Giant’s Causeway

We were so lucky to have a gorgeous, sunny day for our visit to the Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO Heritage Site.

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Designed to blend into the environment, the Visitor Center is set into a hillside. The dark stone front is the only visible part.

After passing through the Visitor Center, we began walking toward the Causeway. As we walked down the path, it was exciting to anticipate when the Causeway would appear and what it would look like.

As we rounded the corner, we got our first view of the stunning Causeway.

According to legend, an Irish giant named Fionn McCool built the Giant’s Causeway as a way to cross the sea of Moyle to challenge a Scottish giant named Benandonner. But of course, science, not legend, explains how it was really formed. 50 to 60 million years ago a geological event created the Causeway when lava and molten rock flowed into the sea and rapidly cooled to form hexagonal columns.

The rocks looked more like logs than stones.

It’s a Small World

Since I know only one person in all of Ireland, I never expected to see anyone we knew at the Giant’s Causeway. So, we were surprised and delighted to see Ruth, our Bushmills Distillery guide in the Visitor Center cafe. After remarking about the serendipity of it all, she joined us for lunch. We spent a delightful two hours talking about Northern Ireland, recommendations for our Belfast visit and life.

Ruth talked about Philip Coulter, one of her favorite Northern Ireland musicians. Since I wasn’t familiar with him, I did some research when we got home and learned he has had a long and distinguished career. She talked about a very special song he wrote, “The Town I Love So Well” that is about his childhood in Derry/Londonderry. According to Ruth, it is not uncommon in pubs to hear someone singing this song at the end of the night. She told us how his recent version of the song that reflected his hope for peace moved her to tears. I found this version on YouTube and fell in love with its emotional beauty.

An Afternoon Hike

After lunch we took a little hike on one of the four hiking paths that begin at the Giant’s Causeway. Hiking away from the Causeway, we enjoyed great views of the Causeway from a different angle.

We chose a route that started as a moderate hike and merged with a challenging hike. As we approached the challenging point of the trail, we really didn’t notice much difference. So we hiked a little farther. Almost immediately, we noticed what made the trail challenging-the edge of the cliff was much closer. We made the “wise for us” decision to turn around.

Returning to the moderate trail with the raised edge between us and the cliff, we felt much safer.

It was truly a special day in a special place in a special country.

Ballycastle

Today we explored Ballycastle, a lovely seaside town about 25 miles east of Portstewart. Since so many towns in Ireland have “bally” as a prefix., I assumed the word meant town or city. Not quite. Bally is derived from the Gaelic phrase “Baile na”, meaning place of. So Ballycastle means “place of castle.” However, even though there are many castles and ruins in Ireland, there is no trace of a castle in Ballycastle. In 1856 Charles Kirkpatrick, of Whitehall, removed the ruins of the castle that was built there in 1564 .

Leap of Faith fish sculpture at Ballycastle Harbor

We stopped first at the Visitor Information Center located right on Ballycastle Harbor.

Fair Head Cliffs

Supplied with maps and recommendations, we headed to Fair Head Cliffs. Rising 643 feel above sea level, they are the highest cliffs in Northern Ireland.

We parked in a farm car park, so named because it was literally in a farm, and started hiking down the nearest path. Just as I was sure we would see the cliffs over the next ridge, we came to a sign warning that a guard dog was on the private property. We made the prudent decision to turn around and find a different path.

Taking the wrong path was a lucky mistake because we discovered the ruins of Dun Mor, which means the Great Fort. An interpretive sign informed us that most likely settlers occupied the site from 800 AD to about 1300 AD.

We returned to the car park and discovered another path going in the opposite direction. Unlike other areas of the coast that are owned by the National Trust, Fair Head Cliffs is on private land owned and farmed by 12 generations of the McBride family. Hikers and climbers share the cliffs with cows and sheep.

We had to climb a few stiles to get over the fences that keep the sheep and cows where they belong.

When we arrived at the top of the cliffs we met three climbers who were going to climb earlier but had a rain delay. One was a professional climber from Belfast, and the other two were semi-professional climbers from Dublin. They told us such interesting stories about their climbs and people who who had climbed Fair Head Cliffs, including Alex Honnold, the climber in Free Solo. One of them told me he had an extra harness if I wanted to try it. I am pretty sure he felt safe knowing I would not take him up on his offer.

