Monday, January 7, 2013

XMAS/NY

When Pip's father arrived at Manchester airport I was still in the middle of the Christmas buildup at work. Pip had finished off her working year a few days prior with her Comic Relief Christmas party down in London. She showed John around Manchester, did a day trip to Chester and I tagged along in between shifts for a look around Salford Quays (Where I took a shot of a very proud Dad and her daughter infront of her place of work at the BBC). Finally I was able to complete my last shift and begin my holiday with them.

Today we woke up at 7am and packed our bags. Our taxi arrived on time and just in time as an angry/deranged lad on a bike was hurling abuse at us (although not a word of it could be understood).
Our Ryanair flight was running late but we managed to fly over drama free (apart from John losing his belt in the xray scanner). We picked up our little car and headed for our cottage. The directions given by the owners were great and I managed to get settled in to driving again reasonably quickly. We wound our way up lanes of beautiful Irish houses and roaded lined with stone fences, before turning into our new home.

The owners are a fantastic older coupe who showed us inside, spun a few tails and gave us some local tips. The cottage itself is amazing, it's a 200 year old restored cottaged with the perfect marrage of old and new. It's a modern interior done up in a classic way which struck the perfect balance. From the small inset windows to the beautiful wood kitchen bench, the skylights to the old period style doors and even the little touches like welcoming chocolate plus a christmas tree styke candle has us thinking that this is going to be a great place to relax and enjoy a unique Christmas.

We headed into the local village for one or two extra essentials (aka breakfast and coffee supplies) then drove up to Johnny Fox's pub up the road. This pup is awesome, we settled in for an evening of Guinness, hearty meals of Mussles, lamb, and fish pie. The walls were decorated with everything, and I seriously mean everything because there were chamber pots, pick axes, hundreds of photos and all sorts of random junk filling up every avaliable space which made the highest pub in Ireland feel very cosy and full of character. The place appeared small but seemed to flow through many different rooms all filled with strage objects.

Day one was a cracker, a little windy but no rain all day. We dropped our car off at the park n' ride and used the tram to take us into central Dublin where we started off with coffee at the Bald Barista. Taking the scenic route towards our intended destination we came across St Patricks cathedral which stood high in a small park and rang its bells loudly while we stopped to take some snaps and read up about its history.

The Guinness brewery is something which must be done and John especially was looking forward to this. We entered the tour which sees you assend a Guinness pint shaped building which has been converted from the origional brewery and as you rise up you learn all about Guinness. We were lucky to go on a day where not many people were around. Most of Dublin seemed to be on lockdown for Christmas. The observation deck at the brewery is worth the admission price alone, it's a floor with 360° views over the city and a bar which only serves Guinness. We sat in the sunshine with our brews and looked out over the city.

After the long trip back to the car we drove around the port and out to Howth where there is a fishing village and heaps of highly rated tripadvisor restaurents and fish shops. We had a bite and a look around as the sun was setting over the harbour which made for a great relaxing evening This was quickily flipped on its head when we visited the supermarket afterwoods. It's was packed full of stressed out people and everybody was in everyone elses way. Our evening was spent with another trip to the pub where John had a whisky, Pip red wine and I had a local brew.

We were treated to some good weather today for our road trip. We hit the road south not long after sunrise and hit the coast not long after that. Pulling into a beach we found sand, beach grass, dunes, cabbage trees very reminiscent for New Zealand. This observation streatched to much of Ireland today, the countryside and roads were along similar lines and we felt right at home. The major differences were what made today so special though, stone farm fences, castles dotted all over the place, towns full of character and the people in each one a joy to interact with. We used Google maps to get us home before making some christmas eve phone calls back to New Zealand. Tomorrow is Christmas Day!

Christmas day arrived after the best sleep I'd had in a long time. John was up before us as usual but only just. Breakfast was posh scrambled eggs, e.g. scrambled eggs with salmon after which we opened our prezzies, amongst the mountains of chocolate I got my new DSLR camera which we'd picked up a few weeks prior and Pip had snatched from view until today, I also got a brilliant scarf from John and some jandles from Pip's Mum, oh and the Alt-J CD. Pip got a dressing gown from Christine, a weekend away in the lake district from me and some perfume from John.

After breakfast and a few phone calls back home we hit the road again, this time not very far. Bray is just nsouth of Dublin and is a little beach town with a nice touristy stone beach and a wonderful walkway around the coast. The sun was out and it was really feeling like summer when we walked along the walkway, after which we drove home and cooked a huge chicken with some roast spuds and brussell sprouts before playing a game of pass the pigs and calling it a night.

