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.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Tricky to say, trickier to spell, but easy to love-Ljubljana, Slovenia is our new home for the next six days. After settling in to our apartment and making a quick trip to the nearest market for breakfast supplies, we went for dinner at TaBar, a tapas restaurant. When our waiter told me they were making the butter as we ordered, I knew I was in for a treat. The food was beautifully presented and incredibly tasty.

Orange wine is popular here. So popular that more orange wines were listed on the menu than red or white. Having only read about orange wine, I had to try it. Our waiter instructed me to smell it first and told me the taste would be nothing like the bouquet. He was right.  It was an interesting experience to smell a light, fruity wine and taste a fuller, dryer wine.

Our dessert was beautiful, but I had to laugh at the foot-long spoons they brought us  to share our tiny little dumpling.

The next day we went on a Ljubljana walking tour with Ana, our amazing guide. We loved how knowledgeable and passionate she was about the history and culture of her country. Both our airb&b host, Ales and tour guide, Ana are impressive examples of the  young adults shaping Slovenia’s exciting future.

We met at the statue of France Preseren, Slovenia’s most famous poet. The Slovenian language had been considered an unsophisticated language until his poetry became famous throughout Europe in the 19th century. When Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country used one of his poems for their national anthem.

In 2007 Ljubljana closed the main streets in the historic district, creating a beautiful pedestrian-only city center.

Metelkova, an alternative arts colony in the middle of the city, was one of my favorite stops.  A few years after Slovenia’s independence, squatters moved into the former army barracks to prevent developers from tearing down the buildings. Now it is a vibrant arts and nightlife center.

Ljubljana is a city of independent and creative citizens. Graffiti and murals adorn many of the buildings. One that I especially liked was on the side of a home for older adults. A rough translation is “Into every life some rain must fall, but the sun will shine.”

We visited the market and learned about traditional Slovenian food. Ana bought potica, the traditional cake of Slovenia from the best baker at the market, and we took a break to enjoy the wonderful treat.

The dragon is a symbol for Ljubljana, and four large dragons adorn the beautiful Dragon Bridge.

A banner celebrating Ljubljana’s designation as European Green Capital in 2016 hung outside the Town Hall.

We ended our walking tour with the steep walk up to the 900-year-old castle. The hike and the great view of the city from the castle were a great way to end our wonderful walking tour.

There was lots of excitement in front of our apartment last night. The Slovenian men’s volleyball team played Poland last night in the semi-final game of the European championships. When Slovenia beat Russia the week before, tickets for the next game were gone in a few minutes.  A giant screen was set up in the square below our apartment to give more people a chance to see the game. The square was packed with cheering fans. Slovenia won three sets to one and the crowd went wild.

 

 

Fair Verona

When I think of Verona, I think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is doubtful that Shakespeare ever visited Verona, but there is no doubt at all that Verona is a beautiful and romantic place.

Although our time in Verona was short, I fell in love with this lovely city and hope to return for a longer visit. Some of my favorite memories are the  friendly people, beautiful little streets, really old buildings and wonderful food and wine.

At the restaurant where half of the main dishes were made from some form of horse meat, I was able to find a fabulous cheese and grilled vegetable dish.

My favorite Verona experience was our food and wine walking tour. Irena, our lovely guide, first took us to a coffee shop where we learned about Italian coffee culture.

Going for a coffee is an important part of Italians’ social life. We learned that Italians only drink cappuccino until 11:30 and not with food, a moka pot is often used to make coffee that is not as strong as espresso and in the evenings they like to put grappa (an Italian brandy) in their coffee. After learning how Italians make and enjoy coffee, we enjoyed a coffee together.

At the pasta shop, a young man amazed us with his pasta-making skills as he quickly made perfect tortollini. Because fresh pasta cooks so quickly, we were eating his pasta about five minutes after he made it.

After eating the warm, buttery tortelloni, I really needed our little walk to get to the next stop, a small cheese and meat shop. We tasted three cheeses and two meats that were made in the Verona area. One of the cheeses is very similar to Parmesan but is made in such small quantities it is only sold in the area.

After walking not nearly far enough to walk off the pasta, meat and cheese, we stopped at a small wine shop. Diane, the sommelier at the wine shop, and Irena are good friends, and it was fun to hear them share their views of Italian wine and wine drinking.