After they began their descent, I was able to hike down a portion of the trail so I could watch them on the cliff.

Lunch

After our hike we went in to the darling town of Ballycastle for lunch at O’Connor’s Bar.

I had another variety (mushroom) of the wonderful soup I have found in Ireland. Soup and great bread has become my favorite lunch option here. I am inspired to up my soup game when I get home.

We planned to spend some time walking beautiful Ballycastle Beach after lunch, but the rain that started during lunch changed our plan to a quick visit.

Dinner

After two friends recommended the Bushmill Inn, we decided to return to Bushmill for dinner. It was a great choice!

Like most of the restaurants we have enjoyed in Northern Ireland, Bushmill Inn prides itself on using locally grown and sourced food. I had a crispy garlic cauliflower steak with sauce gribiche, sweet potato Parmentier and garlic and chive cream.

Paul had sea bass that was caught not far from Ballycastle.

Although our waitress told us their sticky toffee pudding was better than the one we had at Amici, we decided it was too much two nights in a row. We opted to share a small salted caramel and chocolate fondant with clotted cream ice cream. Unfortunately, we started eating it before I remembered to take a picture.

Bushmills

Bushmills is a small town about 10 miles from Portrush and home of the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world. We made the beautiful twenty-minute drive from Portstewart to tour the distillery.

Dunluce Castle

On the way there, we saw Dunluce Castle. The castle ruins date from the 16th and 17th centuries, but there is evidence of settlement from the first millennium. The castle served as the setting for House of Greyjoy in Game of Thrones. Although I didn’t watch the show, I know it is really popular. So popular, in fact, that Game of Thrones fans can take a tour of many of the 25 Northern Ireland settings used in the show.

Bushmills Distillery

Although whiskey had been distilled in the area for about one thousand years, James I officially granted Bushmills a license to distill whiskey in 1608.

The distillery did not allow photography during the inside portion of the tour because the alcohol content in the air was so high that a small spark from any technology could cause an explosion. Ruth, our guide told us of an employee who was working when there was an explosion. The explosion propelled him across the room and out a window. He survived but was found wearing only his tie and boots. The explosion blew away the rest of his clothes.

Irish whiskey and Scotch whisky are different in more ways than their spelling. They are made from different ingredients and Irish whiskey is distilled three times and Scotch whisky two times. Also because the malt used to make Irish whiskey is dried in closed kilns without the use of peat smoke, it does not have the smoky peaty taste present in Scotch whisky.

The whiskey is aged in white oak barrels. The distillery uses both new barrels and ones previously used to age sherry, port or bourbon.

During our whiskey tasting at the end of the tour, Ruth shared stories of her family’s love of Bushmills. Her father was buried with a bottle of Bushmills in his coffin. And her father-in-law traveled with his own kettle to heat water for hot toddies in case the pub didn’t offer that option. I discovered that I enjoyed the hot toddy more than the straight whiskey.

It was a fun tour. When we get home, I plan to make hot toddies (with Bushmills, of course) using the recipe and little jar of spices that Ruth gave us.

Welcome to Portstewart

After the drama right before we left Derry/Londonderry, arriving at our sunny apartment in Portstewart, Northern Ireland felt especially sweet. Located on the Promenade, the main dining and shopping area, and across the street from the Atlantic seaside, the location is perfect for our week in Portstewart. It is so relaxing to watch the changing weather and Promenade activity from the cozy chair in our apartment.

We love taking city walks to explore a new place, and we always try to take one on the first day we arrive. Sometimes we are looking for something specific, like Vittle, the highly recommended bakery on our street that is dangerously amazing and dangerously close.

Other times we walk with no set agenda, open to whatever we discover-like the amazing little trail behind Crescent Beach across from our apartment.

Walkway behind Dominican College across from our apartment

Or the cemetery and church ruins from the 17th century just off the main road we discovered on our walk to Tesco to get supplies.

Cemetery and church ruins along the road

Golf

On Monday we played Portstewart Golf Club, host of the 2017 Irish Open. The starter welcomed us with little gift bags-such a nice touch and offered to take our picture. I asked him to get Strand Beach in the background and Paul asked him to get the first hole in the background. He was able to incorporate both our priorities in one picture.

