Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bike Ride #2

On Sunday we took another bike ride through Limburg. We took a 40 km loop from Maastricht through Eijsden to Libeek and back to Maastricht.

We stopped just outside of Eijsden to wander around the grounds of the Eijsden Castle.

It took us an hour to ride uphill from Eijsden to Libeek. We wanted to see the vakwerk houses - the German style houses with the exposed dark beams and white-washed walls.

After looking at the houses we returned to Eijsden - in less than 15 minutes. It was all downhill on the way home. After coasting down the hills, we returned to Maastricht alongside the Maas River.

The rest of the pictures from the bike ride can be found here.

Bike Ride #1

We had originally planned to do a 90 km bike ride through the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium on Saturday morning. Our first obstacle was the weather - instead of heading out at 9am like we planned, we had to wait until 11:30 when the rain stopped.

After the sun started shining we took a 4 km ride out to St. Pieterberg - an old Roman fort on a hill. This is when we discovered all of Holland isn't flat; Limburg has hills. Big hills with steep ascents and descents. The 90 km plan was officially canceled.

After visiting the fort, we started a 40 km loop through Gulpen to Valkenburg and back to Maastricht. The countryside was beautiful and the hills added a nice change in scenery (and a burning feeling in our quads).

The first stop along the loop was the Nederlands American Cemetery and Memorial. It is a beautiful tribute to the soldiers that died during WWII, particularly those that gave their lives at Operation Market Garden.

Next we coasted down a large hill into the town of Gulpen - where they make the popular Gulpener Pilsner. We stopped for lunch at a local cafe and enjoyed mustard soup (a regional specialty), a melon and parmaham salad, and Gulpener Pilsner.

Next we climbed - and I mean climbed - out of Gulpen and headed to Valkenburg. On the way we took a little detour off-road to ride by the Oud Valkenburg Castle.

The town was too touristy for us - their was chintzy swag being sold on every corner - so we only stopped long enough to try Leeuw Pilsner - another local beer.

We got back to Maastricht just before the store hit and were treated to a view of complete double rainbows over the Maas River. How often does that happen?

We were exhausted after the ride and hung out in the boat's bar watching The Netherlands beat Scotland 3-0 in the a World Cup qualifier and playing Scrabble. It was a great day in Limburg.

You can see the rest of the pictures from the day here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Maastricht is billed as the "crowned jewel of the south" and as far away from canals, windmills, and wooden shoes as you can get but still be in the Netherlands. Maastricht is where Dutch, German, and Belgian cultures intersect. We headed out there to complete a three countries bike ride, but as you will read about later the weather was bad and the hills were worse.
After checking into our botel, anchored on the Mass River, we headed to the Take One beer cafe. The bartenders were very friendly and happy to suggest local beers based on taste and preferences. Matt enjoyed a Budels, while I enjoyed the beer of the month: Artevelde Grand Cru. While sipping our beers, we munched on peanuts and played Scrabble. It was quite interesting to play with the Dutch assortment of letters; we determine the letter 'ij' = 'y' and 'q' automatically became 'qu'. Matt finished the evening with the Budels Parel and I tried the St. Louis Kriek.

Some Final Thoughts on Ireland

Visiting Ireland was a real treat for Laura and I. The countryside is beautiful; it is emerald green as far as the eye can see, with stone walls snaking over the rolling hills. It sometimes reminded me of a greener southeastern United States; as we drove, we would alternately pass areas of immense natural beauty and stunning neglect. Even the latter, however, was charming in its own way and a gentle reminder that Ireland is still largely rural, with a population of just over 4 million. We were also surprised and delighted to see that the traffic signs are largely bilingual - in English and Irish Gaelic (or just Irish as a local would tell you). Less than 5% of the Irish can speak Irish Gaelic today, but that hasn't stopped a wave of nationalism from trying to revive its use.

You may have read in the news about the two British soldiers who were murdered in Northern Ireland on March 7th. Two days later a policeman was also killed. These were the first terrorist slayings in over a decade in Northern Ireland, and they were certainly dominant topics in the Republic of Ireland news during our stay (March 13-18). It was very sobering, but fascinating, to see the discourse play out from within the Republic, even if just from newspaper headlines and short newscasts. The political parties have widely condemned a return to violence. But even without violence, Laura and I learned quickly from our sojourn through Irish history that a "32 county solution," - or united Ireland - is a dream that will never die.

Book of Kells

Our last day in Dublin (and Ireland) was two weeks ago today. We used it to tour the Trinity College Library, home of the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is a 680 page illuminated manuscript created by Celtic monks in the 8th century; is is among the most ornate and beautiful of its kind. Tt was taken from Iona (Scotland) to Ireland in the early 9th to protect it from Viking raiders. It's now viewed as one of Ireland's greatest national treasures.

In the exhibit leading up to the actual book, we also learned a lot about the labor and precision involved in producing more than just the ornate drawings; preparation of the vellum pages, transcription of the text, and binding of the book were all skillful endeavors. In all, the skins of 150 calves were used for the vellum pages of the Book of Kells!

After seeing the Book of Kells, we ended our stay at the library in The Long Room, which is the oldest part of the library that houses some 200,000 very old and delicate books. This may not sound impressive to you, but rest assured that entering the 200 foot long hall, with its towering shelves filled with ancient books and sunlight filtering through monstrous windows, instills an instant and imposing sense of reverence. Also in this section of the library was the Trinity College Harp. The harp, of course, is not just a symbol you'll find on your Guiness; it has also long been used as a symbol for Ireland.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

No St. Patrick's Day celebration is complete without first having a few pints in the pubs while listening to Irish music. Here's the best & the worst of night.

