Friday, August 30, 2019

Ireland: The Return Home

When we booked our ferry from France to Ireland, we had the choice of disembarking either in Rosslare or Dublin. Can you even imagine driving off a ferry in downtown Dublin and, for the first time ever, driving on the "wrong" side of the road? Me, neither. 

My Mom, who lived in England for several years, told me "just follow the cars in front of you" and she was right. I managed to get us off the ferry, through the town of Rosslare and onto the M11 heading for Arklow. Along the way we spied an ALDI with an empty parking lot, so we wheeled in and bought some food, then continued on our merry way. It was way more stocked up than the ones we’ve been to in France and everything was labeled, "Irish". Irish beef, Irish cream, Irish this and Irish that. It all had to be good, right? So of course we bought too much. And five days later, we again had to empty our fridge as we headed into Dublin for a week. Will we ever learn not to buy so much food? It’s like we are preparing for a famine. :)

I had read that driving on the left side of the road was actually easier with a left-hand drive vehicle and I believe that's true. Steven had quite an adjustment as a passenger since all the cars coming from the opposite direction were on his side. And at times they seemed to be awfully close. On skinny roads, though, I could see exactly how far to scoot over without hitting the bushes, or falling off the asphalt (something you really don't want to do, as there can be quite the drop-off!). Our French registration might have alerted folks to stay out of our way, because most people give us a wide berth, thankfully. That, and Bijou looks gigantic coming down the road. 

The very first few minutes off the boat and onto the road in Ireland!

This sign is for us!!

We arrived safely at our destination in Arklow at Moneylands Farm, a combo B & B and self-catering accommodations, conference/leisure center, RV park, swimming pool and café. They have all the commercial angles covered. Since we planned to be there a while, we were parked away from the motorhome area, behind the tennis court. It was a lovely area with a beautiful view, even if Bijou got pelted a few times with rogue balls. Tennis talent was on the lower end of the scale at Moneylands Farm.

Safe and sound at Moneylands Farm in Arklow.

Each night in Arklow brought a dramatic sunset.

We chose this place for a couple of reasons. First, Steven's best friend Kieran lives just a few kilometers away and two, we needed a safe place for Bijou while we spent a week in Dublin visiting Steven's parents, Paddy and Elizabeth. It worked out perfectly. So well, in fact, that Steven had a night out with Kieran and stayed over, while I enjoyed a glorious evening with a bottle of rose and a few snacks all by myself! It was heaven! I had most of the next day all to myself, too. I did a little cooking, organizing, reading and whatnot. I made the bed and grabbed the handle to lift it up to secure it in its overhead position, but it would not budge. How frustrating! Arm strength has never been my strong suit, but I'm not that weak for pity's sake! I'm sure the struts that help give it lift are shot. We are getting those things replaced as soon as we get back to France, and I guess a little arm strengthening exercises wouldn't hurt, either. Ugh.

Besties. Steven and lifetime soulmate, Kieran.

Alone time in the rig. Bliss!

We had a wonderful week in Dublin, spending our days out and about in what turned out to be some pretty nice weather. We gathered with family, had a fun night out and spend time at the beach with Steven's sister, Deirdre and her beautiful horse. We visited Philip at his bakery in Stoneybatter in Dublin City and had lunch during a massive downpour. Most evenings we sat around the dinner table engaged in spirited conversation with the parents. As usual we were well fed and watered, so to speak, so I decided Steven and I would make dinner one night. I am always hesitant to do this in other people's kitchens, because I am not really a clean-as-you-go type of cook. When I put a meal on the table the kitchen looks like a wrecking ball has been through it. That's just how I roll. But since Steven was on board to clean, we went at it, and turned out a fab meatloaf. I have been making this meatloaf for at least a decade and it is still my favorite. You should try it. (Bobby Flay's meatloaf.)

Hanging out at Bettystown Beach while Deirdre and her friend rode their horses. This is us with Deirdre’s husband Maurice and son Adam.

Deirdre and Steven share a laugh!

Deirdre and her horse Elena.

Steven with his brother Philip. No, they are not twins :)

Linda and Philip outside his shop, The Green Door Bakery.

Kate, Philip’s assistant, with Jackie and Lauren (Philip’s wife and daughter).

The gang! Front row: Steven’s dad and mom and Linda. Back row: Adam, Maurice, Joshua, Deirdre and Steven.

That meatloaf is covered with a carmelized balsamic glaze, not burnt. :)

On the day we left Dublin to go back to Arklow for a few days, we celebrated our fifth anniversary of fulltime travel. It's hard to believe that five years have passed since we pulled out of the RV park in Issaquah and made our way to Bellingham on our maiden fulltime voyage. We were so ready and so excited. We have loved every minute of this lifestyle and hope to continue traveling for a good long while. 

