Half a World Away, 2010

Location: Rome and Naples, Italy and various places in Ireland. Subject: architecture, landscapes, cemeteries, ruins, people.

To just look at my photos, keep scrolling down the page and ignore all my blathering.

I had the great fortune to travel to Ireland and Italy in late March, 2010, with my sister and cousin. My brother is sort of living in Ireland, so we started our trip there and then headed over to Italy for a few days. This post will have more text than usual, since I have some observations and back story for many of the photos. Additionally, further explanation on some photos can be found at the bottom of the full-size enlargements.

We started our flight to Dublin with a connection in Amsterdam, where interestingly, there was no compunction about having female attendants in the men’s restroom. It was no big deal, but it was something I hadn’t experienced at home so thought I’d mention it.

Landing in Dublin, we took a comfortable 3 hour bus ride to the city of Galway on Ireland’s west coast to meet my brother. We stayed the night at the very pleasant Sleep Zone Galway hostel, and got up early to make the drive to Ros an Mhíl to catch a ferry over to the Aran Islands.

We landed on Inishmore about 40 minutes later, got setup at the clean and comfortable Kilronan Hostel, and then rented bikes to explore the island. Inishmore is a good size island, but fairly easy to cover via bike. The maps they give you with the bikes don’t do much to help you navigate parts of the island, as they neglect to tell you that whole parts of the circle are off the beaten path with no obvious trail markers. Even so, we had a good time.

After a very steep hike to the highest point of the island, we explored an old fort and signal tower built in the late 1700s (Dun Arann Lighthouse & Signal Tower). We then continued on to a pre-historic fort perched high atop an imposing cliff. Finally, the last highlight of the day was our visit to the 7 churches site, which was founded in the 8th century, and which remains an active graveyard to the present day. Note: if you want to really explore the site, you’ll have to get past any hangups about stepping on graves and grave slabs. They’re everywhere, and literally bursting from the earth.

On our return trip, my sister’s bike broke far from the town. An incredibly kind woman named Dierdra let us user her spanners (wrenches) to fix the bike and carry on. We got some Irish gourmet pizza, and before heading to bed I hung out for a little while in the hostel’s common area with a girl from Germany, one from Australia, and an employee from North Carolina (she’s the vulgar fun one with the Southern drawl).

Getting up even earlier the next day (Thursday), we caught the ferry back and drove east to County Offal to visit the impressive Clonmacnoise. Founded in 545, it was an important monastic site for hundreds of years. Attacked and pillaged something like 50 times (alternately by the Vikings, English, Normans, and Irish tribes), it was destroyed in 1552 by a British garrison. Ancient graves abound, as do impressive old structures and monuments. Nearby, the ruins of a Norman castle perch precariously on a tall mound. We were late getting to the Rock of Cashel, and headed to Cork where we would spend the rest of our trip.

We met up with my Irish friends at their college house, and went out for the night. As luck would have it, the long hours coupled with spending so much time with my cousin–whom we’ll call Patient Zero–got me sick. Sucked. Nevertheless, we struck out to drive the Ring of Kerry on Friday.

The basic drive is something like 200km, and takes several hours while you cover this south-western most area of the country. The drive takes you through impressive mountains and near the sea, and was absolutely beautiful. I recommend that you take an entire day to do it, and make sure to venture onto some of the side routes. We finished the evening over dinner with our friend Aoife at her family’s country club in Kilarney, and got to witness a spectacular sunset.

Too sick to go out with everyone Friday night, I stayed at our B&B and cried. *sniff*

Saturday, a group of us went to Blarney Castle in Cork, of the legendary Blarney Stone fame. The castle itself is interesting, although castles start to get pretty repetitive. There’s a lot of stone, tight spaces, and so on. At the very top of this very high castle, the Blarney stone lies dangling from a walkway in a very precarious position. You have to contort yourself backwards whilst looking down over a couple of hundred feet to get access to the stone. Even though there’s an attendant and a safety grate, it’s not for everyone.

The real treat is not the castle, but the extensive grounds surrounding it. There are some beautiful locations, as well as some very interesting ancient sites used by the Druids. If you should visit, make sure to visit the wishing steps.

My brother, the American, in a house lived in by 6 or 7 Irish girls, made us a traditional Irish dinner of bacon and cabbage which wasn’t half bad. Sunday morning we packed our stuff in preparation for our flight to Rome, and then headed over to St. Finbarr’s Cathedral. It’s a fairly recent structure built on a site that has been used for worship for more than a millennium, and boy, is it pretty. Unfortunately, we only got to enter for about five minutes before they closed it for the day.

The flight to Rome was the longest short flight of my life, thanks to the 100 or so 12- and 13-year-olds who were going absolutely nuts the entire flight. On the bright side, I learned some funny Irish vulgarities, and the two kids I sat next to were completely stoked to be sitting by an American.

We touched down in Rome and prepared to take a train to stay the night with friends in Naples. The weird thing about this is that you buy tickets from random newsstands in the station. I’ll expand on this at the bottom of the post, but let me mention now that Rome’s train stations are not at all helpful to travelers that don’t speak Italian.

In any event, we caught a 2-hour train to the Aversa station and were picked up by Antonio in his Chrysler 300, something virtually unseen in Italy. Everywhere we drove Italians strained their necks staring at the car, an unashamedly large and luxurious American import in a land of buzzing, bee-sized transport.

