Amsterdam! Part One: Staircase Truths

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C and I are just back from a truly wonderful few days in Amsterdam. Neither of us had been there before. It’s not an easy thing to find a European city that is new for both of us at the same time. Please welcome to the stage, AMSTERDAM!

I took plenty of photos and noticed lots of things about this “Venice of the north”, so I am going to do a few posts so as not to bore everyone with one long one.

Part One:

Before my parents renovated our house in Connecticut, it had a scary staircase. The house is an old New England farmhouse with small rooms, nooks, crannies and two very steep staircases that fit into the walls of the house. The house was built before staircases were a feature. This particular staircase was daunting from above or below. My grandfather wrote on the stairs, from the bottom to the top, “You Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”. When my parents renovated the house Jacob’s ladder was a part we were sad to have to remove. It had to be removed because those kinds of staircases are not feasible for children’s safety, not to mention the safety of pets or older humans. My mother saved the staircase, though. It currently resides behind our garage, a staircase to nowhere.

Amsterdam is full of staircases like Jacob’s Ladder. All the staircases we encountered were narrow and quite steep. The canal houses themselves are narrow and steep so it follows that the staircases would be. But it almost seemed like a joke at times.

When we opened the door up to the AirB&B flat we were renting, we were shocked at the tiny, steep white staircase that awaited us. It looked like a fun house. All that was missing was the wonky mirrors along the walls. Yet all Dutch staircases are like this.

You can't really even tell just how steep that is.
You can’t really even tell just how steep that is.

Often they curve slightly around at the top or bottom making them even more treacherous. Even in larger buildings where the stairs can simply climb right up they were practically vertical.

We ventured out to a newly built up part of the city for a gig one night. We got off the tram in an area populated by glass apartment buildings. The area looks similar to the Grand Canal Dock neighborhood of Dublin. There is a grassy amphitheater in a park area near the tram. There are steps up and down, cut into the side of the small hill. The steps were terrifyingly steep. Even in a modern area! Even when they didn’t need to be!

The Dutch are brave. Between their staircases, the many canals, and a constant bikers at along all the streets, Amsterdam not the city for you if “health and safety” is highest priority.

It is my new favorite place, though. I can safely say that all the treacherous obstacls are completely worth taking on for the pure delight of the city itself.

That's someone's front door.
That’s someone’s front door.
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Amsterdam! Part One: Staircase Truths

The Happy Pear

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I am not the first, nor shall I be the last, to wax lyrical about The Happy Pear in Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

My first experience with this jewel box of a grocery store/cafĂ©/organic food movement came about four years ago. I’d just walked over to Greystones from Bray along the cliffs. (That cliff-walk is well worth doing if you are visiting Dublin.) It was March. As I walked into Greystones’ village, there was The Happy Pear with boxes of fresh produce piled outside looking like a sea of heavenly, tasty vitamins and hydration to this weary walker. On the top shelf were fresh passion fruits! Passion fruits! In March! In Ireland!

The little grocery store is stocked with organic fruits and veg., homemade pesto (which you can find in other shops around Dublin which is a GOOD THING), organic dried fruits and nut butters; it’s the usual health-food fair.

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The cafĂ© serves two or three hot meals a day with a selection of four salads. The plates are HEAPED with organic vegetarian food. It’s a lot of bang for your buck (or euro). On my most recent trip (pre cliff walk with my aunt and cousin), I had the aubergine bake. It was cheesy and warm and rich. My aunt had a black bean curry that was warm and spicy and my cousin had the soup of the day with homemade brown bread. We were all not only happy with the taste sensations while eating, but totally fueled up for our long walk too.

The Happy Pear caters to those with crazy sweet-tooths as well. They make incredible gluten free, refined sugar free treats like the raw twix bar and tiffen bars. We had one raw twix and one chocolate caramel bar. Rich is an understatement but that didn’t stop us from eating them.

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The Happy Pear is run by the Happy Pair Flynn Twins. They have just put out a cookbook. They run week-long detox programs and workshop nights that help people get on the “good food, good body, good brain” gravy train. They are hard to resist.

I don’t have to tell you all that I am a huge supporter of Irish food, and The Happy Pear is just about everything that is so great about this healthy Irish food movement.

Just a View of Some Passing Rain Along the Cliffs
Just a View of Some Passing Rain Along the Cliffs
The Happy Pear

The Purty Kitchen Supper Club

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“It’s like a wedding!” said my friend, Ruth, as we all sat down at a long table in front of a stage. She wasn’t really speaking about the fact that there was a stage; it was more that we were at a table with 15 of our close friends about to eat a meal and enjoy some music.

The Purty Kitchen in Dun Laoghaire (that’s Dun Leery for American readers) has been around for ages. I have never had reason to go. It’s that little bit far away from home (especially without a car) and that little bit expensive. Last Saturday, though, the incredible We Banjo 3 playing a gig there was the perfect excuse to get in.

