Falling in Love with Ireland

The final leg of my three-weekends-in-a-row travel extravaganza was a Friday to Monday trip out to Ireland. I had mixed feelings about this trip from the very beginning, partly because I was getting a bit burnt out from all the travel and partly because I had heard that Dublin wasn’t all that great of a city. But I had a friend out in Galway I wanted to visit (Eilish!), so decided to organize my trip so the bulk of my time would be spent outside of Dublin.

The flight over was uneventful, featuring another exciting trip out to the mysterious Frankfurt Hahn airport to experience the wonders of flying budget airlines. We got into Dublin around 8 p.m. and didn’t get into the city proper until close to nine. This put us in a bit of a bind, because we all were starving, but apparently most pubs in the city stop serving food after 9 p.m. Tired and hungry, we decided to swallow our pride and go somewhere we knew was still serving food and where we knew we could find something we’d want: TGI Fridays. Not our finest moment (14 euros for chicken fingers? Really?), but at least our hunger was sated.

After eating and dropping our stuff off at the hostel, it was about 11 p.m. We were all tuckered out but unwilling to go to bed without sampling at least a little bit of Dublin nightlife, so we wandered over to the Bleeding Horse Pub for a nightcap. It was a pretty cool pub – very loud and lively inside, with a trendy décor. We quickly realized, however, that everything—not just your TGI Friday’s chicken fingers—was expensive in Ireland. Many of the beers cost more that 5 euros ($7)! For a pint! Compare that to 2 – 3.50 euros for a half-liter in Marburg. Yikes! So we sipped our pricey beers, enjoyed the loud music and general chatter, and then slipped off to bed.

The next morning, I caught a 10 a.m. bus to Galway to visit Eilish. I used the 20-minute or so walk over as a chance to see some more of Dublin, and overall I just wasn’t impressed. Granted, I was seeing it at about 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, so not exactly the time when Dublin comes alive, but I just didn’t find the city very pretty or inspiring. I’ve seen Paris and Munich and Budapest and Salzburg and, well… Dublin just didn’t seem that special. I was also surprised and annoyed at how hard it was to find a simple café on my way over where I could pick up a fresh-baked pastry and maybe a hot chocolate. Many places advertised themselves as cafes, but when you went it, it be more of a convenience store with some baskets of croissants or donuts whose freshness was suspect. Color me unimpressed.

Shops in Galway

The busride to Galway took about 2 ½ hours – it’s a harbor town on the other side of Ireland. In many ways it’s not unlike Marburg – a small town that thrives on a significant university student population. Eilish picked me up at the bus station, I dropped my stuff off at her apartment, and then she took me on a tour of the town.

I was immediately smitten with Galway in a way that I had not been in Dublin. The best word I can think of is charming—lots of cute shops, friendly people and interesting bits of history. After walking a bit we hopped on a boat to take a cruise on the River Corrib, which offered me the chance to see more of the Irish landscape as well as some bits of historical significance in the form of castle ruins and other abandoned structures.

That night, Eilish took me out to one of her favorite pubs. The entire experience was just wonderful. The pub was fairly small but quite packed. There was a traditional Irish band playing in the corner, and people would occasionally attempt to dance in what little space they could find. I was also amazed at how friendly people were, and how willing they were to talk to strangers. Eilish and I talked for a bit with a few Irish guys who began the conversation by complimenting us on our drinking Guinness (“You look like real Irish women!”). The whole atmosphere was just so warm and convivial. It was unlike anything I had experienced in my travels.

Dunguaire Castle

The next day, Eilish and I hopped on a tour bus that would take us around several points of interest in the surrounding area, including the much-hyped Cliffs of Moher. It was my first experience doing any sort of organized tour, and I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but overall it was a very positive experience—certainly an efficient way to see a lot in just a day. The only downside was that there were many times I wish we could have just pulled over and stopped to admire the view. It would definitely be nice to do a tour of the Irish countryside by car some day.

The tour took us to the lovely Dunguaire Castle, situated on a placid lake and then to a fairy fort, basically a ring of trees with a grassy clearing in the center. It’s actual purpose is unknown, but was probably either used for farming or ritual purposes thousands of years ago.

From there we wound our way up to the Burren, which is a hilly, barren part of the country. The landscape was very interesting, much of it being very rocky and somewhat treacherous to walk on. Our main stop here was a portal tomb, an ancient tomb marked by massive stone slabs. I thought this was totally cool, unlike anything I had seen so far in Europe.