Like every other Irish course we have played, this one had stunning views on every hole. I was especially excited to hit my ball through the scenic opening on the second hole and land on the fairway. It doesn’t take much to bring me happiness on the golf course.

The fairway where my tee ball landed

I thought I saw a bear den on the course (I don’t even know if they have bears in Ireland). As we got closer, I could see it was a shelter built into a hill. I loved how well it blended in to the wild nature of the course.

Great Dining

Our hostess had one dinner recommendation for us-Amici. She advised us to get reservations right away because they were hard to get. Although we had to eat earlier than we normally do, it was so worth it. The service was spot-on and the food was excellent.

A friend had posted about how much she enjoyed sticky toffee pudding in Scotland. When we saw it on the menu, we had to try it. Oh my, it may be my new favorite dessert. We thought of it as Irish bread pudding.

I am afraid this wonderful week in Portstewart is going by much too fast.

In and Around Derry/Londonderry

Cruit Island

We left the adorable port towns of Narin and Portnoo this morning for Fahan, not too far from Derry/Londonderry. We stopped at Cruit Island Golf Club, a remote, nine-hole course on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. As we approached Cruit Island, the road got narrower and narrower until we came to a one-lane bridge and proceeded the rest of the way on a single-lane road, not much wider than a golf-cart path.

If possible, the views from the Cruit Island course were more stunning than Narin & Portnoo.

Remembering the thick rough at Narin & Portnoo, we stocked up on one-euro golf balls in their club house. Luckily, we didn’t need all those golf balls because the rough was much kinder than the previous course.

I really loved this little golf course. The rocky cliffs, steep hills and blind holes made it challenging, but doable. The friendly staff and golfers contributed to the fun day.

Derry/Londonderry

Our day in Derry/Londonderry was much too short. A parking enforcement officer welcomed us to the city in a wonderful way. He and his partner were writing tickets in the car park when I asked for his assistance paying with a credit card. He told me the pay station only took coins (we didn’t have enough) or an app which he said we probably didn’t have. Then he smiled and said not to worry-they would not be patrolling that car park the rest of the day. To be fair, we bought a voucher anyway using the coins we had and sure enough returned later than our voucher time to find no ticket on our window.

Our first stop was the Craft Village, a wonderful collection of shops designed to support existing and emerging artists.

Lunch in the Craft Village

Historic Derry/Londonderry

Derry/Londonderry (the second largest city in Northern Ireland) is known as both Derry and Londonderry. The London prefix was added by King James I in the 17th century. In 1984 the Nationalist controlled council returned to calling the city Derry. Today, both names are used, depending on political perspective. One Irishman advised me that the best approach, and one used by many, is to call the town Derry/Londonderry.

Based on recommendations from the wait staff at Cruit Island, I thought walking the historic walls around the city would be the highlight of our day. Colonists from Britain and Scotland built the walls in the 17th century to keep out the Irish. The walls are considered to be one of the best examples of complete city walls in Ireland or Europe.

The walls were impressive, and we enjoyed seeing the city from the top of the wall.

Bloody Sunday

The morning in Derry/Londonderry was interesting, but the afternoon was more than interesting-it was intense. “The Story of the Irish Conflict and Peace Process-the Derry Connection”, a private walking tour with a guide who had experienced the conflict was the highlight of our day. The tour started at Guildhall, a district government building and museum. Located in front of the building, Guildhall Square is the site of many important events in the city. Bill Clinton spoke there in 1995 at the beginning of the peace process.

As we walked the path that the Bloody Sunday protesters took on January 30, 1972, John, our guide, told us about the events leading up to British soldiers shooting 26 unarmed civilians, killing 14. Many of the victims were shot while fleeing and some were shot while trying to help the wounded.

Bogside, the area just outside the walls, was the location of most of the conflict. Today there are murals commemorating the conflict and honoring the victims. One depicts some of the activists who died from hunger strikes and their mothers.

John showed us an especially moving mural and poem created for the recent fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday on January 30, 2022. The waving white handkerchief in the mural was an important symbol of the protest.

Children’s artwork was the inspiration for a powerful mural illustrating the hope for peace and belief that all people have value. The dove represents peace and the blocks represent all people.

John’s passion and detailed information conveyed the emotion of the events. We left feeling quite moved by the powerful experience.

