Daytripping to Powerscourt

For all the house guests we’ve had in our year abroad, it’s hard to believe I’ve only just recently gone to Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow. It was such an easy drive (or easy bus ride, if we have more than one adult traveling with us) from south Dublin. Definitely easier than bringing a pregnant friend to Howth and trying to hike in icy lashes of wind and rain along slippery trails. (That was in May.) So Emily, who loves gardens, this is for you.

The Powerscourt Estate is situated on a hill looking out at two distinctive Wicklow Mountain peaks, Little Sugarloaf and Great Sugarloaf

We had the great fortune of a spectacular fall day, one where Ireland was out from under its frequent gray shroud. In the warm full sun (no wind reaching down into our bones), the shimmering greens and autumn tones of changing leaves were unbelievably beautiful.

View from Triton Lake of the back of the house. You can see the winged horses at the top of the lake

Powerscourt was the site of a castle built around 1300, and by around 1600, the Wingfield family was given the property as part of Sir Richard Wingfield’s appointment as “Marshall of Ireland.” The Wingfield family hired Richard Cassels to construct a Palladian-style mansion around the original structure in 1731. Descendants of the family lived in the estate through the 1950s, although it was mostly a summer home. There was no central heating in the mansion for much of the house’s life, and anyone who visited us this past shivering “spring” would appreciate one family member’s recollection that:

…the old Celtic idea of hell was somewhere intensely cold. Powerscourt in winter would have qualified.

(This grand house was hotter than hell at least on one night, though, when in 1974, the eve of its public opening, a fire gutted the entire thing.)

The original gardens were laid out in the 1740s by Daniel Robinson. An aside in my Lonely Planet guide explains that Robinson supervised the construction laying down in a wheelbarrow with his bottle of sherry, in increasing states of inebriation.  Sláinte, Mr. Robinson. The grounds are magnificent in spite of, or perhaps because of, your intoxication!

The walled garden

We strolled for over an hour through the Italian gardens down to Triton Lake, the Japanese garden and through the hollows of the grotto, where it was noticeably colder. On one of the mossy stone archways, I zoomed in with the camera to find a dangling icicle!

On a soft slope in the gardens, there is a pet cemetery my in-laws had mentioned to me, since they know I am insanely in love with my cat. 

Touching epitaphs at the pet cemetery

It was so moving to see such loving tributes to animals who meant so much to their owners.

We went on a Friday morning in mid-October, and it was fairly quiet. We glimpsed these beautiful horses through the trees on one of the paths. Seems like one of them had a foal (resting under what I assume is his mama in the left)

The toddling, stroller/buggy crowd would have a tough time negotiating some of the non-paved footpaths and fully exploring the grounds, like climbing to the top of Pepperpot Tower.

Pepperpot tower on the estate grounds with the peak of Great Sugarloaf in the distance.


A better bet for kids is the nearby Powerscourt Waterfall (the largest in Britain and Ireland), which is technically part of the estate but is not accessed through the main gates of the manor house drive.

This is Ireland. Driving in Wicklow.

On the grounds there, you’ll find a playground, picnic areas, and a sand pit with a short nature walk to the thundering fall. (“It’s very loud,” G said, as we approached the almost 400-foot sheet of water.) The moss and lichen-covered rocks were slick, but the boys loved scrambling over them and observing the shallow pools of water in the gaps.
All in all, this was one of my favorite daytrips from Dublin. Definitely worth visiting.
PS: Any more skilled bloggers have tips for reducing image file sizes without compromising quality? These images are exported as “medium” from iPhoto because the original file sizes are much too large and would slow down loading, but I notice quite a decline in the image sharpness.

It’s a long way to Tipperary

My mother left yesterday, and again I am reminded why living abroad for all its excitement is hard. I am not sure when I will see her next. We had such a whirlwind visit of road trips and I wanted to write this post before autumn gets swallowed up by the holidays and it is the end of the year.

We have officially entered what I call “the drift:” the original term of Sascha’s contract is up, and yet we are still in Ireland for various reasons, mostly summed up as it is much easier to stay put until work forces the next relocation. Not that it’s a complaint. When I’m healthy, I love Ireland. It is an absolutely beautiful place to live and I know we are so lucky.  It is complicated to be without a plan, but we have so many opportunities we might never have otherwise.