The Sunday we were in Dublin happened to be the Feast of Saint James, who, you might recall, is the patron saint of pilgrims. (Look at me go with all this churchy stuff!) At St. James's Cathedral in Dublin there is a pilgrim office which offers information on medieval pilgrimages in Ireland, so we made our way down there with time to spare before they opened. So for the third time in as many months, we attended mass. It was mostly about the Camino de Santiago and the life of a pilgrim, so we were fine with that. Afterward, we made our way to the office and purchased a pilgrimage guide book and two Irish Pilgrim Passports. While there are multiple pilgrimages in Ireland, there are five specifically that one must hike in order to claim a Teastas Oilithreachta, which is a certificate of completion, the closest thing the Irish have to a Compostela.

The pilgrim’s office at St James’s Cathedral in Dublin.

We’re ready to go!

Inspired by our recent Camino walk, we wanted to experience some of Ireland’s beauty on foot.

Imagine our surprise to find that one of the five pilgrimages, St. Kevin's Way, was not far from where we were parked in Arklow! A plan was hatched. Well, less a plan than just a "hey, we should do this" kind of thing, but it's as close to a plan as we get. We tossed the idea around for a few days. Our problem was, what do we do with Bijou? It's a 30 kilometer (18.6 mile) hike, so wherever we leave Bijou we have to be able to stay for two days. The night before so we could get an early start and the night after, because 30 kms is a good long day and the last thing we'd want to do when we were done was drive somewhere. We checked out local campsites, of which there is exactly one. The reviews don't inspire confidence, so we scratched that. We checked out camping apps and there it was - overnight parking allowed in the Visitors Centre in Glendalough, the location at the end of the walk. Now all we had to do was find transportation to the start in a little village called Hollywood. 

It was pretty busy during the day but Glendalough Visitors Centre parking lot emptied out in the evening.

Glendalough has a wonderfully preserved ancient church and round tower on show.

We’re going to Hollywood, baby!

A local taxi picked us up on 7:00 a.m. on a perfect Thursday morning. It was cool and cloudy, but no rain was in the forecast. We drove through the mountains to Hollywood where he dropped us off right at the start of St. Kevin's Way. 

Did you know there are more sheep in Ireland than people? Seriously, I looked it up and there is actually a 2016 consensus that confirms this. There are a million more sheep than people. Five minutes into our hike we had stepped in more sheep shite than in the whole 500 miles of the Camino. They are kind of adorable, though. But if there is a path to walk on, there is a path for the sheep to shit on. 

Our hike took us through the Hollywood glen, an abandoned old quarry, down quaint country lanes, a few kilometers of treacherous road walking, and down a lane that abruptly ended in front of a farmer's barn. We carried on through areas where the path became overgrown with ferns, where we had to forge our own Way. We followed along the King's River, which was rusty brown from the tannins of the bog. We had cloud cover to keep us cool and when the sun came out, we walked in the cool forests. We had our picnic lunch on the bridge at the river. The bogs were, as you might expect, boggy. Muddy. We were thrilled to have a few areas with boardwalks built for pilgrims to walk on. We climbed up and up, until we reached the Wicklow Gap, one of the highest mountain passes in Ireland. 

We made some new friends along St. Kevin’s Way.

Yellow arrows were reminiscent of the Camino de Santiago.

We had to cross a few gates along the Way.


Are ye jokin’? Where’s me machete?

We sat at the top taking in the views, enjoying our afternoon snack. It was leaving the Gap that the trail veered off into a serious bog with no boardwalk. We went this way and that, jumped over puddles and sank deep into the mud. We stopped on more than one occasion to assess whether or not to turn back and simply follow the road. Neither one of us wanted to give up and take that way out, so we kept going. I wondered, after all we'd been through, if St. Kevin's Way would finish off my beloved Oboz boots, but soon enough we had picked a path out of the bog and on to higher ground. From there, it was all downhill, literally, until we reached the monastic settlement of Glendalough. 

Black boggy yuck.

Finally headed down to Glendalough. 

Nine hours and twenty minutes from our start, we returned to Bijou. We were wiped out, as tired and sore as any day on the Camino. In fact, this day was a further distance than any day we'd had on the Camino. I said at the time we enjoyed thirty percent of the hike and endured the rest, but time and rest offers perspective. Long distance hikes, by their nature, are not physically easy or comfortable. In retrospect, it was a wonderful hike. I don't want to do it again, but I'm really proud to call this one done!

We walked over to the Visitor's Center with our Pilgrim's Passports and got our stamps, then went home and went to bed. Later, I was awakened by the sound of lashing rain and was overcome with relief that we weren't getting up early to walk. A few hours later, when we got up, we were somewhat refreshed and ready to hit the road. Slane Castle was calling our name. 