After the walking tour, crossing the Peace Bridge over the River Foyle balanced the emotions of learning about the Bloody Sunday events and repercussions. The bridge unites two historically divided communities, Protestant Waterside and Nationalist Bogside in a symbolic handshake.

Rosapenna Golf

Another day, another beautiful round of golf. While we were having lunch in the clubhouse before our round, a lovely gentleman from Dublin stopped to chat with us and offered to take our picture.

This time we were not quite as lucky with the weather. We knew there was a chance of rain, but as we finished the front nine, it looked like we would be able to finish our round. Then on the 13th hole, the skies started to darken.

And then it got really dark.

On the 16th hole a drizzle turned into a downpour and by the time we found our way back to the car, we were soaked. Our plan was to go to the clubhouse, put on dry clothes and explore the area. But our plans changed.

A Little Wrinkle in Our Plans

Heavy rain still pounding us, I looked back at Paul and noticed the lower right leg of his pants was soaked in blood. When we got to the car, blood was spurting from his leg. We were in a very remote part of Ireland and not sure where to go for help. The golf shop advised us to go to a pharmacy in Carrigart, a little town about five minutes away.

After the pharmacist looked at Paul’s leg, he called a medic. After the medic looked at Paul’s leg, she called an ambulance. The ambulance arrived in record time, and we were transported to the emergency room in Letterkenny about thirty minutes away. Due to Covid restrictions, the medic wasn’t sure I would be able to go with Paul in the ambulance.

Thankfully they let me go with Paul because I could not drive our rental car to the hospital. I haven’t driven a stick shift since high school and have never driven on the opposite side of the road. I was willing to give it a try, but everyone thought that was a bad idea.

Everything worked out and Paul is fine now. We are so thankful for all the kind Irish people who helped us out-the pharmacist who wouldn’t let me pay for any of the supplies he used; the medic who brought me hot tea because I was shivering in my cold, wet clothes; the wonderful ambulance EMTs who took such kind care of both of us; the man in the waiting room who told us how the taxis worked (we had to get back to our car in Carrigart); the other man in the waiting room who called a taxi for us; and Tony, the taxi driver who spent an hour taking us to our car when he could have been driving people home from the pubs.

A friend taught me to ask the question, “What is the lesson in this?” The lesson in our challenges on this trip is that there is an abundance of goodness in the world.

Narin & Portnoo

Waking up to brilliant sunlight shining through the windows, we couldn’t believe it was only 5:00 AM. We took advantage of getting a head start to our day and enjoyed a very early cup of coffee in front of the fire.

Bundling up, we walked a block from our house to the beautiful Atlantic coastline. Birds and waves were our only company. A definite perk of being up and out so early.

Not far from the coast, we could see the small, tidal island of Inishkeel. In the 6th century A.D. a small community of monks established a community there that became a site for pilgrims to visit. Remains of some of the structures are still visible.

Julie, our host, told us that during low tide, the ocean parts just like the Red Sea did for Moses, allowing a two-hour window to walk from the mainland to the island. I couldn’t visualize how that would work until later that day. We could see the island from the golf course and the path was starting to appear. I really wanted to walk through the ocean to the island, but the timing didn’t work out. And Paul wasn’t convinced I would make it back.

Golf at Narin & Portnoo Links

Our main reason for coming to this area was so Paul could play the Narin & Portnoo LInks golf course. Ever since he read Tom Coyne rave about this hidden gem in A Course Called Ireland he has wanted play it. The locals kept telling us how lucky we were to have such a beautiful day for golf. And they were right-it was a perfect sunny day.

Links courses are the oldest style of golf course, and most are built on sandy coast land. More than half of the holes at Narin & Portnoo Links are along the coast and the views are spectacular. I think I spent more time admiring the beautiful scenery than focusing on my golf game.

I started off playing well and feeling confident. It soon became apparent that the first few holes were the easy ones. The course became more challenging and more beautiful as we got farther from the clubhouse.

I only lost one ball, but I must confess I skipped one hole. Tee to fairway was farther than I could hit.

Glenveagh National Park

Locals gave us such great suggestions for how to spend our last day in the area that it was hard to choose. We decided to make the hour drive to Glenveagh National Park, Ireland’s second largest park. It was a great choice! Admission to all six national parks in Ireland is free.