One of those opportunities was the chance to meet my late grandmother’s first cousin and family, who live about 2 hours from Dublin. So two weeks ago, when Sascha was in NYC and my mother was here, we packed up the Micra and strapped in the boys and hit the road to meet our Irish relatives.

I don’t know if we would have gone to the Killaloe/Ballina area were it not for the family, but I am so glad we did. The area is rich in history, with Killaloe being the birth place of Brian Boru, the last high king. Killaloe and Ballina are villages opposite each other on the River Shannon, which forms a watery border between the counties of Tipperary and Clare. They are connected by a stone bridge, which is over 300 years old. I mostly have iPhone snaps, so the quality isn’t amazing compared to our new camera, but at least you have some idea.

The village of Killaloe

The bridge is too narrow to allow two-way traffic so a light at either end regulates the flow.  The river here is wider than the Liffey and it empties into Lough Derg, the biggest lake in the Republic of Ireland. Rimming the lake are the Slieve Bernagh Mountains (Co. Clare) and the Arra Mountains (Co. Tipperary).

Top picture is a plaque on the bridge looking toward Lough Derg that commemorates four men shot by Auxiliaries in 1920. The middle picture shows Killaloe Bridge, with some of the original arches from over three hundred years ago.

We passed under the bridge on the boat tour. It being off-season, we were the only people on board, so James let the boys (and me) drive the boat. G really grabbed the wheel and enthusiastically turned it back and forth, so the boat fishtailed a bit. I actually got a bit nervous that while the captain took our photo G would run us aground.

A rare picture of the four of us!

We met Michael, his sister Nellie, and his wife, Nancy, at our hotel on our first night and then we made a plan to visit them at the farm the following day. My mother had not seen Michael and Nancy since the 70s, when they visited the U.S. before I was born. She remembers having them over for a barbecue but they didn’t want to eat corn on the cob. They called it “horse food.”

Apparently, after I went back to the room to put the boys to bed, my mom got excited about the potential for a secret smoke. Michael invited her out for a smoke, but she was disappointed to discover it was a pipe, not cigarettes. “Well, I’d’ve given you a pull or two,” he said.

Because the farm is not on the GPS, we were to meet Michael at a place called “The Lookout.” Around this vast lake, you might imagine there are many lookouts, and we spent some time driving on the wrong side of the lake before I figured it out. We did enjoy the unplanned tour of the Clare County side of Lough Derg and were grateful for Michael’s patience.

Michael. Some islands in Lough Derg are visible in the background

Michael took us down to the graveyard where his grandfather and father are buried. Over the years, it had been neglected and he and some other volunteers did a lot of work to restore the grounds and they even won awards for it. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, resting at the bottom of a graceful green slope to the shores of the lake.

Nancy and some other women planted many of the flowers in the foreground of the first photo. Michael helped restore the ironwork on the church ruins.

This is the grave of Michael’s grandfather, who was my mother’s grand uncle

After walking the wet grounds of the graveyard, everyone’s feet were soaked. At the house they had a fire going in the sitting room and we were happy to take our shoes off. Out in the country, Nancy says, it seems like things never really dry.

Michael, my mom, Nancy, and Nellie

The house they live in is a new house built around the original two-room home where seven children were raised, including my great grandmother. Michael’s son now runs the thriving dairy farm.

The boys were mad for the tractors. Millie the dog was mad for them

I really enjoyed spending time with them.

“Oh to be young again,” Nancy said to me when I looked at her wedding photos. “Some years really make all the difference, don’t they?”

Michael and Nancy recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. I love the confetti on his shoulder

Nancy told me she would have done things differently if she could go back.

Like what? I asked.

I would have traveled, she said.

The most haunted house in Ireland

While we were driving for the boys’ nap the other day, en route to Hook Lighthouse, this spooky house arose from the flats of Hook Peninsula. We veered off course to check it out. (The goth teen in me lives on.)

This is Loftus Hall, which sits on a lonely finger of land poking into the sea. The wind rushes in from the water (not much in the way of cliffs here to buffer) and whispers  through the surrounding grass fields. Eerie!

The Jersey Shore of Ireland

We have found the Jersey Shore of Ireland.