Up Next: More family time and heading north.


Sunday, August 25, 2019

Repositioning across France

Did you know that France is only slightly smaller than Texas? I didn't, until it was time to make tracks to the other side of the country. Once we started planning our departure from Plaine Joux, we realized our trip would be like driving from Dallas to El Paso, only more lush and with castles. 

We all know Texas is just bigger.

We had a deadline to get to the tippy northwest corner of France, as we had made ferry reservations for July 21st departing from Cherbourg to Rosslare, Ireland. (I know, wuhoo, a new country!)

We are still familiarizing ourselves with the resources available to find places to park overnight, we just haven't done enough of it for it to become second nature as it was in the states. We'd had a good run through the Alps, but it was other travelers who pointed us to the free aires along our route, not our own research.

We are most comfortable with three websites in particular, ACSI, Camper Contact and Park4Night. ACSI is like Passport America. Thing is, in July and August, all bets are off as this is high season and it costs top dollar to stay in any commercial campground. So that's out. 

Our indispensable resources in Europe.

Park4Night is kind of a free-for-all. It lists all kinds of places, some great and some iffy. The trick is to learn to tell the difference and that takes experience. It's also made more challenging because we're so unfamiliar with motorhoming in France, and actually, all of Europe. Camper Contact is kind of a combo of the other two. It takes a lot of time and energy to research where to stay, where to find basic services and what to see. But, since we needed to reposition, we decided there's no time like the present to give it a go. We gave ourselves ten days. 

Part of the reason we get kind of nervous about choosing a place to stay is because many of the free aires we might want to stay in are located in small towns and villages. It would not be unusual for our GPS to lead us down a dinky little road, under an archway and through a medieval village with 90 degree turns around stone buildings. We like to call these routes "Ye Olde Cobblestone Main Street" and trust me, this is nerve-wracking. Just when we think there is no way we can make it down a particular road, here comes a huge truck barreling by right down said impossible road. It's amazing, really. It's just a matter of having a bit of confidence and a good feel for Bijou's size and that's what we're still lacking. We are getting better, though, I will say that.

Tight squeeze down Main Street.

With our route planned, we finally packed up and came off the mountain. In our time at Plaine Joux we made several trips on the bus and I paid attention to the route and how the bus drivers managed their gears and brakes. I learned every spot where I could pull over if it became necessary, so when we took off, I felt truly prepared. It was only a few kilometers, but it's an hour's drive due to the switchbacks. Off we went, and then it all went sideways. "What is all this??", I yelled at Steven, as though it were his fault. Not even halfway down, the road was blocked with all signs pointing to a detour. Crap. Oh, well, there was nothing we could do. We were sent on a narrow sideroad with an 11% grade descent. It was a holiday in France and the little village was having a big celebration on main street. 

We inched our way down off the mountain and finally came to a stop in the parking lot of the Super U. YAY, time to stock up. We had to be careful not to buy too much because we had to have our fridge empty before we got on the ferry where propane is not allowed. Our ferry trip would be 18 hours, so we really had no way to keep stuff cold. We got everything put away and took off. 

It felt good to be back on the road. We went north, turned west and skirted around Geneva, Switzerland then headed toward the village of Nantua for a night of free parking in the city aire, which was right on a gorgeous glacial lake. It was a busy aire, but it's hard to tell who is parked for the night and who is just spending a couple of hours sightseeing. We've been in places that are full only to see them empty out later. It's weird and unpredictable. People seem to think nothing of taking off and driving at dusk. Aires are first come, first served, and so far, we've been able to get a spot at all the places we've stopped.  

The view out Bijou's front window was stunning and we had a lovely evening and a good night's sleep. Better yet, there was a wonderful path all the way around the lake which we walked the next morning before packing up and taking off to a winery just down the road from Chablis. Yeah, there is actually a town named Chablis. 

All tucked in for the night in Nantua.

It’s hard to beat a lake view like this.

It got pretty busy over the course of the day.

Along our walk around the lake.

It's clear we are getting off the road for the day much earlier than everyone else, because the winery was a ghost town when we arrived. By dinnertime, it was almost full! Not only was it a Sunday, but it was also Bastille Day, a huge holiday in France. So unfortunately, we were unable to avail of the wine tour and tasting. The winery offered electricity, water and a dump, as well as privacy hedges and a secure location in a tiny town surrounded by vineyards, all for free. The trade-off is that it was a good distance off the highway and back the next day, which interferes with my OCD/lemming tendencies, but I am getting better at slowing down and taking the alternate path. 

Not too shabby for a free night of camping at the winery.

