Monday, February 24, 2014

Dublin Summer {The best Irish summer in 18 years}

Summer 2013 was the nicest summer in Ireland in 18 year.  18 years!  It was newsworthy, people were sweltering in the heat, swimming in the sea and the canals and causing traffic jams on the roads to the beaches.  People were reminiscing about their memories from the Summer of '95, and tweeting about how they would tell their future grandkids about the summer of 2013.  

You may wonder what an Irish Summer so memorable is like.  Well, we're talking about warm weather - a few consecutive weeks in the upper 60's, a few days in the low 70's and maybe 1 day around 75.  And just over 2 full weeks without rain, not once.  If you had experienced Summer 2012, as we did (or presumably any other summer between 95' and '13), you would know this was nothing short of a miracle.
For perspective, 23°C = 73°F
To be fair, the days around these really warm days were also pretty nice, we saw a lot of sun in Ireland over the summer and it was a completely different country.  Everyone was outside every minute possible, enjoying every ray of sun.  And we did the same.

It's shocking that an island that rains so much can fear
a drought with 16 days without rain!
The first sign of summer came pretty early, and we jumped on the chance to dig out our sunglasses and enjoy a glass of wine, al fresco with some friends.

Abby & Brandon, before they moved to Sydney!
Rose on a rooftop patio
The sun brings out the biggest smiles
The next nice day we had, Brian and I decided to get on our bikes and go to the coast.  We only lived a few miles from the eastern coast, and we planned to just go there, but once we got there, we decided to keep going south towards the town Dun Laoghaire (pronounced: Done Leary).  It was probably 7 miles by bike, and we found a nice beach to hang out at for a while before heading to the market in town for lunch.
Biking along the coast
First time in the Irish Sea!
We only got our feet in, although there were tons of swimmers
At this point, I thought this might be as far into the Sea as I would ever get.
And then the tide came in, and we headed off to lunch
It was a great weekend, so the next day, we were back on our bikes and went to Phoenix Park, which is the biggest park in Dublin, for a picnic.
Where are we again?  Is this sun I feel?
And then this happened...a horse & cart came cruising through the park
Yes, we are in Ireland
And off we went again
A few weekends later, we did it all over again.  Back on the bikes, back down south to enjoy the sun, have some lunch, and this time we actually took our suits and jumped fully into the Irish Sea!  Mission accomplished.  I don't have photographic proof, but I'll tell you how it all happened...
We started the day warming up on a nice bluff, looking away from the crowds on the beach.
It was nice out, but it definitely wasn't at or over 75°F 
Look at the swarms of people enjoying the weather.
 This was the view opposite of our nice bluff
Then, we got hungry for lunch, so we biked down to the market.
I'm usually happy to stand in line for and ice cream, but today the line was waaaaaaay too long.
After lunch, we decided to go even further south, and found the famous "Forty Foot" swimming area
Pre Swim
This was it, we were going in.  Again, we find a bluff away from the crowds to warm up a bit before the swim.  This is also where I stopped taking the photos, but I promise it's all true.  After we warm up, we head down the bluff to a staircase going into the water.  Loads of people were just walking in and taking off for a swim.  Young people, old people, you name it.  We stepped onto the first step and the water was COLD.  Freezing.  Out I went.  It took Brian about a minute before he jumped and took the plunge.  He was maybe in the water for 30 seconds before he swam back to the stairs and got out.  Done.  It was cold.  

I was determined to get in, but it was seriously cold.  I couldn't even get up to my knees.  There was a girl, no more than 2 years old, who was almost all the way in with her dad.  Old women would just walk right in and swim away.  And what really set me over the edge, was the 10 year old girl who was jumping in and out, and according to her,  the stair case to the left was warmer.  Thanks, little girl, I don't need warmer.  It probably took me 20 minutes before I finally eased in and took a few strokes into the sea (head above the water, wet hair would not have been fun) and a few strokes back.  It was icy cold.  Shockingly cold, like can't move your arms or legs cold.  I was out in about 10 seconds, but I did it!  And I proudly reported to all my colleagues that I swam in the Irish Sea.
Post swim
We passed this place on our way out.  It was an area of shallow, warm water.
I could have done this, no problem.
As I mentioned, we took full advantage of the sun.  The next nice day, we decided we had gone South enough, and instead we went North, to Howth.  The bike ride was a bit further this time.  Again, we started at a beach, then I convinced Brian to go on the Howth Head Hike, which I had been wanting to do for a while.
Biking up to Howth
Today's beach
View on the Howth Head Hike - there is a lighthouse on the tip but it's hard to see in the photo
Enjoying the view
Flowers, boats and the sea
walking along the trail
Rest stop
blue sea and sky
obviously my idea
After an afternoon of biking and hiking, we came home and Brian BBQ'ed a delicious dinner
Yum - chicken, aubergine (eggplant to us) and mushrooms
And we still had enough energy to go to our favorite live Trad session at the Stag's Tail.
These guys play every Friday & Saturday night, and have been for years.
The last nice day that was well documented we took the bus south to Powerscourt House & Gardens.  It's a large estate with beautiful gardens that was originally built in the 13th century, but has been renovated throughout the years.  In the 1960's it was sold to the current owners, who opened it up to the public.  We brought a picnic lunch and enjoyed an afternoon walking around the gorgeous grounds.  It actually felt like something you would find in France, or Italy, it was very European.
Just walking into the gardens
Sun maks him happy enough to smell the flowers
selfie with the fowers
garden gates