Just a 20-minute drive through bucolic green hills of sheep and cows, and distant, shimmering water, lies a fantastically tacky seafront with rides, arcades, souvenir shops, and tragic teens called Tramore. (On rainy days, it also has a warren of corrugated metal buildings known as an industrial park, where one can find such offerings as a paint-it-yourself pottery place, and two different indoor play areas for children staffed by surly teens.) I love it, in the way I loved Coney Island before most of it was razed to make way for luxury condos and hotels, and in the way that it reminds me of preteen summers in “The Sound.”

The morning started off well enough. This is the view from People’s Park in the village of Dunmore East

C in training to be a polar bear with his Gramby. The cold water did not deter him at all.

Based on the 12-year-olds with thigh-grazing hair, severely drawn-in black eyebrows and terra-cotta canned-tan skin that made them look almost forty, there is a reality show opportunity here. One appeared to be wearing a peach toga she clutched at nervously while on a ride. I wanted to scrub their faces clean. “You are my pale people,” I would say. And I would promise they would find someone to love them.

How can you not love such a defiantly summer place even when there is no real summer at all? (Yes, I should have brought my wool coat. In August. To our beach vacation. I am paying for my psychological block against doing this.)

We discovered Tramore out of desperation. Following a morning where we had already gone grocery shopping, eaten two breakfasts, gone to the playground, and the beach, we thought the boys would nap. The rain had started and so we went back to the place we are renting to put the boys down. Thus began the games: G hurled himself out of the pack ‘n play with the skill and body torquing of a pole vaulter. For an hour and a half, we tried threats and low voices. We had throbbing headaches from not enough sleep ourselves. Finally we took them into our bed, and when they still wouldn’t sleep, we put in a DVD. Fear not, American Academy of Pediatrics. TV is no opiate for my children.

We had to get out of the house.

C started having an epic meltdown out of sheer exhaustion. I think the trigger was putting his jeans on, or maybe his socks, but whatever it was we had to carry him, rigid and screaming, to the car. They were out within four minutes.

It is clear that when away from home, we need to be either: 1. Out walking in the stroller during their nap time or 2. In a car driving. It means there is no napping for us, no real downtime, until they finally crash at night. Of course it was too late now for them to have any real nap, so we needed a massive distraction.

Some may call Tramore a blight. For us the blinking, garish lights and din of shrieks and pumping bass arose from the Southeast shore of Ireland like a beacon of hope in a desert afternoon of parenting. The boys drove remote control trucks, rode fire engines, bounced in a trampoline.

G asked: “Are dere mans up there?” Somehow it rained 20 minutes away, but not here

Today we went back for the circus.

Hello from Dunmore East

Today began our planned holiday, so of course that means we found ourselves running to an emergency vet appointment, and Sascha sitting on top of our toy car trying to get the lid of the luggage carrier to close. (Sashi is fine, but she had an infected cut, possibly from a rumble with a lane cat. Also, to those of you who think my cat is a bitch, the vet said “there’s something royal about her.” So there. She can’t help being superior.)

We are in the “sunniest corner” of Ireland and it was beautiful when we finally arrived. Here’s to summer vacations (with no wi-fi). What are your plans?





London calling

With twin toddlers, planning is usually the way to go. But the risk is that it can be too easy to plan ourselves right out of something. When we have time to stop and think about it, why on earth would we go anywhere? That’s pretty much what happened with us going to London. When the idea first surfaced, the logistics seemed too daunting and exhausting to squeeze in two weeks before.

But with less than 24 hours of preparation time, some whim overtook us and we decided to just go. We didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see some family and friends that were going to be there. Last minute plans were quickly arranged. We rented a flat that would have two pack ‘n plays. Booked tickets. Cat sitter arranged. Messages left and emails sent.

Yes! We can do this.  We are still spontaneous, fun people! This is part of the adventure of living abroad!

The Olympic Rings hanging from the Tower Bridge

These exciting thoughts lasted about five minutes, or until I decided to check the weather forecast in London: rain Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then maybe some clear skies on Sunday, when we were to leave. I took Sudafed and slept terribly.

So when we got off the plane in London and it was not raining, I was hugely relieved. It was also about ten degrees warmer. Athletes were already arriving; we could see them weaving through the airport traffic in their brightly colored team uniforms like ribbons. Good thing now that the boys are 2.5 years old, we’ve also had some endurance training.