Our final stop was my favorite, the Vittoria Gelato Cafe. I eat gelato every night when I am in Italy, so it was fun to visit a place where they made 100% organic gelato right in their shop.

Our time in Verona went by too quickly. We said good-bye to our friend Scott and packed up to leave for Slovenia.

 

 

Amarone Wine

I have a new love. After years of not really liking Italian wine except Brunello and Super Tuscan, I discovered the Piedmont area of Italy, home to some of my new favorite wines. After learning about the very wonderful Barolo wines a few days earlier, I was excited to go to the Valpolicella area which is just north of Verona and learn about Amarone and other great red wines of this area. I loved the one bottle of Amarone I had about a year before our trip, so the odds were good Amarone would be a hit.

Our guide, Michaelangelo (yes, that really is his name) took us to two small Valpolicella  wineries. Although there are more than 400 wineries in the Valpolicella area, ten large wineries produce eighty percent of the wine.  They use both the  espalier and pergola techniques for growing their grapes. Espalier, where the grapes are lower to the ground, is what I have most commonly seen, so it was interesting to see the pergola technique, where the vines and grapes form a canopy.

Grapes for Amarone wine are hand-picked. Not only must the harvesters carefully select and gently cut the grapes, they are constantly reaching over their heads to pick grapes from pergola-styled vines. When I mentioned to Michaelangelo that I had always wanted to try harvesting grapes, he told me it was fun for about ten minutes. After that, it is just hard work. Harvesters may work as many as ten hours a day.

Our first stop was Le Bignele winery, a family-run winery since 1818. Both Kristin, our hostess at the winery, and Michaelangelo, our wine tour guide, taught us so much about Valpolicella wines.

Making Amarone wine is a unique process. Rather than being crushed right after picking, the grapes are first dried in special drying rooms, using both natural air flow from large windows and fans when it is too humid.

After about 100 days of drying, the grapes are fermented for 30-50 days. After the fermentation process, the wine is aged in French or Slovenian oak barrels for a minimum of two years. Both wineries we visited aged their Amarone wine for three years.

Three brothers operate Fratelli Vogadori, the second winery we visited. Alberto, one of the brothers, conducted a tasting for just the three of us. Although we enjoyed meeting the interesting people from Germany and Australia at our firsttasting, we really liked being able to talk personally with the winemaker and see his passion for his wine.

Our wine tours are finished.  We loved learning more about the wines we came to taste as well as discovering new wines to enjoy- Barbaresco in the Barolo area and Ripasso in the Amarone area.

 

Barolo Wine

We chose to visit Alba, Italy to learn more about Barolo wine. Barolo, considered one of Italy’s greatest wines, is a favorite and we were excited to taste it and see where it was produced. Gianfranco, our B&B host, arranged two private tours and tastings for us.

In the morning we visited the Sordo winery. Producing Barolo wine for more than a century, it is an interesting combination of old cellars, modern technology and a sleek new tasting room.

Giorgia,our Sordo hostess, showed us all stages of the wine-making process from where they receive the grapes to where they put the labels on the bottles before they are shipped. They use both traditional oak barrels and hi-tech metal barrels to age the wine.

After the tour we enjoyed tasting the luscious wine and ordered some to ship home.

Driving around the beautiful hills of the Alba area, we saw the skyline of a city sitting atop the highest hill. Girogia told us the city was La Morra and suggested some places for lunch. Lunch was great, but the best part was the beautiful view from the highest point in the area.

At the Fratelli Serio & Battista Borgogno winery we tasted nine of their wines with fifth-generation Borgogno family member Frederica. One of the wines we tasted was the one Frederica had chosen for her wedding the previous year. And, of course, we ordered more wine to ship home.

That evening we went into the heart of Alba for dinner. I was so glad that we had accepted Gianfranco’s offer to make a dinner reservation for us. Dinner was fabulous, but more importantly we got to see a beautiful part of the city. When we first arrived in Alba, we drove through an industrial part of the city to get to our B&B a few miles out of town. Based on the part of town I saw, I made the assumption that the city of Alba was unattractive and uninteresting . I was so wrong. Alba is beautiful and lively. 300,000 people were expected to arrive the day we were leaving for a week-end international cheese festival.