We had about an hour stopover in Doolin for lunch, one of the adorable small towns that, as far as I can tell, pretty much dominate the Irish countryside. Then it was on to the main event, the Cliffs of Moher.

The Cliffs were the one thing I knew I absolutely had to do in Ireland. I had heard so much about their epic beauty. I prayed that the volatile Irish weather would be kind to us for just forty minutes, and thankfully it was cooperative, at least as much as could be expected.

The Cliffs of Moher

The sun was shining beautifully on the cliffs, though the wind was incredible. Honest to god the most intense wind I had ever experienced, and anyone who has ever lived in Milwaukee knows that I have experienced some serious winds. But the cliffs provided an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of lush, green countryside and deep, mesmerizing blue ocean. It’s easy to understand how so many before me have been captivated.

We then wondered over to the visitors’ center, since we had tickets to the exhibit portion of it as part of our tour. The exhibit was interesting, but if our tickets hadn’t already been covered, I certainly wouldn’t have paid for it.  The cliffs are enough of a treat in themselves. We also timed the weather perfectly, for as soon as we began to move into the visitors center the rains moved in.

After the cliffs, our tour had one more stop along the seaside, to sort of offer a perspective on what the rest of the Irish coast looks like. I thought it was as beautiful as the cliffs, just in a different way. It was not unlike the coasts in the Pacific Northwest—very rugged, with high waves crashing against the rocks.

I really fell in love with the Irish countryside during my trip. In every way that Dublin unimpressed me, the countryside rose to the occasion. It was beautiful in a way I was not used to experiencing—I’m used to the mountainous, forested beauty of the Pacific Northwest, or the medieval beauty of Germany, or the architectural beauty of places like Paris and Salzburg. The Irish countryside was none of this—just rolling, verdant fields or pleasant woods. But there was such a simple beauty in all of this, and such a kindness in the people, that I couldn’t help but be won over.

The next day, Monday, I headed back to Dublin with the rest of my group. I had originally thought that I would use this day to do some proper sightseeing of Dublin, but they had already done most of their major sightseeing and I just wasn’t feeling a strong desire to explore the city. We walked around a bit, seeing St. Stephen’s Green, Trinity College and some other parts of the city, but I ultimately was not won over.

However, the adventure didn’t end in Dublin. You see, getting back to Marburg was going to be quite the ordeal, because after we booked our flights, RyanAir changed the departure time of our flight back to Frankfurt so that we would be getting into Frankfurt Hahn around 11 p.m. This was problematic because it meant that by the time we reached the train station in Frankfurt, we would miss the last train back to Marburg and have to wait until the first morning train the next day. Oh boy.

So we got into Frankfurt Hahn right on time, around 11:10 p.m. We then waited around the airport until 12:30 a.m., when we caught a bus that would take us back to the train station in Frankfurt. We could have taken an earlier bus, but given the choice between loitering in the clean, safe Frankfurt Hahn Airport and loitering in the shady, unclean Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, we chose to maximize our time in Hahn.

We arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, chipper and alert, around 2:15 a.m. When we went to enter the train station, not wanting to wait around with Frankfurt’s finest citizens outside, we found that all the doors were locked. Uh-oh. We walked around to the front of the train station and saw several security officers loitering outside of it. Still in a sleepy stupor, I attempted to speak to them in German, and thankfully was coherent enough to explain we had just arrived from Hahn and that we were taking an early morning train to Marburg. This was enough for them to let us in – after we were in we realized we were thankful that they were being more discriminating about who was actually getting into the train station at these hours. So then we sat for three hours, trying to fight the mind-numbing boredom. At 5:21 a.m., we hopped a train to Marburg, and around 6:45 a.m. we finally arrived at our dorms, a mere 12 hours after we left Dublin. The things you do for a cheap flight!

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Journey with the Parents: München

The Great Parental Adventure continued with a four day stint in Munich, chock full of adventures.

We got into the city in the afternoon. Famished from a long journey, dad leapt at the first food vendor he saw, directly outside the Hauptbahnhof. He got a wurst there which was seemingly ordinary, but apparently it was one of the most delicious things he had ever eaten. Based on that first impression, we knew Munich was going to be a good time.

The Neues Rathaus in Munich.

After getting settled into our hotel, we immediately set off for Marienplatz, the heart of Munich’s old city. Our specific target was the fabled Hofbräuhaus. After some early missteps, we were able to find our way into the city center. From the first sight of St. Peter’s Church (Alter Peter), I was in love. There is so much beautiful and incredible architecture in Munich as well as history. To me, Marienplatz was totally overwhelming because it seemed like everywhere you turned there was something to see or explore or look at appreciatively.

