Powerscourt: Surprised by Beauty

For the next few months I am writing about my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 1997. You can read the first post here where I talk about my first encounter with Dublin, the city that would claim my heart.

I found this ticket tucked in my journal from the trip.

We were on our way from Dublin and making our way, slowly, to Waterford (with many wonderful stops along the way). Our first stop was at a very innocuous looking tourist attraction, Powerscourt Estate. It doesn’t look like much from the entrance, a great, old house, but nothing fancy.

This is the entrance but is the back of the house

The entrance to Powerscourt Gardens is actually the back of the house.

But once you’re through to the front of the house, you can understand why National Geographic has called this beautiful place one of the top gardens in the entire world. The back view of the house is stunning!

Ireland's Magnificent Powerscourt Gardens and Waterfall

Not only is it beautiful, but it is often used in movies! The one that really took me off guard came out a few years after my trip, in 2002. I was watching the amazing movie The Count of Monte Cristo, and there was something about the Count’s castle that I knew I’d seen before but just couldn’t put my finger on. I was in the movie theater thinking to myself, I know that place. How do I know that place? 

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But then, I saw this scene, and I knew instantly how I knew where I had seen this “castle.”

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Forgive the poor quality of this photo that I snapped using my phone while watching the movie tonight.

I know it seems like strange thing to trigger a memory. This is the scene when the count lands during his first party at his new house. The camera pans down to his feet, and the stones form a very memorable pattern for me. Immediately after watching the movie, I went home and grabbed the photo album from Ireland and searched until I found this photo of my mother I’d taken at Powerscourt Gardens.

And sure enough – years later when I became more familiar with all the internet had to offer, I looked it up, and sure enough, Powerscourt Estate was used for the outdoor scenes of the count’s castle in the movie. If you’ve never seen the movie before, I strongly recommend it even though it is INCREDIBLY inaccurate from the book. It’s well done, and inspired me to read the book.

But anyway… back to Powerscourt.

The gardens go on forever! I believe it is well over 70 acres of land that has been meticulously kept up over several hundreds of years. Though the house was built in the 13 century, it underwent several renovations, even enduring a fire in the 1970s.  The gardens were constructed in the 1800s by the 7th Viscount Powerscourt.

My mother kept several keepsakes from the trip and gave them to me when she found out I was writing this blog series. In there was a map of Powerscourt Gardens.

Here are several pictures of the garden in bloom.

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A keep on the far end of the property afford an excellent view of the gardens and house. However, my fear of heights kept me firmly on the ground.

Near the gardens is the Powerscourt Waterfall, which is the tallest waterfall in all of Ireland. My parents and I enjoyed spending time climbing the rocks and hiking around the waterfall that day. It was truly a wonderful find.

It is truly a hidden gem in Ireland, and I fear it is often overlooked. I hope that if you go to Ireland, you will make your way to Powerscourt to see its beauty for yourself!

For more information about Powerscourt Estate, click here.

Dublin: love at first sight

In June of 1997 I graduated from high school, and in July of 1997 I was on a plane bound for Dublin, Ireland.  While my friends back home were listening to Hansen, Verve, Oasis, and Chumbawamba, I was on the trip that would shoot my life on a distinct trajectory of wanderlust – specifically to Ireland. Last week I wrote briefly about the gift, and you can read about that here.

As a side note, please forgive the lack of decent photographs. It was 1997 after all, and all I have are the printed photographs that have faded and yellowed with age. Many of them are in a scrapbook that I started years ago, and you’ll see the edges of the things I wrote in the scrapbook along with my very terrible attempt at being crafty.

The first few days of our two week trip had us stationed just north of Dublin in a lovely bed and breakfast called Belcamp-Hutchinson. To the best of my knowledge, the B&B no longer operates. There weren’t any websites about it with updates since 2006 – so I think it’s safe to say that it is no longer operational. And that is truly unfortunate! The owner, Dorene, was a very kind woman who truly seemed to love her job as hostess, guide, and cook! While we were there (two nights) we had lovely breakfasts of fresh fruit, granola, and yogurt. She also served hot items, but my 18 year-old self was not particularly adventurous when it came to eating things I couldn’t easily identify.

Our first place to visit was Malahide Castle, and it was a lovely day, in the mid-sixties, and for the Irish, that was apparently a heatwave because people were out in droves. While back home we would have considered that a little on the chilly side, there where people on the beach and even swimming in the Irish Sea. The castle was quite beautiful, though I don’t remember much about it now. I don’t think we went inside, but the grounds were full of people walking around and lounging in the grass.

Next we took the bus into Dublin city where I got my first glimpse of the city I would come to love above all others. And there were probably two places that sealed the deal in my mind.

Trinity College

Situated right in the middle of Dublin is Trinity College, and it was postively the coolest thing I had ever seen before. Dublin was loud and crowded, but once we walked through the gate, the city vanished behind the great stone walls of the college. It was so beautiful and peaceful, I couldn’t believe we were still in the city.

I didn’t remember this, but when I looked back on the journal that I wrote while we were there, I learned that we were there during their graduation ceremonies. Because of this, we weren’t allowed everywhere, but because the college is such a tourist attraction for the city, they don’t close it down completely, even for commencement. We walked around the grounds for a while and saw some of the wonderfully iconic buildings.