Once again, we got lucky with the weather. It rained on us going and coming, but while we were at the park, it was warm and sunny.

As the day went on, it got warmer and warmer and we kept shedding layers.

A castle built by John Adair in 1857-59 sits in the middle of the huge park.

Beautiful gardens surround the castle.

I love visiting gardens.

After hiking to the castle, we took the scenic hike to the top of the mountain behind the castle. The hike was steep and the view was stunning.

Tomorrow we say good by to this beautiful remote area and go to our next stop just outside Derry.

Galway to Narin & Portnoo

We said good bye to Deni, our wonderful Galway host whose amazing artwork added so much color and life to our apartment. As we chatted, we realized that we shared similar life philosophies.

The best news of the day was that our luggage was on its way to Dublin. The airline could not assure us that it would be delivered by the time we were scheduled to golf on Monday, so we decided to take a little detour to the Dublin airport to pick it up ourselves. Just as we were walking into the airport, Dave from the airport called and said he had our luggage. He offered to bring our luggage to us at the coffee shop just inside the arrival door-without a doubt the best luggage service I have ever had.

Feeling so happy to have all our travel challenges resolved, we began the beautiful drive to Narin & Portnoo. These tiny towns in northwest Ireland are on the Atlantic coast and home to a hidden gem of a golf course.

We were excited to get to our little house about a half block from the ocean. I am looking forward to building a fire in the cozy wood-burning stove.

Tomorrow we will golf and explore this beautiful area.

Galway, Finally!

We made it to Galway, but it wasn’t easy. Challenges like weather-delayed flights, an unplanned refueling stop, overbooked planes and long waits for assistance almost turned our one-day journey into five. Thanks to help from Delta staff I started calling our travel angels, we arrived just one day later than planned.

Systems May Not Be Working, But People Are

Among the many travel angels who helped us, the most memorable was Candace, the gate agent at JFK, who got us on our connecting flight to Dublin. Deplaning just minutes before our next flight was scheduled to leave, I literally ran to the gate. Out of breath and quite disheveled, I arrived just after the boarding door closed. All of the flights the next day were sold out so missing this flight would add another two days to our travel time. Still breathing hard, I shared with Candace all our traveling snafus and begged her to find a way to get us on the plane.

This dear woman called the plane staff for approval. When she got the OK to let us on, we all exchanged exuberant hugs. I have never hugged a gate agent before. We didn’t realize what a big deal letting us board was until we watched her drive the jet way to the plane entrance. She knocked on the plane door just like you would knock on a neighbor’s door. After she pulled a little lever, the huge door opened. After thanking Candace for probably the twentieth time, we boarded the plane.

Sweaty, sleep-deprived, thirsty and relieved, we collapsed in our seats, not quite believing we were finally on a plane to Ireland.

We arrived at Dublin airport, got our rental car and made the two-hour drive to Galway drama free. Well, we did have one small problem-our luggage was still in Atlanta. Knowing how unreliable flying has become, Paul added a few days in Galway at the beginning of our trip. We wanted some wiggle room in case we were delayed. Thank you, Paul!

Galway Is Still Great

We settled in to our lovely little apartment in the heart of the city and met the owner and manager, an opera singer and a painter. Meeting interesting people is one of the perks of staying in airbnbs. It was fun to revisit pedestrian-only Shop Street, an area we loved for its street performers and energetic vibe.

This great video really captures the Galway energy.

Paul had his first Guinness of the trip at the Buddha Bar, a great Asian restaurant recommended by our hosts.

Making up for two nights of almost no sleep, we slept almost ten hours our first night in Galway and got a bit of a late start to our day. But not too late to catch the Galway market

and the varied music of the many buskers along the street.

The only downer to our day was learning our luggage would not be delivered in the afternoon because it was still in Atlanta..

We ended our last day in Galway with a lovely dinner and stroll by the Corrib River to the Spanish Arch. Built in 1584, it is an extension of a 12th century Norman-built town wall.

Farewell, Ljubljana

We enjoyed our last two days in Ljubljana, hiking the beautiful natural areas surrounding the city, eating great food, and overall basking in the great karma of this very special place.