The Neues Rathaus is particularly stunning. It’s most well-known for its Glockenspiel (one of Europe’s most overrated tourist attractions!) but to me, that was just a footnote. The building itself is just beautiful and so intricate, full of charming details that reward careful observers.

No touristy visit to Munich would be complete without a visit to the Hofbräuhaus, so we made sure that was one of the first things we did. We’re thorough like that. But the Hofbräuhaus is a must-see for obvious reasons. Yes, it’s crawling with tourists and saturated with Bavarian stereotypes. But you know what? It’s also ridiculously fun. The atmosphere is convivial, the music is entertaining and, most importantly, the beer is delicious.

The next day, we took a train out to Dachau in order to see the concentration camp memorial there. I was very conflicted about this trip. Obviously, this is a place that is powerful and worth seeing. But it’s still not an easy thing to commit yourself to, no matter how important you think it is.

Still, I am glad I went. The camp is very well-preserved and extremely interesting and moving to visit. It was much, much bigger than I expected – walking into the camp and immediately seeing the open square where the prisoners used to line up for roll call was a somewhat surreal experience.

I am quite glad that I got to visit the camp in April, instead of the summer when there might be more tourists. It was already a little too crowded for my tastes, and this was on a Wednesday in the low season. I experience places like Dachau better when there is more solitude, and it was quite distracting—and a little disheartening—for there to be so many tourists there who only seemed to want to take pictures, rather than take a second to internalize what they’re looking at.

The third day, we took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria. I was excited for this both to see the city—I had heard it was beautiful—as well as to actually leave Germany for the first time. Granted, going to Salzburg was not exactly a huge departure from what I knew in Germany, but still. It was a new country!

Overlooking Salzburg, with a glimpse of the Alps to the right of the fortress.

The weather was phenomenal and Salzburg certainly lived up to its reputation as a beautiful city. A friend described the city as “excruciatingly beautiful” and by the end of the day, I think I understood what he meant. It was all just almost too perfect—a historic fortress looking down at the city from a hill, winding streets through a thriving old city, wide squares with picturesque fountains and white marble buildings… seriously, Salzburg pretty much has everything you could ever want in an ideal European city.

We paid several euros in order to take an elevator up to the top of  a hill so as to get a better look at the city, and I think that was definitely money well spent. It was a great vista from which to appreciate the beautiful white-and-green motif that dominates the city as well as to get a look at the Alps in the distance. To sum it up, Salzburg is simply gorgeous.

The original plan for our last day in Munich was to go to Neuschwanstein, which is basically THE German castle to visit. However, it was clear that energy levels in the group were dwindling and none of us were particularly enthused by the two-hour train ride that would be needed to get us to the city of Füssen, from where we could obtain transport to the castle.

We decided instead to use Friday to see more of Munich, and filling the day was not difficult – again, there is so much to see in Munich.

We started with a tour of the Residenz, the former palace of Bavaria’s royal family. It was an interesting tour, but I’m not sure it was worth the money to me—it was just a lot of elegant rooms, many of which were reconstructions, since much of the Residenz was destroyed in World War II. The part I enjoyed most was actually seeing the display of the valuables that belonged to the family,, such as swords, crowns and gem stones.  This was actually a separate part of the museum that you could pay individually for, and I think I would have been just as contented if we had only paid for the treasury portion of the museum.

After the Residenz, we wandered over to the Viktualienmarkt to find some food. The Viktualienmarkt is basically a huge outdoor market where you can buy ready-to-eat food as well as things like vegetables, breads, etc. From there we went over to the beautiful St. Peter’s Church, which was largely destroyed in World War II and was then reconstructed in the aftermath.

I’ve really come to appreciate the devastation that actually ensued from WWII. We don’t really have any conception of this in the United States because there has never been any sort of assault on our soil that has caused such widespread devastation. Yet time and time again, I visit places—structures as well as entire towns—that were something completely different before the war. I can’t help but wonder what Germany would look like if WWII had never happened—so much history was lost amidst the onslaught.

Green space! People!

Our last stop was the English Gardens, a massive public park similar to Central Park in New York. The park space is absolutely massive from what we could see, and we really only saw a sliver. The University of Munich is situated along one edge of the park, which I think would be absolutely wonderful if you were a student. I was instantly jealous, suddenly no longer satisfied with grilling on the banks of the Lahn River in Marburg.