And of course we went and saw the Book of Kells. As an adult I can appreciate the historical and religious significance, but I was surprised that when I read back through my journal that I was even impressed with its history back then. No photography is allowed, so I didn’t have any pictures to look back on, but I wrote extensively in my journal about the intricacies of the book.

For those who don’t know, the Book of Kells was compiled in the 9th century by Catholic monks, and is a hand penned copy of the four Gospels of the New Testament. However, they are so much more. Each book was copied down letter by letter (to avoid accidental alteration of the text), and it was also intricately illustrated by the monks as well.

Close by the Book of Kells is the Long Room Library, and of course I was in heaven there. The book nerd in me was fascinated by the floor to (very high) ceiling book cases that contained books that I was forbidden to touch. What is it about the forbidden that is so enticing?

St. Stephen’s Green

Cities are known for their parks, and though some cities may have grander parks that St. Stephen’s Green, I had not seen anything I loved quite so much as that beautiful bit of green and colorful flowers in the middle of Dublin. It truly isn’t much to speak of, but sometimes simplicity is all you need to enjoy something. Much like Trinity College, once you got within the walls of the park, the city seemed to fade away.

There were short trails over rocky terrain, creeks, ponds, ducks, and swans. There were fountains, sun, and shade. My heart felt full as we walked around enjoying the day along with native Dubliner’s, and I even caught a glimpse of the statue of the famous Oscar Wilde. Though I was surprisingly ignorant of who he was for someone who a few short months later would declare herself an English teaching major, I enjoyed his cocky smile and semi-recumbent statue that lounged on the outer edge of the park.

After leaving the oasis of St. Stephens, we did what most tourists do (and I advocate it for people in a new city), we got on a hop-on-hop-off bus that tours the city. We saw a huge section of the city that would have been impossible to traverse on foot in one day, and we had the expert knowledge of the bus’ tour guide to tell us all about the history of the city.

We passed through Phoenix Park and saw some of their legendary deer.

We also went by Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

And we even passed by the statue of Molly Malone, “the tart with the cart” as our guide called her. Constructed as a tribute to the famous Irish ballad that goes, in part:

In Dublin’s fair city
Where the girls are so pretty
I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone
As she wheeled her wheelbarrow
Through the streets broad and narrow
Crying “cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh”

My dad got quite a kick out of that, as did several people on the bus trip.

We finished out our day touring the area around Grafton Street, which is shopping area where the streets are closed off to cars.  As a result, pedestrians, street performers, and flower girls all converge around some very high-end stores to make up a strange montage of elegance and commonplace.

 

Next week I will take you on the journey of the next few days of our trip: Powerscourt and Glendalough!


To read up on my trip to Italy and Greece, read these posts:

The Gift that Launched A Thousand Trips

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Photo by Aaditya Arora on Pexels.com

I am obsessed with traveling. I know this about myself, and people often point it out to me. I will see someone that I haven’t seen in a while, and often their first question is something like “So, where was your last adventure?” or “Where are you headed next?”

Sometimes people ask why I love to travel so much, and it makes me stop and think. I’d just kind of assumed that everyone had the same cravings to go and do and explore like I have. However, I’ve learned over the years that isn’t true. Some people hoard and save their money for things other than airplane tickets and Airbnb stays. Who knew!?

My family has traveled since I was a kid. I remember trips to Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, New England, and abroad as far back as the third grade (and maybe we traveled before then and I just don’t remember). And I look back on those trips with very fond memories.

However, the trip that really solidified my love of traveling was my high school graduation gift from my parents. They told me that I could pick anywhere in the world that I wanted to go, and we would all go there. To this day, I have no idea where they thought I would pick– maybe Australia (because I’d been obsessed with Australia since my childhood babysitter went there), or New Zealand (to visit a former foreign exchange student). But I do think they were shocked when I told them that of all of the places in the entire world, I wanted to go to Ireland– the land of my ancestors to see if we couldn’t hunt down a tombstone with our family name on it (this was before ancestry.com and the internet being useful for anything other than chat rooms).

So, for the next several weeks I am going to reminisce about the trip that launched a thousand trips (give or take)– my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 1997. I dug out my old journal from the trip, and I’ve plotted out the story of discovering where my soul resides to this day: Ireland.

The true challenge will be getting good pictures– so bear with me as I dig through 23 year old photos that were taken on actual film and probably printed out by a teenager at the one-hour photoshop.

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Glendalough, Ireland 2016

Now for a Break from the Normal Programing: 2019 in Review

Credit to my fellow blogger, WriterInSoul, for inspiring me with her own year in review post. I’m usually a travel blogger, so I wondered if anyone would even be interested in a year in review kind of thing, but this type of writing can often be therapeutic, in a way. And this year has definitely been a year of highs and lows. I know that a years have ups and downs– and I have had much lower lows than I did this year, but I think the whiplash of sudden change from so good to terrible in an instant is often more unsettling to the soul than a long period of turmoil.

Twenty nineteen was a year of extremes.