We weren’t eating in the restaurant proper. There is a Supper Club on the weekends (and a few cheeky weeknights) upstairs. There are about twenty-twenty-five tables of varying sizes dotted around the big open room. There is a stage at the front, a bar at the back.

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The menu is a smaller/simpler version of the one from the restaurant downstairs. I had a smoked fish patĂ© and duck for my dinner. Most of the men had chicken wings to start then the lamb shank. A few friends had the goats cheese and spinach filo pastry, and a few had cod. You get the idea. It isn’t food that knocks anyone’s socks off; but people aren’t necessarily there for the amazing food.

The food was NOT bad, by the way. It just wasn’t stand out fabulous. I did eat all the duck and was very happy.

We were all thrilled by the music though. It is a wonderful place to see music because the audience is basically on stage too. A whole new crowd of revelers files in after dinner and can sit or stand around the bar. Ireland being Ireland, there is no AC, so when the weather warms up and the band gets going and the audience is digesting . . . it gets a bit warm. Don’t wear too many clothes in the summer months.

I kind of wish they had started the music a little earlier. Maybe even during our dinner. There was a bit of a lull, then new people arriving . . . yeah, it actually did feel just like an Irish wedding.

I recommend keeping an eye on what’s coming up at The Purty Kitchen. If it’s someone you like, it is a great place to see them. And please, please check out We Banjo 3. They are awesome.

That's Us. Enjoying Ourselves.
That’s Us. Enjoying Ourselves.
The Purty Kitchen Supper Club

Vaughan’s Anchor Inn

Everybody Photographing Food Before Eating It. #thefutureisnow
Everybody Photographing Food Before Eating It. #thefutureisnow

I didn’t grow up eating fish. The occasional fish stick was all I was served in my younger and more vulnerable years, and that was always just a vehicle for ketchup. My mother doesn’t like cooking fish because it can make the house smell. I don’t think that I would have eaten it even if she did cook fish while I was living under her roof. I was not an adventurous eater. Not even close.

Throughout college I became more adventurous. I spent the summer between freshman and sophomore year on Martha’s Vineyard. I grew to love some seafood such as scallops and crab cakes. Gateway shellfish such as muscles cooked in a rich creamy garlicky sauce became a typical order on a night out.

A Friend's Scallops at Vaughan's
A Friend’s Scallops at Vaughan’s

I believe that I can now call myself a lover of seafood. Apart from sea urchin which I cannot bring myself to try, I have tried, and like to eat, most of what comes out of the sea.

Last week in Galway and Clare it was all about the crab claws. Oh man, even writing that has made me want another plate. All in all, I must have eaten about fifteen crab claws in one day. And I still want more, greedy guts that I am.

The first place I ever ate a crab claw was at Vaughan’s Anchor Inn in Liscannor, Co. Clare. It was just over a year ago. I have thought about them a lot since then. I didn’t know that the restaurant was called Vaughan’s, so I was thrilled, when after a swim in the sea and a long day jaunting down the West Coast of Ireland, we arrived at Vaughan’s last week.

Full disclosure: on our first stop of the day, at New Quay, our happy gang of six popped into Linnane’s and shared two plates of crab claws. Just to keep us going, obviously. I have no photo of them because we ate them too quickly.

Our Little Amuse Bouche
Our Little Amuse Bouche

So when we got to Vaughan’s and were thinking about what to order, I was going to go for the fish n chips. Only because I thought I should after already having eaten crab claws that day. But the Vaughan’s crab claws really had made an impression and who knows when I will be back in Liscannor, so “F*#@k it,” I thought, “I am going to get them again.”

Happily, Fergal was experiencing the same inner turmoil in regards to the crab claws, so we came together in one fabulous order of fish n chips AND crab claws.

I Mean . . .
I Mean . . .

It was the perfect combo. Too many crab claws would have been a sad way to end a magical day. Not ordering them would have lead to months of regret. A bad food order can do that to me.

Because we were all feeling a bit buzzed after our beautiful day in the sun and sea, we also ordered starters to share: crispy pigs ears and white bait. Always a good appetite whetter, that combo.

The Fish n Chips
The Fish n Chips

The chef sent out espresso cups full of smoked eel and potato soup for us. We thought we were being rewarded for being the most attractive table in the place, but we noticed a group of golfers getting the free soup as well. Whatever the reason, it was delicious and rich and we were grateful for it.

The crab claws lived up to my memory fully. It’s almost not worth eating crab claws anywhere but on the Western Coast of Ireland. I have yet to be disappointed.

The fish n chips was also fantastic; the fish was incredibly fresh and flakey.

You would be a Super Silly Soul not to go to Vaughan’s when you are in the West of Ireland. It is worth the trip, no matter how long the detour may be.