Our cross-country route led us within striking distance of Phill and Hannah's place in Veron. These are the folks who assisted us with all the particulars of the required French documents that allowed us to purchase Bijou. It was the perfect place to send a couple of large packages and also pick up a few bits of mail we had received. The packages contained an outdoor table, a collapsible ladder and binoculars. The latter item was for the occasional bird sighting, but mostly so we could see the license plates of new neighbors as they drove by. We are kind of obsessed with learning which country people are from. In our case, of course, no one knows we are American, because our plates are French. It's like being incognito and we don't have to reveal ourselves unless we want to, because no one talks to the French. :)

After picking up our packages we made our way to Sens, the largest town in the area full of shopping opportunities. We are on the hunt for E-bikes. I'd like to say we are enthusiastic about this, but we are the most ambivalent shoppers ever. We can't get excited about something that costs a ton of money and that we have absolutely no experience with. To top it off, the information about the products available to us is in French, so there's that. So we poked around, but made a decision to not make a decision at the moment. More walking for us.

We found a fabulous aire near the city center and, as luck would have it, just across the street from a Lidl's grocery store. Who needs a stinkin' E-bike, right? We got out our new table and our camp chairs set up and Steven tested out his new ladder, which he loves. We enjoyed the park-like setting so much, we ponied up 11 euros for a second night and had a fab evening sitting outside. We practically had the place to ourselves. 

Our retreat in Sens. This was just a lovely spot with a park-like atmosphere.

Steven is a little excited trying out his new retractable ladder.

We left fairly early the following morning as we had to make our way to IKEA, then make our way south of Paris in fairly dense traffic. The IKEA stop was for me, I wanted additional rugs for Bijou. It is not easy to just run in to IKEA and grab something and leave. Even though we knew exactly what we wanted, it still took us over an hour to complete the task. You have to really want something to go through all the hassle of getting it at IKEA. 

We finally got out of the Paris traffic as we made our way west. Steven had picked out a stop at Giverny, the home of French impressionist painter Claude Monet, a place that he really wanted to see and where we could spend the night. Win-win! Except, it was heaving with people! We walked over to the ticket office to gain entrance into the famed gardens and the line snaked all through the little village. We said forget it and just walked around the quaint town. It was lovely, I admit, but the mass of humanity really put me off. After a while, I went home to Bijou while Steven continued to take photos. As I passed through the parking lot I counted 22 tour buses. 

The line to get tickets for the Monet Gardens. No thanks!

We made a plan to get up early and indeed, we were the first in line. Some groups were let in through another entrance, but we still were able to walk around and see the place. I managed to tour the house, because I did it early, but by the time Steven made it there, he couldn't get past all the people to even make it up to the entrance. This is why we usually don't do touristy stuff like this and why we mostly travel to places in the off-season. Still, we're glad we made the effort. Even though the garden was at the end of its bloom, it was still beautiful.

When we arrived the next day, we beat the crowds and it was worth it.

Click above to see Steven’s video of Monet’s Gardens.

At this point we had three nights to eat everything in the fridge. We needed to find a place close to the ferry where we could just hunker down, eat, get our laundry done, get Bijou cleaned and relax before getting ourselves on the ferry. We found such a place, and while it was perfectly fine, and the owners were great, it was so non-descript, so out of the way, I can't even remember where it was. Except to say it was in Normandy, where they love Americans and American tanks and American flags and all things commercially American. If there is a buck, or a Euro, to be made off the war, then somebody is making it. We will explore this area more in the fall.  

The campground may not have been all that but the wine was good :)

And finally, we made it on to the ferry. Naturally we arrived hours before departure, and when we were sitting there watching all the folks around us pulling out picnic lunches, it dawned on us we had nothing to eat. By the time we got on the ferry we were starving and the cafeteria didn't open for another couple of hours. So we split a stale sandwich from the coffee bar. Kids were running around screaming, parents had spread out, taking up all the prime seating. On this ferry there were way more people than there were cabins, so most people just camped out. Steven and I had at least reserved reclining seats for the 18-hour, overnight journey, and even though we had been assigned seats 78 & 79, they were on opposite sides of the room. There was a movie theater onboard and we watched the Elton John biopic Rocket Man, which was great. Then we retreated to our chairs. I was lucky enough not to have a seatmate, so I was able to lay down, albeit with my legs folded up, but poor Steven had to sleep sitting up. Suffice it to say that we have booked a cabin for our return trip.

Finally on the way to a new country - Ireland!

At 8:00 a.m. on the dot we arrived in Rosslare, County Wexford, Ireland. We rolled off the ferry and in that first instant I had to learn to drive on, what for me, was the wrong side of the road. And it was raining. Welcome to Ireland!