The year started off very well. On the 5th of January I drove to surprise a friend with a meet up for her birthday. Rachel and I were roommates in college, and she was passing through the hometown of one of our other friends, Jana, on her way home (northern Illinois) from her hometown (Memphis, Tennessee). So Jana called and asked if I could show up and surprise her when they met for ice cream.

IMG_3132So, I hopped in my car and drove the two hours to see her for thirty minutes. And it was glorious. We laughed and got a little misty-eyed, too. Then she hopped in her car and drove north, and I hoped in my car and drove east, but not before I stopped and visited Jana’s father, who I am fortunate enough to also call my friend. He showed me the truck he was restoring, and we sat in the garage and talked about life and, of course, drank coffee.

He is one of the greatest men I know. Though he is not perfect, he and his wife are both the epitome of caring and giving people. Whenever I come to central Illinois, I am welcome to stay at their house on a moments notice. Like that night, I simply buzzed by on my way out of town for an hour or so of chit chat.

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In March I went on a wonderful spring break trip with students to Ireland (my favorite place in all of the world), and we had a amazing trip! Everything went right, the weather was amazing, the traveling from place to place went smoothly, and we were able to have some of the most amazing experiences ever! I got to hold a sheep!

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But less than 24 hours after this picture was taken, the lead chaperone, my dear friend Chase, got word that a former graduate had died by suicide. I write at length about that experience here, but I will write here that the death shook me to the depths of my being. “Bear,” as everyone called him, had been in my creative writing class the year before.  He was nearly always smiling, and when he wasn’t it was because he was angry that someone had mistreated someone else.  He was a self-proclaimed defender of the weak.

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Bear with his ‘Life on a Cardboard Box’ project. “Get it, Pdise? I misspelled ‘brawn.’ It’s funny!”

He rarely wrote seriously, always the clown, but when he did share his heart, he wrote about the death of his brother and how that changed him and left him heartbroken many years later. We’d talked about mental health and how he just wanted to make people’s days better so they would have a reason to smile.

An hour after we got the news, we were off to a new place to see and experience. I didn’t know how to handle the whiplash. I cried much of the day, and avoided people as much as I could (which is not easy when you’re the chaperone of a group of students), but as I mentioned in the blog post I linked earlier, the grounds at Blarney Castle gave me the solitude I needed.

When we returned to the states, there was the funeral to go to. I didn’t stop crying until well after I returned home. And even now, I feel some level of guilt that he didn’t know how much we would all mourn his loss.

Summer followed quickly, and with it the end of the school year. My summers are usually pretty tame, and I try to soak up as much time with my son as I can. I did a lot of reading, and went to several open mic nights where my uncle and cousin played and sang.

I also got a roommate over the summer, Nina, a former student who wanted to break out on her own, but with a little support. She’s been a blessing to our family now that my son gets on the bus by himself now rather than going to my parents’ house in the mornings. And she’s a great buddy for when my now teenager would rather keep to himself than hang-out with his boring mom. It has made that transition much easier for this mom, that’s for sure!

Nina and me as we try out “lip masks” for the first time – do not recommend!

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and this year, my heart was heavier than usual as I walked in the Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention fundraiser. With Bear’s death on my mind as well as the other losses to suicide the school had faced, I felt like I moved a little slower. But I walked with a glorious friend, Amber, and her daughter who made the walk easier. We talked about all kinds of things, and they lightened my load. A day that could have been easily one of the hardest I’d had in a few months, had a positive spin to it, and I left the walk feeling much better than I thought I would.

The group that walked this year from Cascade High School

Just a few weeks later I got a text message from Chase, the chaperone who’d broken the news of Bear’s death to me just a few months ago.

“Call me” it said.

I was busy getting ready for work, and I was a little annoyed that she didn’t just text me with whatever she had to say. So I finished my hair and pushed the button on my phone to call her on speaker while I put on my shoes.

She was crying when she answered the phone, and my gut sank. I knew that someone was hurt or dead, and my mind whirled wondering who it could be and how bad it could be.

Nothing prepared me for her words. “Dylan is dead.” And again, my mind searched for meaning in this sentence. Dylan who? How did he die? Was it a car accident? But she was crying too hard to answer my questions. But I knew who it was. I just didn’t want to know. And just like that, in less than a year, we’d lost two former students to suicide. And this one was not only a student, but the son of a co-worker – the woman I’d walked with at the Out of the Darkness walk.

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I’m not entirely sure how I drove to school that day, only that it was through tears. And I’m not entirely sure how I told my first period class the news (the administration wanted to students to hear it from a person, not the PA system – which is a good call, just hard), only that it was though tears. And this time there was no Blarney Castle to clear my mind. I taught all day, I coached the Spell Bowl team (some of them crying on the bus) to win the county meet, and went home to be a single-mom. It wasn’t until bedtime that I was able to sit and try to process it all. Being truthful, I don’t know that I have completely processed it yet. I’d never had Dylan in class, but I knew him very well – he was an outgoing kid who loved to help others, he’d gone on the Italy/Greece spring break trip with us, I’d helped him edit papers for his English class, and he was the child of a co-worker and friend. So I knew him better than the teacher/student relationship.

It has never ceased to amazing me how the world can simply upend itself with one phone call. A few brief words and the trajectory of life is completely altered. That day was one of those days. And the haze of the next few weeks is honestly hard for me to remember. Hugging crying students, co-workers, sitting on the floor in the hallway talking to a student about how to keep moving when life feels so heavy.