After scoping out the nearest playground and getting some food, we walked over to the Southbank area for sound check.

Approaching Southbank Centre with Big Ben and the London Eye in the background

C watched the amazing drummer, Will Calhoun, and said, “I want to do that.” (Will gave them signed drumsticks, that, you guessed it, we’ve since taken away until they have an actual drum to hit.) Sascha was thrilled to see Oumou Sangare again, after working with her on “Throw Down Your Heart” years ago. Much, much later we were able to get to the theater to see the last twenty minutes of Oumou and Bela’s fantastic show. The entire audience was out of their seats, spilling into the aisles, and dancing.

Sascha, Oumou, and Bela

The next morning we hung out with B in the lobby of his hotel until the cars taking them to the airport arrived. We said goodbye and hit the town at 8:30am.

The very first time I came to Europe, I came through London.  I was twenty years old and had an enormous backpack strapped to me like a tortoise shell. I met C and V in Paddington Station as we waited for our train bound for the same study abroad program. I remember the countryside rising in green hills that filled the train windows, and the feeling that the wide world was opening up, the world of places I had only read about. When the boys yelled “Ben!” as if greeting an old friend when they spotted the famous clock tower, I hope on some level, they have that feeling, too. The world of the “London Taxi” book was coming to life for them, so vividly that when we had to take a van to fit the four of us, our luggage, and the double stroller, they were pissed: “It not a London taxi,” they sniffed.

I crashed for a few hours on Friday morning while Sascha took them by Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace. The highlight of their trip (and I’m certain, their lives so far) was seeing a helicopter land in the road, right across from the playground.

C and her two daughters in St. James Park

C has recently returned to London and later we met up with her.

We enjoyed it until the sky suddenly grew dark and a wind started tossing the trees. I knew the wind meant business. We did not have a good, nearby indoor plan for our four kids. Instead we spent a very long time under a canopy of trees on Birdcage Walk, hoping it would pass soon.

When it finally did stop raining, we walked what seemed like an impossible distance (at least for the legs of the 5-and-under-crowd and their meandering attention spans), to the Tate Britain.

Tearing up the Tate

By the time we arrived at the museum, it was well past dinner and the kids were starting to lose it. We ate over-priced, mediocre museum cafe food and did not look at a single painting. I recommend the museums in London highly, just not as destination dining.

Saturday we hit the Jubilee Gardens and we went back down to the Southbank, which had a Festival of the World going on.  We had brunch with old family friends of Sascha’s, Camille and Schuyla. It was sunny and we were ecstatic.

Brunch with Camille and Schuyla.

We wore short-sleeves. I know most of the U.S. has been struggling with heat waves and drought, but here has been a real lack of summer, and it’s a hard thing to get used to.

The boys were not interested in the London Eye, so we took a river cruise down to the Tower of London. Boat rides, we learned one rainy day in Paris, are a godsend.  We can sight see, sit down, and keep the boys interested all at once.

Tower of London

In the late afternoon, we met another friend in Holland Park, where we found a peacock literally strutting for peanuts. Another mom was kind enough to share some with the boys so they could feed it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a peacock that close.

Finally, we hopped into a taxi (yes, a London taxi) to meet our California friends. By happy coincidence, they were vacationing in London with their children. We had not seen each other since the boys were just a few weeks old. The Eagle was a great little pub with a huge enclosed back garden, and kids were running all over. It was the first time we were able to sit back and enjoy a pint and sort of have an adult conversation, as our boys ran off with their kids and played.

She’s going to make a great babysitter

Los Angeles in London

Unintentionally, this also became a trip to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. In the preceding week, we had both pretty much forgotten our approaching anniversary. In a fit of optimism (and remembrance), we made reservations at Galvin La Chapelle, a very fancy London restaurant, for Saturday night. But after being out with the kids all day (following some brutally early morning wake-ups), I had already eaten a burger at 6pm. We didn’t get to our 9:15pm reservation until about 10pm. We declined starters, ate our entrees, and then discussed how delicious it would be to just go home. Sleep was better than Michelin-rated desserts, at least at that moment. The waitress was worried, in a restaurant with Cuban cigars for after dinner and a gourmand tasting menu: Was everything alright? But that is five years of marriage and almost eleven years of being together: just as happy to get the check, duck into a taxi, and collapse into bed.