All in all, I absolutely loved Munich. It’s everything you expect it to be, but it does that so well. If you can get over the fact that it’s crawling with tourists and accept its clichéd charm, you’ll have a blast. And seriously, the beer is awesome.

I made it!

I am currently sitting in the Frankfurt Airport (though this won’t get published until I get to Marburg) and the only word I can think of right now is surreal. I know, it’s the most stereotypical descriptor of a first arrival in a foreign country. I sound like every study abroad blog ever when I say that I feel like I’m just waiting to wake up – this can’t be real. But there’s a reason every study abroad blog begins like that: it’s true.

I am in awe right now of how far I have come, literally and figuratively.  Literally, 11 hours ago (from writing this) I was in Seattle. And now I am in Germany, another world away. Figuratively, because oh my God – I’m in Germany. I’ve wanted to visit here ever since we hosted an exchange student from Germany ten years ago. And now, after studying the language for 2 ½ years, after months of preparation, after a fairly rigorous scholarship application to help fund this… here I am. I did it. And this is only the beginning.

Right now I am waiting for the other Marquette student coming over with me –  she should be in within the hour. I am not quite sure how this whole meeting thing is going to go, but we’ll see. I’m a bit surprised at how quiet this airport is. Frankfurt is such a business hub, I expected this airport to be humming with life, huge and overwhelming. But honestly, I think an airport like SeaTac would be way more overwhelming. But maybe there’s just much more going on here than the little bit I’m currently seeing. Besides, I still have to take a train to Marburg, which I think could be the most confusing part of the trip.

The plane ride itself was fairly uneventful. Overall I’m a fan of Lufthansa’s service. The meals were decent (high praise for airline food!), they doled out hot towelettes, and there was a vast selection of entertainment options. I watched The Social Network and The Other Guys, two very good movies for completely different reasons.  I was on the aisle of the middle section – it went 2 – 4 – 2 – but there was no one in the middle two seats, so that was a bonus. Except then the woman in front of me decided to move into our middle (not sure why) and proceeded to periodically hand off or receive her small, flailing child. So that got a bit old.

Ok, now the rest of this entry is being written from my hotel in Marburg.

I finally met up with Becca around 10:45 and we set off to figure out this train nonsense. After some false starts, we bought what we hoped were the correct tickets. We first needed to take a train from the airport to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) and then change to the train that would take us from Marburg.

The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was fairly overwhelming – dozens of tracks, and no clear way of figuring out which track was the one we needed. I suppose with less luggage we could have wandered around and figured it out for ourselves, but laden down as we were, I opted to go straight to the information desk and ask where we needed to go – a less dignified route, yes, but a much quicker one.

Then we had further confusion – we were sent to track 14, but according to the sign there were two different destinations for this train – one would take us to Marburg and the other went to different towns. As far as we could see, there was only one train here and it was the wrong one. We decided to just get on the train anyway, since it would at least start by heading in the direction we needed; we could just get off at some point and change trains again. Not fun with so many bags, but doable. However, when we reached Gießen, we realized that we were on the correct train, just the wrong part – the cars would divide and the front of the train would go to Marburg.  So all we needed to do was relocate to the front train and we were good to go!

It was such a thrill reaching Marburg – this is it! My home for the next five months! I have to say though, I wasn’t really expecting it to be as bustling as it is. The second we arrived, there were people, mostly students, everywhere. They didn’t even wait for us to get off the train before pushing forward to get on .

Once we left the train, we were faced with our ultimate nemesis: stairs. My suitcase was extremely heavy and Becca had multiple rolling bags. We began to struggle our way day when a kind-hearted lad, certainly a student, immediately leapt in to give us a hand. And God bless him, he carried our bags down the first set of stairs to leave the platform and then up the next set to the main station area. I don’t know how we could have managed without him, and so I salute you mystery student.

Luckily our hotel was approximately a thirty second walk from the train station, so the worst was finally behind us. I was afraid our hotel wouldn’t have an elevator, but thank goodness it does, though it is the smallest elevator I have ever seen – I barely fit with my suitcase.

Now we are just chilling in the hotel room, using up our hour of internet for the low (hah) price of 4,95EUR.  We laid down for about an hour and a half nap and getting back up was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I know that I’ll never shake this jetlag if I go to bed when it’s still light outside. So, we roused ourselves in hopes of rallying at least until nightfall. But good heavens, I’ve never dealt with exhaustion quite like this.

Ok. Running out of internet. That’s the word.