And the year kept going up and down. My best friend had a miracle baby. My other best friend had a stroke and was in the hospital in Chicagoland for weeks and I couldn’t go see her. I felt like a failure as a friend because she needed people to help her, and I couldn’t make it up to her when she needed me the most. Up – down – up – down.

November and NaNoWriMo came along with tons of students who wanted to write novels with me. My 41st birthday. The end of the semester, and finally Christmas.

So much up and so much down.

But the big lesson I’ve learned this year is to make sure the people I love know that they are loved. I’ve learned I need to check-in with people with more than the often trite “How are you?” Also, I’ve learned that it is very important to take care of myself- to do things that are good for me physically and mentally.

Over the last calendar year I’ve lost 30 lbs and done my best to get more in touch with who I am and focus less on what I do not have. I have become less downtrodden over my seemingly terminal singleness, and realizing what being single can allow me to do: travel selfishly, invite people to live in my little home, and be available for people easier than if I had to take someone else’s wishes and calendar in mind.

Thank you to all who have been a positive influence in my life these last twelve months. I appreciate your encouragement, your mentorship, and friendship even though I am not the best when it comes to returning phone calls. 🙂

I anxiously await what I have to learn in twenty-twenty.

Igoumenitsa to Meteora – the unknown beauty of Greece

Due, I’m sure, to my lack of attention during Ancient Geography, I had no idea that the northwestern coast of Greece was so shockingly beautiful! The drive from Igoumenitsa to a glorious place called Meteora was beyond any beauty I have ever experienced. For those of you who don’t know me well, that is saying quite a bit. For decades I have sworn that Ireland (here and here and also here) is the most beautiful place on Earth. And in full disclosure, I still have an undeniable pull to Ireland that I cannot explain. However, the beauty of Meteora is completely different than the beauty of Ireland. It’s like comparing apples and chairs… they’re not even both fruit!

Greece was both luscious and rugged. The greens and blues were in such beautiful contrast to each other that I was really unsure of how to process that a place like this existed.

We left Italy on the Saturday of the Catholic Holy Week (the next day would be Easter). We entered Greece on the Greek Orthodox Palm Sunday (the week before the Orthodox Easter). In many ways it was like actually going back in time. A few of the students in our group had wanted to attend church somewhere in Greece for Easter services, but there weren’t any because the Orthodox calendar differs from the Catholic calendar. Who knew! Fortunately the kids weren’t too disappointed since we were headed to a monastery anyway.

We stopped along the drive from Igoumenitsa in Kastraki for a lovely dinner where my friend and I ate lunch on the outdoor patio. The weather was glorious — a little chilly in the shade, but the sun gave the air just enough warmth to make you comfortable.

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Behind us you can see the breathtaking cliffs of Meteora that at the time we didn’t know we were heading toward.

After lunch was over, we piled back into the bus and made our way to Meteora. All I knew was that we were going to see some monasteries that were built on top of mountains. I felt like that would be a fitting place for monks, but little did I know exactly what we would see there.

The Meteora monasteries are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and the closest comparison that I can come to is when my son and I visited the cliff dwellings of ancient Americans in the southwest. But those cliff dwellings were just holes in the sides of mountains. The monasteries of Meteora were phenomenal churches and living quarters that were hoisted up the sides of cliffs bit by bit and constructed on the tops of enormous outcroppings of rock. For years some of the monasteries were only accessible by a pulley system. There is still one of the monasteries that is only accessible through a gondola-style contraption that someone inside the monastery operates!

The monasteries are lived in, but for revenue, many of them allow tourists – even on Palm Sunday. We were required to wear skirts and keep our shoulders covered, and they supplied you with a wrap around piece of fabric to wear over your pants so that you could comply with the dress code.   After climbing up a horrifically primitive looking staircase up the side of the outcropping, we made it to the monastery. I am very afraid of heights, so this was no easy task. Most of the climb up I just focused on the shirt or shoes (depending on the steepness of the climb) of the person in front of me.

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It was truly an amazing experience on top of the world in Meteora, and the view from our hotel that night, was nearly as breathtaking.

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Kalabaka, Greece

I am sure that Greece will get at least one more stamp in my passport so I can come back here and spend a few days rather than a single night. It was a wonderful place filled with beautiful blue skies, amazingly green foliage, and ruggedly impressive mountains. I strongly recommend swinging by this lovely town!

Packing Light

True confession: I have not always been a light packer. I remember my first trip to Ireland with my family, and I took a giant suitcase, and I’m pretty sure I had a backpack too. The monstrosity was jammed full of every possible clothing need I dreamed feasible back home. I had multiple pairs of shoes, and (since it was 1997) full bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and probably lotion as well.

Since then I have learned the error of my ways. Though I didn’t travel out of the country again for nearly 19 years, I learned quite a bit.

Since I was going to Ireland on my own (2016), and I was staying in a hostile that I couldn’t check into for several hours after my arrival, I decided to pack light. I was able to carry everything I brought with me quite comfortably for most of the day on my first day in Dublin.