Sunday we made it over to Notting Hill, where a friend let us drop off our bags and then we walked together through the beautiful neighborhood to Hyde Park. It was actually hot outside. I think somewhere in high 70s, maybe even 80s.

The Princess Diana Memorial Playground is as good as everyone says, and now I understand why there can be a huge queue. Again we were lucky: we got there before there was a wait. I think we only saw a small portion of it (and had yummy
ice cream cones from the cafe).

Not a cloud in the sky

There was a massive sandpit area with a beached pirate ship. The adventure playgrounds in Dublin are amazing, but for some reason I have yet to find a playground in Ireland with a sandpit. There is nothing my sons enjoy more than digging in sand.

It was so hot (!) that most unprepared parents just stripped their kids down to diapers so they could play in the water and sand.

Teepee playscape

After the park, we only had time to change out of sandy clothes and then get to the airport. We were lucky with the weather and the chance to spend time with so many friends and family.

The flight back was the first plane ride where no one cried. (Not even us.)

Kinvara, Ballyvaughan, and a bit of The Burren

Driving out from Galway into the backwards “C” of the coast, towards the very tip of County Clare,  we were finally in “postcard Ireland:” wet fields of cows and sheep, low piled-stone walls, and winding, shoulderless roads where I felt I had to hold my breath every time another car passed.

There are may inlets and small harbors dotting the coast, and the landscape changed dramatically based on whether or not the tide was in.  We stopped at Keogh’s for lunch in Kinvara village, where we enjoyed talking with one of the owners who had lived in Northern California for a while and then we let the boys run around in the playground of the local primary school before going up to Dunguaire Castle, a 16th century tower house.
The house has passed though many hands, some aristocratic and some not; at one point it was a literary gathering spot for the likes of Yeats and Synge. The history of generous patronage has embedded itself in local lore: one merely needs to ask a question at the gate, and by the end of the day, it will be answered.

We climbed the damp, circular stairs all the way to the top. The wind shrieked through cracks in the small stairway windows. You can see how windy it was (and narrow!) in these pictures.

After the castle, we headed toward the village of Ballyvaughan. Along the drive here, some of the massive limestone hills of a geoological area known as The Burren began to loom over us.  They look vaguely lunar, and in better weather (perhaps later this June)  I hope we can see more of the slab fields and dolmens and some of the unique plants that grow in the area. We were headed to the Aillwee Cave, one of the oldest caves in Ireland, which had some Easter activities going on for kids. We thought it would be a good entry point for the boys to experience some of the Burren without loosing them down a “crike” (a crack in the rocks).

Let me tell you about touring a cave with toddlers: We had driven 45 minutes from our last location and we were determined to go. We were also sleep-deprived and wind-lashed, and possibly could only think of activities in terms of inside vs. outside as the weather over our weekend on the west coast got worse each day. As we waited in the tearoom, we discovered the tour was a half hour and that strollers/buggies couldn’t come along. A young girl ran screaming from the caves, followed by her exhausted-looking father a few seconds later. S and I looked at each other and just started laughing. Definitely not the best idea we’ve had.

We straggled behind the tour group, trying to prevent the boys from veering off course into a chasm or from picking up some of the thousands-of-year-old-brown bear bones to put in their mouths. At one point, the tour guide shut the lights off completely. I don’t know exactly what he was saying then because all I heard was:


“Turn the YIGHT on!”

View from the terraced hillside where the cave is located. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see Galway Bay

We waited in a long queue for the restrooms before getting into our car for the return trip. To be more efficient, all four of us went into the “family” bathroom with the changing table. It was so tiny that the smallest movement I made in changing a diaper meant I would set off the automatic dryer on the wall. (You would be hard-pressed to find a paper towel dispenser in Ireland, and the boys hate the noise of the machines.) Every time I set off the dryer, I also set off rage and tears in whomever happened to be standing on the floor. G at one point started kicking and banging at the door, apparently in the hopes of soliciting help from the throngs of people outside who gave us dirty looks when we finally exited.

Because you should always end a travelogue with a photo of the majestic public rest room!