We got some espresso Monday morning and drove out to the ruins of Pompeii. Unfortunately, our GPS navigator wasn’t helpful and we spent a long time lost and driving around. Nonetheless, it was very interesting, as we got to see the heart of a number of small area cities. Driving the 300 through narrow back streets was interesting. :)

A note about Naples: it is absolutely crazy. As Antonio explained it, it’s the Wild West of Italy, and an area still heavily influenced by the mafia. The highways looked like garbage dumps, as people literally would bring their household garbage and just throw it out their car windows wherever they wanted. Traffic was insane (which is saying a lot, considering Italy’s already crazy traffic), and prostitutes lined some of the main highways. Sort of like immigrant workers in the States, they get picked up early and spend the day with their customers.  Maybe they’re prostitutes/roofers.

Pompeii was incredible, though my cousin and sister grew bored early. Admittedly, a lot of the ruins are repetitive, but the remnants of some of the buildings were just astonishing. Although it was unfortunate for the thousands who died when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. , the city was incredibly well preserved by being covered in the volcanic debris.

We walked around modern Pompeii afterward, then grabbed some authentic Napolese pizza before almost missing our train to Rome.

Our hotel, the Atlante Garden, was a 4-star building and was quite pleasant. By American standards it was small, but it was quite cozy and clean. The real upside was that we were only a few hundred meters from St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican city. The area around the hotel was pretty nice as well, and we spent late hours at night walking the area.

We spent the first day touring St. Peter’s and the Vatican museums. Although the museums are huge and impressive, I probably wouldn’t be in a rush to make it back next time I’m in Rome. Similar collections (though usually smaller) can be found throughout major museums across the world.

The one real treat was the Sistine Chapel. My words won’t do it justice, so I’ll just say that it’s one of the most incredible human endeavors I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed. :(

The second day found us at the Colosseum, the forum, and the Palatine hill. In retrospect, I wish that we had taken a guided tour of these locations and the Vatican.

After the forum, we wandered west through the city on foot, my cousin talking to pigeons along the way. We wandered beautiful back alleyways before ending up at the Pantheon, the best preserved of the truly ancient Roman structures. Originally used as a place to worship the old Roman gods, it’s now the burial site of important Italians, like the first King of unified Italy. Well worth a visit.

Thursday we flew back, and then I got horrible jet lag and got sick all over again. The end.

Observations

That dramatic ending out of the way, i wanted to offer some observations for others planning a trip to Ireland or Italy.

  • Cash is your friend and your enemy. Lots of places don’t take cards, in particular in Italy. Get a good money belt, like one that goes around your calf and make sure you have a fair amount of cash available. We nearly missed our flight back home because we were 10 Euro short for train tickets.
  • Watch out for Nackers and gypsies in Ireland, and pickpockets in Italy. Keep your wallet and your money out of your pockets if at all possible, in particular on crowded subways.
  • Driving in Ireland was relatively easy, although roundabouts can be difficult and the streets very narrow. Driving in Italy is insanity, and the disregard for pedestrians is completely unnecessary. In particular watch out for people on scooters, who seem to enjoy darting as quickly as possible between pedestrians.
  • Be prepared to get lost and to have trouble getting help in Italy. If you think it’s going to take you 2 hours to get somewhere, give yourself 3. Better yet, give yourself 4. There are often late connections, cash only purchasing stands, broken self-help kiosks, kiosks and ATMs that are in Italian only, lack of international signs, and any other number of problems to frustrate the international tourist. (For a country so wrapped up with tourism, they do a bad job making their customers at home.)
  • The train station in Rome is annoying. Find one of the large green and yellow kiosks to get the best automated service, and avoid the white regional-only machines. If you are trying to get to Rome from Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport by train, buy a ticket at a newsstand. If you’re trying to get back to the airport, buy a ticket at the airport stand near where the trains leave. Cash only, and the ticket was several Euro more to get back then to get into Rome.
  • Be prepared to get yelled at in Italy over trivial things. At a McDonald’s we went to, my cousin suffered a 4-minute tirade by the cashier because she ordered a combo incorrectly. It was ridiculous, even by animated Italian standards.
  • The metro service in Rome is excellent. Use it. Train and bus service outside of Rome is unreliable and often running behind.

If you’re heading to either country, send me an email via the contact link. I’ll be happy to help you as much as I can.

6 Responses to Half a World Away, 2010

  1. Suzan Eschborn April 5, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    Thank you for the wonderful pictures and descriptions. You should publish a travel book!

  2. Sonja April 6, 2010 at 8:50 am #

    You drank espresso??

  3. Mary Roman April 9, 2010 at 4:01 am #

    Amazing description of Italy especially Naples you could not of said it better. Glad you enjoyed your trip.

  4. Racecar April 9, 2010 at 2:59 pm #

    I agree with all of your observations about Rome – especially the driving… Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  5. Annette April 14, 2010 at 1:07 pm #

    You make it soundlike hell in Italy!

    they’re just adverse to the American accent…. ;)

    you could interpret their firey humour to Italian passion!

  6. Ania April 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    Your pictures are gorgeous! I feel like I went on your vacation. I want to print them up and line my walls with them. I’m glad you had fun and I’m sad I missed you last week. O well, someday when we get to hang out it’ll be super fun!

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