This was everything I took for a six day venture (two days of which were travel days) to Ireland in November of 2016:

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Inside these two bags were: travel sized shampoo/conditioner/deodorant/contact solution, disposable one-use mini-toothbrushes (with toothpaste inside the bristles), hair brush, hair straightener (priority for the frizzy haired girl going to a rainy locale), extra set of contacts, quick-dry towel, luggage lock, headache medicine, 4 pairs of underpants, 2 sweaters, 2 shirts, 1 pair of pants, pjs (shirt and pants), 4 pairs of socks, 1 bra, chargers for my phone, laptop, Fitbit, 4 battery packs, an outlet converter, watercolor paper and paints, a journal, one book, three pens, and my laptop.

On my person I carried hiking boots, a pair of socks, bra, underpants, a t-shirt, a hoodie, a North Face waterproof jacket, a scarf, a pair of gloves (in the jacket pocket), two hand-made hats (one from my best friend, and one from my sister-in-love), a hair tie, my passport, debit card, credit card, and my phone.

Honestly, now I would even pack less. Some of these things were really unnecessary. For example, despite my good intentions, I didn’t break out the water colors once. I was too busying experiencing to stop and make art work. That would have saved quite a bit of room. I also would have skipped the book – I really only read in the airport, and I could have done something else instead. Also, three pairs of socks total (including the pair I was wearing) would have been plenty. When you’re staying in one place, like I was, you can sink wash and dry to save the space and weight.

The heaviest thing I brought was my laptop, but seeing as how it was November and that’s National Novel Writing Month, I didn’t want to skip six days of writing. I only wrote in the airports and one night in the hostel, but I also FaceTimed my family on Thanksgiving, and uploaded pictures from my phone to safe on memory space (remember it was 2016).

My biggest advice is to only pack what you NEED. If the situation changes, you can always buy something there, but don’t pack something on the off-chance you’re going to need it on your trip. My general policy is that I don’t check anything. I’ve heard too many stories and experienced lost luggage to know that it is often more trouble than it’s worth.

On my solo Ireland trip I also condensed. I took sweaters and shirts that I didn’t particularly like (since I wasn’t trying to impress anyone) and donated them to the hostel “free bin” or threw things out. There were almost no clothes left to pack for my flight home. I came home with my messenger bag rolled up inside of the backpack, and I even bought a few souvenirs! 

In full disclosure, my 2016 trip to Ireland was relatively short. When I went to Italy and Greece for 9 days in 2017 and Ireland in 2018 with a group of students, I had the backpack and a carry-on suitcase. On those trips we were rarely in the same place multiple nights in a row, so there is no time for the wash/dry scenario. But I did the same thing with some clothes like pjs and undershirts and tossed them when I was done with them to save room for souvenirs.

Here’s a simple pack list:

  • ID/credit/debit cards/insurance cards
  • phone/camera/chargers
  • personals (underpants, etc)
  • hygiene (compact sizes – just enough)
  • weather appropriate clothing (layer your clothing on airport days)
  • ONE pair of shoes (unless you will experience different climates)
  • outlet converters (check travel websites for the country you are going to)
  • bedtime attire (if not recycling shirt from that day)
  • quick-dry towel and lock (if staying in a hostel

Trust me, you will be MUCH less stressed by not checking luggage! Try to avoid it if you can. If you are traveling with someone, plan ahead and share items so you don’t need to bring multiples.

Feel free to comment below any questions you have about how to pack light OR if you have other great ideas on how to save space and avoid checking luggage.

 

The Less Hostile Hostel Stay

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I posted last week about my solo stay in Ireland and how the trip was made exponentially better by a stay at The Times Hostel in Dublin. It was a glorious experience, and one that I recommend for nearly every solo traveler and even to some non-solo folks.

For those of you not traveling alone, hostels usually have private rooms for much cheaper than area hotels. For example, The Times has a two person bunk room for about €200 CHEAPER per night than the cheapest room at the Westin which is only 44 meters (144 feet) away. Going with 4 people? You have to get two rooms at The Westin, but could stay in a semi-private room with 4 beds at The Times for nearly €500 cheaper PER NIGHT.

Hostels are really overlooked by Americans because of the connotation that they are for the young and poor, and that they are unsafe. But neither of these things is even remotely true– at least not in my experience at The Times. Even staying in their largest dorm (10 beds — which would be about €550 cheaper per night than the Westin), they have lockable storage, or even storage at the front desk (for a small fee).

That all being said, there are some things you need to be aware of if you’re planning on staying in a hostel, because there is a reason they are cheaper other than just the communal living.

1. You get very few complimentary luxuries.

The hostel supplies you with a bed, sheets, a comforter (usually a duvet), and toilet paper. That’s about it. You have to bring your own towel, soap, shampoo, conditioner, hair dryer, and lotion. The Westin will give you all of that included in the cost of your room, but that hardly seems worth €200. When I went, I brought a microfiber, quick drying towel that I purchased on Amazon for $10. I used the towel in the morning, hung it over the railing on the bunk to dry, and it was dry before I was finished getting ready. I also bought travel sized shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel. All together I spent less than $25. You can rent a towel from the front desk. This doesn’t cost much… I think €2-€3 per day.