Vaughan’s Anchor Inn

Mountain Biking in Wicklow

View From the First Climb. Wicklow Towards the Sea.
View From the First Climb. Wicklow Towards the Sea.

I love the idea of being a tourist in your own country or city. I think it’s important to try to see the place you live through the eyes of a visitor. I always find that having visitors in Dublin allows me to appreciate the city more. I’ve complained to C more than once about the fact that I sometimes feel like I haven’t seen enough of Ireland, or that we don’t get out of Dublin enough.

Getting out of Dublin is so easy, so that last complaint is easily remedied.

I wonder if it was that desire–to get out of Dublin and to act like a tourist–that C was hoping to fulfill when he bought my wedding present. It must have been. Because I have never had any desire to go mountain biking.

I cycle around town every day. C and I did a really wonderful bike trip from Vienna to Budapest last summer, but Mountain Biking has never been a sport that tickled my fancy.

On the morning of my birthday (over a month ago), C told me he had a day of biking in the Wicklow Mountains lined up. If I didn’t jump for joy it was only because rain was falling horizontally outside our bedroom windows. So we postponed.

Last Friday we finally had a free day and the good weather to make our bike trip a reality. We boarded the Glendalough bus from Dawson Street with a bunch of American and Spanish tourists. After forty minutes, we were let off at the side of the road by a golf club halfway between Kilmacanogue and the Sally Gap. We got a warm up hike of about twenty-five minutes up to the bike rental.

Roundwood Reservoir
Roundwood Reservoir

Forty minutes on a bus and we are in the country; small roads, cottages, farms complete with sheep dog puppies and fields of sheep. No sign–smells, sounds, sights–of a European Capital city a mere twenty miles away. The road smelled of earth, sheep, honeysuckle and grass.

We found Biking.ie and met our guide, Richie. This is where things got a bit worrying for me. In fairness to C, I don’t think he was expecting to get a lesson on hard core mountain biking either.

The bikes are great; strong yet light, large-tired mountain bikes. We had to learn how to stand up on them, keeping our pedals even, and one finger always on both breaks. We had to learn how to let gravity help us over rocks and roots. I was scared. I was nervous. I was not excited.

Richie seemed to think we’d do fine. After only three “practice runs” on a little trail around the rental compound. We had a long twenty minute climb up to the trail head. That part was hard, sure, and my thighs were like, “whaaaaaaaaaat?!”,  but at least we were on a long, combed road that didn’t have sharp twists and turns, or huge rocks and roots.

We had a short reprieve at the top to take in the view before hitting the single track trail. I was not thrilled about this. I told myself, though, that I would be proud of myself if I could do it. I told myself that if C and I were just newly dating I would want to attack this challenge to prove that I am both athletic and tough. I held onto those emotions–or tried to, I really wanted to cry–as we set off.

The trails were beautiful, and I really wanted to be on foot so I could enjoy them. The actual trail riding is kind of a blur of total fear and frustration. I did it though, and was so happy to come out on the open road that looks out over the Guinness Estate just in the valley before the Sally Gap.

Made It!
Made It!

After some Jelly Babies (for glucose!) and a photo op or two, Richie gave us the choice of either riding some more trails or taking the road down around the Roundwood Reservoir.

“YES! Let’s do that. I just would feel happier.” I chickened out. But this was my birthday present and I wanted to actually enjoy it without breaking down in a mess of tears. I had managed to ride two trails. I was proud of that.

The rest of the ride was really wonderful. The day was gorgeous, I felt confident on the roads and didn’t even mind the few big climbs we had to do. I’d never seen the Roundwood Reservoir, and it is beautiful.

All in all we were on our bikes for about three hours. It was a good, solid ride, sometimes very scary, sometimes absolutely perfect for the early summer day.

The whole day reminded me that getting out of Dublin, of doing something new–even something right on your doorstep! even something that scares you!–is such a good idea.

And now I also know that I don’t want to be a Mountain Biker. So I can tick that off the list!

Me and My Bike. #nailedit
Me and My Bike. #nailedit
Mountain Biking in Wicklow

Foodie Paradise

Cheese Table at Schull's Farmer's Market
Cheese Table at Schull’s Farmer’s Market

I feel sorry for all the foodie tourists of the world who think that France or Italy or Spain is the ultimate food-lovers destination. As far as I’m concerned, Ireland, but specifically for this post, West Cork, is hard to beat.

C and I spent the weekend in Schull, West Cork. West Cork is one of my favorite places even minus the good food, but the food certainly keeps a foodie like me counting the moments until I can go back.

When we spent my mother’s birthday in Durrus three years ago, the weather was awful. One of the worst summers on record. We got through the days finding wonderful food to eat. We watched Durrus Cheese be made as we stood in torrential rain, we ate fish and chips washed down by a Sancerre in Schull harbour, and on our last night in Durrus, we went to Good Things CafĂ©.