Boxing day was our last full day here in Ireland and we decided that we'd go for yet another drive today but this time north to Northern Island. As we approached the boarder the weather started to close in and we found the few towns pretty much closed and abandoned, after driving around for ages we decided we'd have to settle for the mall where we had an average lunch before heaing back to Ireland in the pouring rain. It was not much fun in Northern Island for us but we can say we've been and I'm guessing on any other day with the sun out and the shops open it's probably pretty nice. On the way back to Dublin we took a back road and came across the town of Slane which was absolutely beautiful though probably helped by the fact that we'd come out of the rain and the countryside was glowing in the fresh sunshine. We also found some more ruins up a hill of an old cathedral and graveyard where John and I took a few photos. Back in Dublin we paid one more visit to Johnny Fox's for Guinness' and Whisky then back to the house for leftovers, wine and packing up for Scotland tomorrow.

At 5am our alarm goes off, I leap into action beating John by a few minutes for which he is "Very impressed". We pack up and wave goodbye to our cottage. The flight to Glasgow is easy, 35 minutes in the air, we get front seats with unlimited leg room due to our arriving to the departure gate later than everyone else. We manage to catch the train to Glasgow central withinn minutes and before we know it, we're on the road in our upgraded rental car (Which was a tank of a thing with far too many buttons) heading to Fort Williams. The trip up is fantastic, Scotland is such a beautiful country and we wound our way past loch's and stone cottages until we decide to stop for a snack. We chose a place on the main road in the middle of nowhere which is never usually a good idea, although I must admit I am glad we went as the experience was indeed an experience. The cafe or lunch bar or whatever it is is a dark lifeless room filled with too many tables, which I say because it appeared to be run by an angry lady and her autistic teenage son, at least that is the conclusion we came to after his strange mannerisms  the length of time it took him to confirm an order of three toasted sandwiches and how paniced he look every time a customer arrived. His mother/boss rampaged around angrily in the questionable looking kitchen but managed to make us a nice enough meal, but this place with it's no music, lighting or idea what it was, was worth dining at just for the experience.

We rolled into Fort William with realitave ease and checked into our hotel before hitting the bar (Which seemed to be a Pizza Hut under cover as a pub), and stared out the window at the snow now falling outside. We went for a walk as the daylight began to disappear and had a walk around the old fort area which was caked in snow, a handful of which John hurled and somehow hit Pip square in the face (bad move). Walking down the main street we stopped in at a few pubs as we went and it wasn't until the fourth establishment that we settled in properly for drinks and food. The Grog and Gruel is a two storied pub with the main bar down stairs and a restaurent upstairs. We had a pint below and then headed up, the service was excellent and the food was amazing. I enjoyed a Steak n' Ale pie and shared Haggis with Pip and her Dad. Pip's curry sadly was not spicy but we all had a great time and Haggis is really tasty.

The next day was our only full day in Fort William and we decided to hit the road north where we headed up to Loch Ness, stopping briefly at Fort Augustus to take some photos of Neptune's staircase which is a series of locks. Before heading up we did a lap of the local shops where we stopped in at the Whisky shop where John found himself in heaven, the shop keeper talked to him for ages and even gave us free whisky samples before we made our purchases and headed to a shop selling proper Scottish attire. Pip bought a tartan scarf, I got a new jersey and John ravaged the tweed section and came away with a hat.


We stopped at Urquhart Castle which we managed to take a few pictures of dispite the tourism companys best efforts to make you pay, we cruised a little further up to the Loch Ness experience where we had coffee before deciding to head on an even bigger adventure. Torridon sits way up on the west cost of Scotland, a long way from anything else but one of Johns buddies lived there for a period and so we decided to give it a go. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking and it is the most unreal place I have ever been, it's hard to find words to describe how grand and expansive it is up there. The road was slow and narrow and we felt like there was not a soul for miles but that only added to the experience. The weather was remarkably good considering the time of year and we reached the town before dusk where we were treated like celebrities by the staff in the general store. It turns out that Johns mate is very well known in those parts and the lady was on the phone trying to see if she could get some people to come down and say hi. A free coffee and a tale or two later and we hit the road home, deciding to do a loop instead of backtracking which again turned out to be a great decision as although we'd not much available light left, we managed to see some spectacular sights and when we got to Eilean Donan castle it was illuminated and beautiful. I really want to go inside one day but for now I was happy to stand in the freezing rain and fire off some photos. We arrived back at Fort William aroud 7pm and grabbed dinner before turning in for an early night.