2. Evenings in the dorm rooms are for sleeping.

The generally accepted norm in a hostel is that the dorm rooms are designated quiet places. If you’re there during the day and want to have a conversation, that’s fine. But if the lights are off, that means someone is sleeping, and they would like you to respect that. The common areas are really the place for working on your laptop, watching Netflix, or having a conversation. Be aware of your surroundings and try to be polite.

3. Just because something is left out doesn’t mean that it is communal property. 

Some people (not me) leave their bathroom things on the counter out of convenience. It is an acceptable thing to do so, and it is considered bad form to use other people’s things without asking. However, when you ask (in my experience) people tend to be very generous and willing to share their things with you. I didn’t have quite enough shampoo for my last shower in Dublin, and one of the girls in my room offered me some of hers. Because of the communal atmosphere, I think people are more willing to share– if asked.

4. BYOL (Bring Your Own Lock) 

The hostel will provide you with a storage locker of some kind, but it is up to you to bring a lock and remember to put it on. I purchased a simple lock from Amazon for only $7. It is TSA approved, so you can also use it on your luggage. However, just as a warning, despite that it is TSA approved, they do sometimes cut it off anyway instead of using the tool they have to open it. You might want to avoid using it on non-carryon items. I used mine on my backpack, and I just took it off before going through security and it was fine. Also worth noting is that there is limited space for you to be able to lock things up in the dorm room of the hostel. So, either pack light (post coming about that in a couple weeks), put your overflow into the rentable storage at the front desk, or put all of your valuables in one bag that you lock up.

5. Be Social! 

Go to the free events in the common areas. You’ll be surprised (even if you’re older than the average guest) that you actually have a good time. You can meet some amazing people from literally all over the world while staying in a hostel. It is a wonderful community to get to know.

 

And lastly…

6. The desk attendants are EXTREMELY helpful! 

My stay at The Times was wonderful, but what impressed me the most was that the desk clerks really were excited to talk to me about the city, what it had to offer, and suggested some great things that I’d never seen in any guidebook. I mentioned needing to get to the airport very early in the morning and worrying about getting a taxi at 4am. The attendant told me about the airport bus that stopped right in front of the hostel every 30 minutes around the clock, and it was only €5 instead of the €25 or more it would cost for a cab. Another clerk told me about a fun restaurant in the Temple Bar district where I had a glorious trio of stews and Irish soda bread for only €8. The people who work at the hostel love their city and know all of the great things to do around town.

I hope this post helps you if you are thinking about staying in a hostel. You will get so much more out of your trip if you are able to save hundreds of dollars a night, and you will get to meet some amazing people as well.

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Photo by Prime Cinematics on Pexels.com

“You stayed WHERE?” And Other Things People Say to Solo Travelers.

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Photo taken from The Times’ website

“You stayed WHERE?”

I’ve heard that question nearly every time I recounted my “take back” trip to Ireland.  When I chose to go to Ireland on my own, I had to make some choices. One of those choices was where to stay. The biggest obstacle I encountered was that if I wanted to stay in Dublin, and I did for multiple reasons, the cost of just sleeping was going to be astronomical. This was going to make my trip either more complicated or impossible. I could stay outside of Dublin for a less expensive cost, but then either have to rent a car and drive into the city each day (huge cost and stress) or spend as much as an hour and a half on public transportation each way – costing me precious time on my whirlwind trip. However, I simply could not afford to stay in Dublin because the cost of the hotel would more than double the cost of my trip.

Consequently I looked into other options and landed on staying in a hostel.

And this is where the American readers’ eyes bulge nearly out of their skulls.

To Americans, hostels are the scenes for horror movies, at the worst, or, at the very least,  a place for a likely sexual assault. Because of this, I chose not to tell many people until I returned to the US.

In my (not so) humble opinion, staying in a hostel is absolutely the way to go for a single traveler. Not only did it make my trip financially easier, it also provided me with so much more!

I found The Times Hostel in Dublin while looking for places to stay near the center of Dublin. As I mentioned in my post about Dublin, The Times was literally across the street from Trinity College (one of my favorite places in Dublin) and that was the main selling point. But I was also able to get a bed in a small room for only women. So I booked the bed – 20€ (approximately $23) a night instead of the cheapest, non-sleazy looking hotel that was 125€ (approximately $140) a night.

In full disclosure, I was a little nervous. However, all the things I read online about this hostel reinforced that this was a very safe option. So I embarked to Ireland. And The Times was even better than I could have imagined.

My room included a bathroom and three racks of bunk beds (pictured below). It was clean and neat. The only thing that was a slight inconvenience is that it was on the third floor (in Europe that means the equivalent of the 4th floor) and there was no elevator, which is pretty par for the course in buildings in Europe (unless they’ve undergone major renovations, which is not something hostels are known for).

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Photo taken from The Times’ website

What hostels offer for the single traveler is community. On my first night, my dorm room  housed six ladies – of which I was the oldest by about eight years. Four of us were Americans, one was from Germany, one from France.

Each night the hostel offers one community event. My first night was wine and cheese night. For no fee, the hostel provides (cheap) wine, cheese, and crackers. As a room we all decided to go down together, and we talked until late in the evening. Of the Americans we were from Indianapolis, Chicago, Texas, and Arizona and were 38, 30, 28, and 21 (respectively) and all there for very different reasons, and we were all traveling alone.