looking back at the estate
beautiful views
The patio of the Estate


It was beautiful
parting shot
 Well, that sums it up.  We tried to spend as much time outside as possible.  Any nice day, we took advantage of it.
Ha'penny Bridge
I am so happy we were able to experience this weather in Ireland.  The previous summer was not summer at all.  It rained and hailed and was grey all summer long.  It was miserable.  18 years is a long time to wait for a summer like this, so I really hope it's not another 18 before they get some more sun in Ireland.  Either way, it's a good thing the Spanish coast is so close.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tallinn, Estonia & Helsinki, Finland

Back in July, we took a trip to Tallinn, Estonia.  We didn't know a lot about Tallinn before visiting, but it turned out to be one of our favorite trips of the summer.  Tallinn is a city that is coming into it's own.  You can see the transformation happening all around.  Old soviet buildings are being turned into hip restaurants, bars and galleries.  There is a great food scene, a blend between Nordic and Eastern Europe cuisine.  You also see influence of Nordic design - so what's not to like?  Fun fact: Estonia has the highest GDP per person of all the former Soviet countries.  

We rented an apartment in the Old Town, which is a charming medieval center with cute buildings, squares, and churches, surrounded by old city walls.  It was nice, and I loved walking around, but we have seen so many medieval towns, that we were also anxious to get out of the city walls and explore what "real" Tallinn was like.  
View of Old Town
This was the apartment we stayed in.  The coolest part about it, was the wall behind the bed is actually part of the Old City Wall. It also had a small wood stove fireplace, and the whole
apartment smelled like fire. We would have enjoyed that more if we visited during the winter.
From a viewpoint
Art for sale along the Old City wall

The city walls were very well persevered 
Towers in the walls
Our first night, we had made reservations at a restaurant which took us outside of the Old Town and into one of the neighborhoods nearby.

Truthfully, our first venture out of the touristy center, we felt a little uneasy.  There weren't too many people around, a lot of the buildings were run down and we weren't in an area with lot's of bars and restaurants, like we expected to be.  

We took a lap to find the restaurant, Kohvik Sesoon. It was tucked away behind a new-ish apartment building, without much signage leading to it.  We did start to feel a little better when we saw a Hen Do (Bachelorette Party) of girls walking in.  Since we were a bit early, we backtracked a bit to a nice looking bar we had passed for a pre-dinner drink.

The Tram - isn't this what you would expect in a Soviet country?
Nervous grin - kidding.  This photo was taken a few days later
when we were much more confident in the area.
Pre-dinner drink - I had some delicious Black Cherry beer.
The neighborhood on the way to dinner.  The buildings were all wood paneled. 
Another shot of what the nicer buildings looked like
Back to our meal.  When we walked in, the place was super cool.  Simple but trendy.  Crowded, but spacious.  I'm not sure if I can fully describe what happened next.

The menu looked good, people's food around us looked and smelled good.  We both ordered a starter and a main.  I started with a coconut soup, and Brian with a seafood salad (with Octopus, his new obsession from our last trip to Croatia).  My soup was incredible, it wasn't sweet, but was filled with veggies and shrimp and topped with sesame seeds.  Brian's salad was just as amazing.  We were seriously in awe of our first course.  Not to mention the portions were larger than we expected.

Our main course was equally as delicious, and the portions, again, were large.  I had fish over a bed of veggies, and a yogurt sauce.  Brian had some kind of cassoulet, with a salad.  We were seriously blown away by the food.  The quality was on par with what we would expect at a nice meal in San Francisco. Then, we got the bill.  Total, including drinks, was €26.20.  Unbelievable.  We both wanted to come back.  Even though it was a warm weekend, I spent the rest of the trip seeking out coconut soup on every menu.  Oh, and we did make it back for lunch on our last day.  We couldn't leave without going back one more time.  Best decision ever.  And, if you're curious, lunch for 2 was €12, two courses each, and just as delicious.

Amazing starters - coconut soup  & seafood salad
The main courses
The bill - we couldn't believe it
Happy husband post amazing meal.
He actually wanted his photo taken in front of the restaurant.
So far, we were off to a great start in Tallinn.  The next day we took a few tours.  The first one was at the famous Sokos Hotel Viru.  This hotel was opened in 1972, and was the first high rise in Tallinn.  It was a place of prestige, and run by the KGB.  On a side note, Brian and I were about half way through the TV show, "The Americans", when we visited Tallinn.  If you don't know of the show, it's about 2 KGB agents living and working in the US.  Because of this show, we were kind of "into" the KGB, which made this tour even more spectacular.