Fish Stew
Fish Stew

Good Things was definitely a highlight of a good food week. I went back two years ago in October, on the last night they were open for the season. C and I managed to sneak in at the last minute this weekend; the first weekend they were open for the season. Boy oh boy are we glad we did.

Fresh Summer Greens
Fresh Summer Greens

Good Things does exactly what it says on the tin. Carmel Somers, the owner and chef, is dedicated to serving the best of West Cork’s ample cornucopia of goodness and to teaching people how to cook it well themselves. The restaurant is tiny (by city standards) and cozy. It is surrounded by lawn and herb gardens. As we got out of the car we were greeted by three sweet Donkey’s.

His Main
His Main

As it was the first weekend of the season, there was a set menu. C and I tried one of everything on offer, because, well, obviously. I don’t actually have enough adjectives to do the meal justice. The food is homemade, hearty, fresh and simply, wonderful. There wasn’t a bad item in any of the dishes. It was all early summer loveliness. A perfect way to kick off our West Cork weekend. (I didn’t get a photo of the rhubarb pie dessert because it somehow disappeared before it could be photographed.)

Her Main
Her Main

The wonderful thing about West Cork is that you can find incredible food in pretty much every town along the peninsulas. Pubs serve food that would put many city restaurants to shame. It is all simple, local and delicious. No one is trying to re-invent the wheel, but with cheese and salmon and fresh fish this good? Why would you want to? And chips. Pub’s in West Cork never go easy on the chips.

One of my favorite examples of this is O’Sullivan’s pub in Crook Haven. Go on a grey or rainy day when it’s not too crowded (it’s vicinity to the gorgeous Barley Cove beach means it does get crowded). Cuddle into a window seat and order the smoked salmon. Or the chowder. Or the fish n chips. Good luck finding something that doesn’t scream “Ireland!” “Fresh Food!” “Heaven!”

A Typical O'Sullivan's Lunch
A Typical O’Sullivan’s Lunch

We drove over to Union Hall for dinner one evening. We’d had a tip-off that Dinty’s was the place to go for a good steak. Our tip off was correct. C went for the mixed seafood plate. You can never go wrong with seafood in West Cork. Obviously.  But when someone tells me a steak is good, I don’t read the rest of the menu.

Dinty's Finest. And a Murphy's to Wash it Down.
Dinty’s Finest. And a Murphy’s to Wash it Down.
His Seafood Special
His Seafood Special

We ventured to the farmer’s market in Schull on Sunday morning. It is exactly what every good farmer’s market is. The only difference is that West Cork makes some of the best cheeses and sausages in all of Ireland, which means in all of the world. Buying the goods right there mean prices are half what they would be in fancy whole foods markets up here in Dublin. We stocked up.

West Cork honey has the reputation of being some of the finest honey in Europe. The European Restaurant’s Society voted it one of the key ingredients in any fine European pantry. Butter was the other Irish winner. As we walked along the roads over the weekend, the fields were alive with the humming and buzzing of thousands of happy, very busy, bees. I am lucky enough to have married a man whose uncle harvests prize winning West Cork honey. Yes, I am smiling smugly.

So to all you foodie tourists out there: go sweat in Italy or battle the chic set along the Mediterranean or the Riviera if you fancy it. Sure, Ireland cannot promise you sunshine, but I guarantee you will eat some of the finest food you have ever tasted.

Foodie Paradise

The Relief of Dublin

Mostly Empty Streets in Central Dublin at Lunchtime
Mostly Empty Streets in Central Dublin at Lunchtime

Walking through town this afternoon I was thinking about how much I love living in Dublin. Dublin is a big(ish) city, but the streets aren’t crowded. The buildings are low so sun hits your face, yet it’s never too hot.* I spent last week in the madness of London, and Dublin is such a relief! Dublin is a relief of a city! The lack of bodies on every street, in every shop, on every train, is such a wonderful change from New York and London. I love New York and I love London. I’ve lived in each for at least two years. I really enjoyed spending a full week in London last week, but it’s exhausting to be there. Just to move around is work. For a person (me) who doesn’t like crowds, Dublin is the ideal.

London was shockingly full. It felt bursting with people. Even more then when I lived there (2005-2007). Most people in central London were tourists. As I write this post a group of American tourists are chatting over my shoulder, but Dublin is certainly mostly Irish people or people who live her. In London it was rare to hear an English accent on the streets.

Some of my favorite people live in London. I love that I know it well and can get around without looking at the tube map too often. I like having a favorite place for tea, and dinner, and park relaxations. But coming home to cozy, relaxed, slightly slow Dublin is the best part about leaving.

Another Quiet City-Centre Street
Another Quiet City-Centre Street

*Yes, sometimes a little extra heat–or even a proper summer?–would be nice.

The Relief of Dublin