We love to hike new areas when we travel and Tivoli Park, Ljubljana’s largest park, was a perfect place to get some exercise and enjoy nature.  Jacopik Promenade, designed by Jože Plečnik, whose beautiful designs grace much of the Ljubljana city center, provided a grand welcome to the park. The promenade is often used for art exhibits of large-format photographs, and we were lucky to see one that combined art and math.

After walking miles of forested trails, we were surprised to come upon a charming restaurant tucked amidst the trees.

We strolled the lovely city streets and enjoyed more of the amazing cafe culture.

We hiked back up to Ljubljana Castle and explored the many hiking trails behind the castle. The castle planted a vineyard in 2016 to revive its wine-making traditions.

An interesting photographic narrative about lithium, the core component in battery-driven cars, phones and robots was set up on one of the walking paths.  “As the need for climate protection gets stronger, the development of cleaner energy is gaining momentum. At the same time, a key part of the solution, lithium, and the production of the material is not without its own hazards and sins.” I love how Eco-sensitive and proactive Ljubljana is.

We finally got a reservation at top Slovenian TV chef, Bine Volcic’s restaurant, Monstera Bistro . I was excited to try his cuisine, but a little nervous when I read that he is the first Slovenian chef to establish the concept of “zero-waste cuisine.” This means that the chef prepares edible parts of plants and animals that are usually thrown away. Great for the planet, but maybe not so great for someone who eats minimal amounts of meat. I am happy to report that everything was delicious, even my salad that included roasted pork neck.

We made multiple trips to Vigo, our favorite ice cream shop and discovered a new love-tortes at Cacao, a fabulous cake shop that also serves gelato and wine. It’s a good thing we didn’t discover the luscious tortes until our last night here.

Ljubljana is an easy city to visit. Everyone goes out of their way to be helpful and almost everyone speaks English.  When we first arrived, I worried  because I couldn’t even guess how to pronounce Slovenian words. The words didn’t seem to have enough vowels. Some of their words have no vowels at all-for example, vzbrst which means bloom. Not speaking the language was never a problem.

The food is amazing; there is an emphasis on locally-grown, traditional food.  A number of the Slovenian wines are ranked among the best in the world, but many are produced in small, organic wineries and not available in the US.

We are always happy to return home, but we will be sad to leave lovely Ljubljana. Honestly, I love every place I visit, but Ljubljana feels special. We will probably return someday, but I don’t know if it will be the same. The city is becoming a more popular tourist destination, and I expect that every year more people will visit. Right now it seems to have the perfect combination of everything I love in a place to visit without being overcrowded.

 

Lake Bled and Beyond

After learning “just-in-time” how to navigate toll booths in Italy, Monaco and France, we were thrilled to cross the border to Slovenia and see no toll booths. Lucky for us we mentioned this to a local who told us Slovenia has toll roads but no toll booths. Instead you must buy a sticker for your windshield-no sticker and you could get a large fine.  So, our first stop on the way to Lake Bled was the Petrol station to buy a sticker. The helpful young woman at the Petrol station not only sold us our sticker  but gave us great suggestions for other things to see when we went to Lake Bled.

Lake Bled, a beautiful little lake in the Alps, was not on my radar until we started planning our trip to Ljubljana. Suddenly pictures of beautiful Lake Bled, and specifically Bled Island, seemed to be everywhere.

The little island with a church and other buildings is the most photographed part of the lake.

Visitors can row themselves to the island or hire an oarsman to row them in a wooden boat called a pletna. Many of the oarsmen are descendants of the original twenty-two families granted the right to ferry passengers to the island in 1740.

We hiked around the beautiful lake. The crystal-clear water reminded me of Lake Beltrami, the lake we lived on in Bemidji.

After lunch, we traveled on to Lake Bohinj.  Every local we talked to about visiting Lake Bled told us to go to Lake Bohinj, about a half hour past Lake Bled. They said it was more beautiful and popular with locals than Lake Bled.

I was so glad we took their recommendations. The drive through small villages in the Alps was beautiful and the lake views were stunning. To the left of the lake was a huge vertical mountain side where we watched people learning to mountain climb.

That evening we dined at Open Kitchen. Every Friday in the warm months dozens of chefs from all over Slovenia cook their specialties. It was like one big party; the square was packed with happy people eating and drinking local food, wine and beer.

Later that evening we enjoyed the lively outdoor cafe culture that permeates the city.