The next day was a travel day, we drove down to Glasgow via a slightly different route which took us through the town of Stirling which is a castle town. We didn't have much time to spend so we took a few photos of the main castle on the hill, grabbed a coffee and continued down to Glasgow.
We arrived at the lovely 'Thistle' hotel after dropping off our car and went for a pre dinner walk through the town. None of us were paticularly impressed by Glasgow as it's not a very beautiful city compared to other places we'd been. After a wander around we returned to the hotel and had dinner in the bar.

The trip to Edinburgh the following day was pretty easy as we taxied to the train station, jumped onto the train and an hour later we hopped off in Edinburgh, walked a block or two to our Premier Inn which would be our base for the New Year period. Edinburgh is an amazing city and we all loved our time there. John loved the pubs especially Carters which was near our hotel. We spent time wandering the lovely old city from the castle to old town, Carlton hill and even did a trip down to the harbour which was a little bit disappointing. The city was in New Year mode with plenty going on to keep us busy. The mid town carnival area made for an enjoyable evening as we rode the ferris wheel and John sent Pip and I up on the vertical bungy.

We attended the torchlight procession which was so over attended that the delay to the start felt like it should have ended in a riot but peope stayed in great spirits. Maybe I'm just cynical but I'd think that 28,000 people with fire torches being held up by delays would be a recipe for a riot, am I wrong? The procession ended with fireworks and the we headed home.

New Years Eve morning we'd been booked into a Stotch whisky masterclass that was our Christmas present to Pips Dad. It was at ten in the morning and we were the only three people on the tour so we got the best possible service and experience. The young bloke who took us was very knowledgable and enthusiastic about whisky and a great person to do the tour for us. He took us into an incredible room with the worlds largest collection of single malt whisky by one person who'd leant it to the tour to be enjoyed (Looked at, not drunk) and he talked us through the history and showed us a few special bottles with their stories, they even put of really good coffee and biscuits for us.

We did a tasting too which started with us identifying smells in jars which I was terrible at and Pip turned out to be in the top 6% of the worlds noses or something. Then we tasted a few types of whiskies and learned what went into making them. We even got to try raw spirit which is extremely rare and the tour gruop usually only gets to sniff it but as we were just the three of us he let us taste it (It was rather strong and not very nice).

New Years eve celebrations started for us just after five in the afternoon. Our idea was to do a pub crawl from our hotel to the Hogmany street party and make it there well before midnight to see the Maccabees play and the fireworks. Starting off at Carters we had a few until we'd had enough of Wu Tan Clan's music and headed on down to the next few places until we reached a little pub called The Fiddlers Arms. It was only around eight o'clock so we stayed at Fiddlers for quite a few hours downing drinks, playing draughts and enjoyed the good music they had going on.

Finally it was time for the street party and we entered the madness, which it was... Madness. Now I'd like to think that just because I am a bit of an old man at heart, I still know what a good time should and should not consist of. The street party was literally a few streets that were so crowded that no one could move. It was like thousands of people paid to stand in a street and get squashed. We somehow completed a lap and realised that everyone was walking around (Though I use the term 'walking' loosely as there wasn't sufficient room to walk) trying to figure out what they were supposed to be doing. Sure there were a few bands playing if you could get near the stages and a few vans selling hotdogs but after getting Pips Dad squashed we decided to abandon New Years. Ironically we ended up at a bar called 'The Tron' which was not crowded, where we drank a few more and talked of our strange experience. Just before midnight we wandered over to a nearby bridge and saw in 2013 with fireworks from Edinbrugh castle and then made our way home.

After a sleep in, New Years Day was a ripper in terms of weather, in fact we'd been very lucky to be part of the whole festival here without bad weather even as far back as Ireland the weather never really spoiled our plans. We spent the day going on photowalks, stopping in at pubs to warm up and generally relaxing.

One thing I'll mention here as I don't want to forget is the map shop we came across. John wanted to buy a map of Scotland to mark out the distilleries where the whisky's he'd tried were made. We walked into a map shop which had every type of historical map of Scotland and other parts of the world which you could buy. It was a super shop and we came away with a Scottish map.

A 6am start ended our wonderful holiday as we made our way back to Manchester on the train. Pip's Dad heads to London and then Paris tomorrow and it's back to work for Pip and I. So the holiday is over and what a fantastic one. I'm glad I got to spent it with those two and of course getting to know Pip's Dad has been good, I'm sure this will be one holiday we'll talk of for many years to come.