Texas and I decided to see the city together the next day on the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus since the two of us would still be in the city. We spent the entire day together the next day and had a wonderful time exploring the city, laughing, and discussing our various reasons for our solo trips. We got pretty deep… and I do not even know her last name. Despite our closeness that day, we knew we were both unlikely to ever see the other ever again, so we didn’t bother exchanging information. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful day, and she left the next morning to fly back to Texas.

On the other nights the guests continued to change, and we exchanged casual conversation. One woman (35) was Irish and came to stay at The Times every week from Thursday to Saturday so that she could work. The small village where she lived did not have a enough jobs to go around, and so she came to the city and stayed in order to have enough money to stay in her family home.

On Wednesday night I went to the common room (pictured below) and met a young man from India who was living at the hostel because it was cheaper than renting a flat. I helped him type up a resume for his interview the next day, smoothing out the edges of his relatively extensive knowledge of English.

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Photo taken from The Times’ website

Overall the people who stayed at the hostel were friendly and eager to make new friends. It was an experience that I cannot do justice to in a single blog post, but it will have to suffice. I highly advise solo travelers to stay at a hostel instead of a hotel where social interaction is much more difficult and awkward. In a hostel, those who stay to themselves are few and far between; it is truly a community experience.

There are several things a hostel “newbie” would need to know before staying at a hostel– fuel for a future blog post, I’m sure. But in general, I highly suggest it, especially for the solo traveler who doesn’t necessarily want seclusion.

Check out The Times Hostel here — I stayed at the College Street location. They do not know about my post, and I am not being paid for any kind of endorsement. They are just awesome, and I want to promote them (though I doubt they need it).

I found my soul’s home in Glendalough

I left a part of my soul in Ireland right where I found it.

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As a high school graduation gift, my parents told me that they would take me to any place in the world that I wanted to go. I answered without hesitation, “Ireland.” Both sides of my father’s family hail from Ireland, and I’d always been amazed by the history, the accent, and of course the famed landscape of The Emerald Isle. However, I honestly had no idea how much that trip would shape my future and my love for traveling in general.

The trip was wonderful for so many reasons that I am sure I will write about at some future date, but the biggest reason that Ireland has such a pull on my heart and my passport is because of a single place — Glendalough.

Located in County Wicklow, just about an hour south of Dublin, situated in the beautiful Wicklow Mountains is a little town called Glendalough. One of its claims to fame is the churchyard situated beautifully with its iconic round tower, the  burial site of Saint Kevin, and celtic crosses galore.

My parents and I had spent a few days in Dublin upon our arrive and visited Powerscourt Gardens and waterfall before driving further south to Glendalough at the suggestion of travel expert Rick Steves. Though I was of course excited to be in Ireland, there was no particular reason for me to be excited about Glendalough.

However, as my parents looked through the graveyard for the family surname on a tombstone, I wandered off to journal — something I do often– and I found a rock perfectly situated next to the lake (or loch), and I began to look at the beauty that surrounded me.

I can only describe Glendalough as being the place where I finally felt like I’d found home. I even wondered if I had been there in another life or my ancestors had been there before. It was the only thing I could think of that could explain the visceral connection I felt while sitting on that rock looking over the loch. I was so disheartened when we had to leave to move on to the next place, but somehow I knew I would be back.

It took me 19 years to get back, but I did make it. On my “take-back trip” to Ireland, I made my way back to Glendalough on a bus trip from Dublin.  I visited on Thanksgiving Day. In Ireland they just call it Thursday, but it was still a day of celebration for me. Not celebrating with turkey, dressing, and family – but instead I celebrated with solitude and a return to a place that I had missed since the moment I left it.

It was just as beautiful and as powerful as I remembered it being. From the ruins of a church built by Catholics and burned by Anglicans where they now perform joint services on Easter Sunday (pictured below), to the moss that seems to cover everything in a cushion of incredible green (pictured at the bottom of this post) – Glendalough is a glorious place. IMG_5831

While everyone else on the bus had lunch at the local pub, I decided to wander off alone and found an adorable little grocery/coffee shop/deli. The woman apologized for not having turkey for my sandwich (how is it that obvious that I’m American? Couldn’t I be Canadian or something?), but I enjoyed my ham and cheese sandwich outside while I wrote in my journal and stared at the beautiful Wicklow Mountains.

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Shortly after I’d finished my sandwich an older man came outside and introduced himself. Apparently the proprietor told him there was a fellow American, so he came out to wish me a happy Thanksgiving. We sat and talked for a bit while he waited on the rest of his family to finish eating. They were from Texas and exploring their ancestry and traveling around the country. It was a lovely encounter, and added to the experience of the day.

The grounds of Glendalough are vast. There are several trails through the mountains, a beautiful round tower, Saint Kevin’s cross, a frigid stream, and an incredibly picturesque lake surrounded by the mountains. In my mind there are few places that are more beautiful.