Best Scene: Temple Bar (in the street)

The street running down Temple Bar was packed with people playing music, dancing, and dressing up in drag. (No, we aren't sure what that was about, either.)

Best Music Scene: Oliver St. John Gogarty

The Trad music session was loud and lively with patrons singing and dancing along. One guy even tried to get Matt to do a little jig, but he wasn't having any of it.

Best Brews: Porterhouse Brewing Co

Porterhouse and its nine house brews made a great place to hang out and enjoy the craic on St. Patty's Day. Okay, it would be fun on any day, as they have live music 7 days a week and an awesome stage that is visible from every floor. We might have even visited the place three times during our stay in Dublin - we had to try all nine microbrews! My favorite was the Oyster Stout - it was just about perfect - strong but not bitter. I also discovered my new favorite beer here - Fruli - a Belgian white fruit beer. Delish! I hope Stubbie's in Gainesville stocks it for when I get home.

If the music and the beer weren't enough to give this pub its atmosphere and craic, the band (Sliotar) was relieved during a break with the world premier of "The Simpsons go to Ireland".

Best View: A Pint from the Grocer and seat on the River Liffey Pier

Needing to take a break from the crowds and grab a bite to eat, we picked up a sandwich and pint from the grocery store and headed across the river. We enjoyed our dinner (complete with Cadbury candy bars) and pints with a lovely lit-up view of the Temple Bar area from across the River Liffey.

Worst Line (and Crowd): Temple Bar

We had to have at least a pint in the flagship bar of Temple Bar. And just a pint we had... After waiting in line for a bit - yes, we should have known - the crowd inside was just too packed to stay any longer.

Worst Floor:

Market Street and Tiger Town Tavern's floors have nothing on this place. My shoes were still sticking to the floor the next morning as I walked through the Old Library at Trinity College. The roof top terrace bar and its cool air almost made up for it, but then we would shuffle our feet and be reminded of the filth we were standing in. (I've never been in a more disgusting place.)

We had a blast spending St. Patrick's Day in Dublin!

St. Patty's Day Parade

We all know how Matt feels about parades and he wasn't thrilled to go to another one after the New Year's Day Parade in London (justifiably so). He wasn't quite kicking and screaming, but I did have to bribe him with Irish coffee to get him near the parade route.

This parade did not disappoint.

The characters from The Simpsons entertained us pre-parade to promote their upcoming episode "The Simpsons go to Ireland" (more about that later).

The theme for the parade was "The Sky's the Limit" (even with the woes of 2009) - no kidding, the parade brochure actually said that! So the parade was filled with fanciful characters with wings and feather and crazy flying machines. Here is a sample of our favorite attractions (you can find the rest of the photos here).

The parade moved fast and was the perfect length - a little over an hour. After the parade, we headed over to St. Stephen's Green for a picnic in the beautiful sunshine. Apparently, so did everyone else in Dublin. It was a lovely afternoon and every Dubliner seemed to be enjoying the sunshine before hitting the pubs.

Monday, March 23, 2009


We started our visit to Dublin with a trip to Kilmainham Goal (or jail). It was opened in 1796 and was often used by the British to hold political prisoners from the numerous Irish rebellions and uprisings. It was here that the leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 were shot and made martyrs for the Irish independence movement. In addition, the jail was a model for its time, implementing the latest research in both its construction and treatment of prisoners. The east wing was remodeled in the Victorian style with single occupancy cells (a new idea in those days) and lots of windows (to remind the prisoners of their lost freedom).You might recognize the prison, as it has been used as the set for many TV shows, movies and even a U2 music video. During the hour long tour we learned the story of the fight for Irish independence and about daily life in the prison.The next stop in the tour of Dublin was the Guinness Storehouse - a beer Disneyland for adults. While no actual beer is brewed in the Storehouse, it is 7 levels of everything Guinness. (The rumor is they don't let you into the actual brewery because you would see the Budweiser trucks leaving :). The first level tells about the four ingredients found in every pint: barley, hops, yeast, and water. Did you know every batch of Guinness is brewed with the same strain of yeast? A batch of the yeast is kept in a vault in the director's office for emergencies.
I enjoyed the floor that displayed the various advertising campaigns from over the years. Here is my favorite:The Gravity Bar is located on the top floor of the Storehouse and provides you with a pint and a 360° view of Dublin. You can take your own tour of the Storehouse here.
We finished off the day with a trip to Brazen Head Inn, the oldest pub in Dublin (c. 1198). We were treated to a Trad session with Rafferty. I really enjoyed watching the woman play the electric violin.
More photos here

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Driving through Ireland

And now back to Ireland...

After enjoying a full Irish fry for breakfast (AKA a heart attack on a plate), we were ready for more exploring. Our plan for Sunday was to slowly drive back to Dublin, stopping whenever we saw something that caught our eye.

The view of the Burren from Corkscrew Hills

We stopped for a pint at the oldest pub in Ireland (c.900 AD) in the city of Athlone

An old castle just before Bell Harbour

Matt climbing on centuries old ruins

The ruins were like our own personal castle playground!

An abbey just outside of Bell Harbour

An out building from the abbey

We stopped in Trim to see the large castle ruins in Ireland

As if one castle wasn't enough, there were ruins of a second castle in Trim just across the river in a city park

Our last stop for the day was a ruined monastery/cemetery on the outskirts of Trim

The Celtic crosses in the cemeteries were beautiful

The rest of our pictures from this day can be found here.