazing how old some those things are and how well they have been preserved. Tex really loved seeing all the historical depictions of various battles and military heroes. My personal favorite was Carpaccio’s The Sermon of St. Stephen, which I would highly recommend looking up since I don’t have a good photo of it.

 

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A real Egyptian mummy… Sorry if that is too much.

 

>> For our big French meal, I had done hours and hours of research, probably too much honestly. I had originally decided on a restaurant called Benoit, but some planning complications made us change our mind to Chez Paul. You can see their menu here. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall French bistro in the Bastille district, and was more reasonably priced than others with more limited menus. For an appetizer, we both ordered escargot… and loved it! The snails came without their shells, which made us joke that maybe we looked too American for the “shell-on” experience. Ha! For our main dishes, Tex ordered a veal kidney dish and I had rabbit legs stuffed with goat cheese. Mine was delicious, and Tex liked his, so I won’t go into any more depth on the kidneys… Blergh! For desserts, we got profiteroles with chocolate sauce and the apple tart, both of which were very tasty.

 

 

Please forgive me for the poor food photography going on… But I had to share!

Day 3: The Eiffel Tower and a stroll through the city

>> A chunk of the morning was spent waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower. I really think we could have saved a decent amount of time if we had bought tickets ahead of time. Now we know. But seeing the the tower’s structure and going up to the top was actually more impressive than either of us were expecting.

 

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Our view from the top!

>> We used the rest of the day to see as much of Paris as we could. The Arc de Triomphe was accompanied by Nutella crepes, Notre-Dame Cathedral was followed by a peaceful walk in the gardens behind it, Sacre Coeur was an adventure by night that involved about 10 flights of stairs.

 

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Sacre Coeur in Montmartre district

>> At midnight of New Year’s Eve, we wanted to see the Eiffel Tower lights twinkle. So, we prepared a small French picnic for our supper. We walked into a “Fromagerie,” or cheese shop, and walked out with some of the yummiest cheese I have ever tasted, a pretty strong Gruyere. I wish I really knew how to talk about cheese, because this was seriously wonderful. So we stuffed that into the backpack, along with some fresh baguette and lemon-flavored chocolate from a 400-year-old chocolate store. Somewhere along the way, we ran across a Christmas market, which was selling a yummy-looking potato and cheese dish. We decided to try it– “tartiflette” they call it. Finding a bench near the Eiffel Tower but away from the crowds of people, we sat down to our small feast. This was one of my favorite moments.

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Tartiflette

>> The final moments of our time in Paris were spent in a crowd of at least 100,000 people waiting for the midnight twinkling of the Eiffel Tower to usher in the New Year. A few seconds later, we were speed-walking to the nearest metro station in hopes of beating the masses. Which we did.

That is a rather long summary of our trip! Thank y’all for reading, and I hope that this new year will be one of blessings for you.

A Whirlwind Trip in Southern England

England. It’s a place I have dreamed of seeing since I was little bitty. My history lessons about Henry the Eighth’s 6 wives (“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived!”) and then my love for Jane Austen’s romantic tales set in the English countryside and my more recent overload of Downton Abbey episodes have been a few of the reasons that I have longed to go see the country of England for myself.

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It’s the place that the Pilgrims left in search for a different home… the place where sooty chimneys and thick London fog concealed the sky from little children in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Burnett’s A Little Princess… the place that Alfred the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and C.S. Lewis (yes, he belongs in this list!!) all called home. If you asked Tex, he could give you an entire other list of great knights and generals and admirals who also flew the English flag.

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To be in this land of stories, both true and fictional ones, was thrilling. We are already talking about when we can go back. I’ll give y’all a little run-down of what we did, and hopefully include some descriptions for your imagination to feast upon.

>> We took a C.S. Lewis walking tour in the City of Dreaming Spires, more commonly known as Oxford. I am so glad we did this. Starting at the famous Blackwell’s Bookshop (which was super fun to peruse), we walked from place to place listed on this itinerary to witness several of the places Lewis frequented. My two favorite stops were the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin where he preached his sermon “The Weight of Glory” and the Inklings’ favorite pub which they called “The Bird and Baby.” The town of Oxford is just beautiful, and had a very different feel from any of the other English towns we explored.

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The house that C.S. Lewis stayed in when he first arrived in Oxford.