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Perhaps it is because of that overwhelming beauty that I find it difficult to fully express my connection to this place. Honestly, I cannot think of another place on Earth that I’d rather be than Glendalough, Ireland. There are many other places in the world that I love, that I want to see, and that are probably more breathtaking than Glendalough. However, this loch, these mountains… they hold on to me. Even as I write this, I find myself becoming “homesick” for it.

As I left Glendalough in 1997 I knew I would be back, and when I left again in 2016 I knew that eventually I would find my way back there. Though I did not make it on my most recent trip to Ireland (I did not set the itinerary, obviously), I am sure that my feet will find their way back to a rock on the shore of the loch, to the trails in the mountains, and the paths through the graveyard because I left a part of my soul in Ireland right where I found it.

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Dublin, my City

IMG_1382I’ve never been much of a city girl when it comes to travel. I loath tourist traps and the teaming hordes that seem to congregate around the same ol’ places.  I am much more at home in the mountains, on a trail, or cuddled up with a book on the deck overlooking the water.  There are have been two (so far) exceptions to this general enmity to crowded streets and abundant air pollution. And only one of those two that truly holds a firm place in my heart as one of my favorite places in the world.

Dublin.

I suppose I remember Dublin the first time I went there in 1997, but it was our first three days in the country, and honestly the only thing I remembered was Trinity College (for good reason), but it was more our second stop in Glendalough that burned itself into my memory as the place my soul resides (blog post here about that).

However, my second trip to Ireland, in 2016, was a solo trip and only four days (the length of time I had over my school’s Thanksgiving break). Consequently, I stayed in Dublin and did day trips out a couple of days. But two full days – one of which I stayed up for the entire 24 hours – were spent just in Dublin, and truly that was no where close to enough time for that city.

Before I went, I studied the map of the city in great detail. I memorized which streets ran north/south and east/west, the location and routes to my desired locations, and multiple major landmarks (like the River Liffey) so that I would not need to break open a map on the city street and look like a tourist. For the most part I did well (until I tried to walk to the Guinness factory… totally got lost). By the end of my four days there, I felt a part of the city. I walked with confidence to the places I wanted to go (mainly Saint Stephen’s Green and Trinity College – pictured below). For once, the city seemed to be the place for me.

 

I stayed directly across from Trinity College in a hostel (another blog post I intend to do) called The Times, and it was the perfect hub for me because everything I wanted to see was within easy walking distance. Trinity College (one of my favorite places in the world) was actually across the street!

My first day in Dublin I walked around the walls of Trinity College (mainly because I went the wrong direction from the hostel to get to the main gate, but it worked) and saw the surrounding city and the famous colorful doors of Dublin. And once I got inside the university walls, I sat and watched their football (soccer) team play a match. I don’t really care about sportsball, but I was in Ireland, people!

It as fall, so the leaves were bright and the air was crisp. It was nearly perfection, really!

From there I walked up Grafton Street (a shopping area with a massive pedestrian walkway) and listened to street performers and watched as a man painted in gold scared a bunch of teenagers who thought he was a statue. The world was much louder on Grafton Street — people talking, music coming out of stores as people opened the doors to come and go, flower ladies calling out for people to buy roses for their sweethearts, people decorating for Christmas, and the bustle of cars on the side streets.

As I made my way up Grafton Street, I got closer to my actual goal – Saint Stephen’s Green. Those familiar with Dublin know Saint Stephen’s Green. It is one of the Central Park-esque oases in Dublin (and there are many). There are little “secret” paths through trees and shrubs, there is a fountain, a scattering of benches, and flowers all year round that are so bright and glorious that they barely seem real (they are – I checked). Even in the cold (it was close to 40 degrees Fahrenheit) people were milling around everywhere.

Children who just got out of school, still in their uniforms.

Families pushing strollers.

Business folk out for a stroll.

Tourists taking pictures.

It seems like all of Dublin goes through Saint Stephen’s at some point during the day. But what gets me is how peaceful and green it is — even on the edge of winter. Yes, there is noise of course, but it’s peaceful noise if that makes sense. Serene. I remember going there in 1997– we went in the summer time — and people were out laying on blankets and listening to music. It was glorious then, but it was no less glorious in the cold temperatures of November.

There is so much beauty in Dublin. Yes – it is a city and the traffic is horrendous- and it’s Dublin, so the street signs are impossible to find and the roads curve off in incredibly strange ways- but that’s why you don’t drive. Traveling by public transit or walking is the best way to retain your chill travel vibe, in my (not so) humble opinion. When you walk around you find so many amazing places you probably wouldn’t have seen if you were driving by it.

Take this pub.

IMG_5688 A glorious hole in the wall on a side street just off Grafton. It had positively the best beef stew I’ve ever had or possibly will ever have. I was the only person in the pub that the barman didn’t know their order as soon as they walked in the door. They were all old friends on their way home who stopped by for a pint (always Guinness) and some gab. However, they were welcoming of me despite the fact that I was an unknown face and of course American. Donald Trump had just been elected a few weeks prior, so there were lots of questions as to whether or not American had lost its collective mind. And of course Brexit was a large topic of discussion and what the “English bastards” were going to do next. And there was much laughter.

I would not have found this place in a rental car or an Uber or a taxi. Walking is the best way to find the best places in Dublin. You might even find the Irish flag reflected in the River Liffey if you’re lucky enough.

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