The top floor of the hotel housed a KBG Radio center, which is where the tour took place.  Our guide was around our age, so she remembers growing up in Soviet Estonia.  It was fascinating to hear the stories of how the hotel was run.  This was the only place that foreigners could stay while visiting Estonia, and they were watched closely the whole time.  Visitors would have to register to visit, and could have to wait up to a year to get approval to come.  The perception they were shown of Estonia, was only what the KGB wanted them to see.

Our guide told us story after story about how the hotel had a very high reputation, but everything that happened was calculated, and for a reason.  It was absolutely facinating to hear about.  And, because she lived in Tallinn during this time, she spoke about her family and what it was like to grow up in Tallinn during this time.  The stories were like the movies, but real life.  Stories like these remind me how fortunate we are to come from where we come from.
The Hotel from the outside
The top floor, where the tour took place, was essentially a secret floor, and was only accessible through a semi-secret stair case.  The first room we went in was an office, then we went out on the patios on either side of the hotel.  The views from here were incredible of the city.
The office
Taking care of business
The view from the roof
The second room was only known by a select few people in the KGB.  The door leading to this room had writing on it that translates to "There is nothing in here", which is pretty funny now, but was typical of how things worked.  Nonetheless, people didn't know what was behind the door.  One night during the fall of the Soviet Union, all the KGB officers stationed at, and working at the hotel, suddenly left.  This room was eventually discovered, and what was behind the door is still exactly how they found it.  The room was a radio center that connected with a larger network and critical in communications.
This is the door, and it translates to "There is nothing in here"
Inside the Radio Center - literally left how it was the night it was evacuated.
There wasn't a lot in there, but it was all important.
You can see lots of papers, smashed radios. The phone was smashed in too

We really enjoyed the tour, and getting a little more insight into what life was like in Tallinn during this time.  They have really come a long way.

Next up, a tour of tunnels below the Kiek in de Kök tower.  The name translates to "peak in the kitchen" because the tower was so high and could look into the homes around it.  The tunnels run under the city walls, and were built in the 1600's as a form of defense from the Swedish rule.  They have held many other uses over the centuries, including acting as a bomb shelter during WWII.  It was pretty interesting.  

Above the tunnels
The beginning of the tunnels.  They were so long, and they are still restoring a lot of them.
They gave us blankets to stay warm in the tunnels.  Brian is checking out some of the WWII posters that are hung.  They describe things like, what you should do if there is a chemical attack.
Posters on what chemicals can do to your body and what you should do about it
Once done here, we were done touring for the day, and spent the rest of the afternoon checking out the city center.
Me with an Estonia doll
The main square during the day
The main square in the evening
The sun was setting so late when we were there - this was definitely taken after 10pm
That evening, we again ventured out into the neighborhoods, in search of another amazing dinner.  And again, we were very pleased with the bar we found for a drink before dinner and the restaurant. 
Walking back out of the Old Town - it's such a different place
The micro-brewery we went to. It was small, simple and had great beers.
Estonia graffiti 
And here is where we had dinner
And we scored a pretty good table
Finland was only a 1.5 hour ferry ride away, so our last full day, we jumped aboard for a day into Helsinki.   Helsinki has a small city center, so we were able to really see everything we wanted to in 1 day.  Just like all other Nordic countries we had been to, we loved Finland.

The Ferry to Finland
Helsinki's main attraction - the Lutheran Cathedral
Selfie at the Cathedral
We spent the day browsing an amazing market, checking out the Design Museum, swooning over the design shops, then relaxing by the waterfront.

The produce at the market was all beautiful, and a perfectly colored, shaped and displayed
I bought some strawberries and they were amazing - they rivaled Oregon strawberries
And look how perfect these peas are?  These were snacks for the ferry home
A quick stop for a morning coffee and something famous that everyone else was eating.  It was like a donut, we think, but it was also 6 months ago and we can't exactly remember what it was.
This wasn't right after the coffee, but later that afternoon, we stopped for lunch at this place FAFA'S. It was super crowded with locals, and took ages to get our food, but it the best falafel we've ever had, hands down. It's worth going back for.  Also, see the bike in the photo.  Everyone rode these bikes.  They were super cool too.

After lunch, and stopping in a few shops, we walked for ages to a big park along the water.  Once we made it, we were rewarded with this view
At the bottom of the other side of the park, we enjoyed a beer by the waterfront
And what's a trip to Helsinki, home of the Angry Birds, without a few angry birds photos. You could buy anything Angry Birds - I can't believe we didn't make it to the official Angry Birds Store!!
After a great day in Helsinki, we were back on the Ferry to Tallinn.  The boats were actually massive, with restaurants, bars, and even a nightclub.  We found a nice booth, and enjoyed the ride and the view.

Living it up on the Ferry
View from our booth - the front of the ship
Sun setting from the boat
The parting shot I leave you with was on our last day, at our favorite restaurant from the first night - this was Brian's lunch.  Delicious.

I definitely had one last bowl of coconut soup, and Brian got the daily special.
Again, we both had 2 courses, and the bill was €12
This trip was incredible.  Estonia definitely won our hearts and I think we are both anxious to go back several years down the road and see how the city has progressed.  It's already super cool, and you can see it transforming.  If only we had enough spare money to buy an old Soviet warehouse in an up and coming area....