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>> We had high tea! I hadn’t ever known there was a difference between just plain old afternoon tea and “high tea,” until a sweet friend recommended it to us. So, we found a place called The Grand Cafe in Oxford that actually offers high tea all day (which, I realize, is probably not the most proper way to do it, but it was very convenient!) and at a much more reasonable price than many of the London venues. From delicate smoked salmon and egg sandwiches to yummy biscuit-looking scones and sweet petit fours, we left feeling as if we had eaten a big meal rather than just an “afternoon tea.” The teas really were delicious. I had a hot peach tea and Tex had Earl Grey (we actually ordered vice versa, but then our orders came swapped, and we were both surprisingly pleased). Poor Tex was comforted by the sight of other men in the cafe… I don’t think this English tradition was exactly his cup of tea, but he was a trooper.

We hopped onto a train that took us from Oxford to Portsmouth via Southampton. I had found some good deals ahead of time through the website Trainline.

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>> In Portsmouth, we explored Lord Nelson’s ship, the HMS Victory. This was at the top of Tex’s list of things to see. And it was really neat. This ship was built in the mid 1700’s, and is open for visitors to tour all the levels of it. With the audio guides, we were able to walk through the timeline of the Battle of Trafalgar, but also to glimpse what naval life was actually like at the time. Down in the dark, musty hold of the ship, I was amazed by the hundreds of huge barrels, which were how food was transported and stored. Tex said that he was most impressed by the military functionality of the entire ship, even down to the captain’s quarters.

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>> We gobbled up our very first meal of Fish and Chips! Just across the street from the Historic Dockyard is a cute, blue restaurant called The Ship and Castle. After finding a seat and making our orders (by the way, we were thrilled to find that there is free tap water most places in England!), we struck up a conversation with an older Englishman. Turns out, he’s a huge Buddy Holly fan and was so excited that we were from his state. The English people are so very friendly. It seemed like anywhere we went, a kind English voice would pipe up and ask us a question or make some honest comment.

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Then we caught yet another train, this time from Portsmouth to London, for the last leg of our trip. The London train stations are massive, just for anyone who is wondering. I’m talking nice shops on the second story and food courts on the ground floor. For some reason, I was not quite expecting that.

>> We enjoyed an evening in London. Navigating the underground stations, stopping for a hot bite at the Southbank Centre Food Market, meandering over to Trafalgar square– these are the main things we did on our first night in London.

>> For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to book an Airbnb in the suburbs… I won’t go into all the details, but here it is in a nutshell: walking through the dark for a mile in a strange town, a misunderstanding about how to read English addresses, no WiFi, only a couple of screenshots of the map, two wonderful English gentlemen who directed us to the right house, nobody home, figuring out how to open the lockbox, and four shining eyes glaring at us as we step inside. Thankfully, they were nice cats.

The next morning began our full day in London!

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>> We ventured through the Tower of London. This was one of the coolest stops we made. It is still hard for me to wrap my mind around its multifaceted significance over the past 10 centuries. Built in the time of William the Conqueror, the Tower has seen the mysterious disappearance of Edward IV’s two young sons (whose skeletons were found under a staircase in the Tower), the execution of Anne Boleyn (the second wife of Henry VIII and mother to Elizabeth I), the imprisonment of Elizabeth before she became queen, and the torture of Guy Fawkes. Morbid, I know. But the Tower has also played an important part in the minting of the country’s money and housing of the Crown Jewels. For almost one thousand years, the English royalty used the Tower of London for these and many other purposes. One quick note: we got to see the Crown Jewels with our own eyes! I hardly knew such enormous diamonds existed.

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>> We ate a truly English meal at a stately pub called The Hung, Drawn, and Quartered. Guess where it was… Right across the road from the Tower. Ha! It was much nicer than it sounds. Here, we feasted on lamb and mushroom pies, which were downright tasty. We both agreed that it was our favorite meal of the trip. I want to learn how to make them!

>> We spent the rest of the day speed-walking past as many as we could of the most iconic London sights. We strolled over to see Shakespeare’s globe, stepped into St. Paul’s Cathedral, walked all the way to Buckingham Palace, and finally found Westminster Abbey and Parliament right as the sun was setting. The only place we slowed down to a more leisurely pace was in the Covent Garden Market, where we peeked into all sorts of delightful little shops. Tex and I enjoyed the bustling city even more than we thought we would. And honestly, we hardly scratched the surface. Now that we have a general idea of where things are and how the transportation works, I’m ready to go back and experience more. Already!

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

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Wow, that’s a lot of buildings. Maybe next time I’ll have more variation in my pictures!

Have I mentioned how wonderful it was to be in a land where English is the common language? Oh my. We were able to actually order what we wanted at restaurants and to understand where a given train was supposed to stop. Not to mention the daily necessities of “Excuse me,” and “How much?” and “We’re ready to pay.” I had no idea how much I’d missed the English language!

Love y’all!