As I sit here typing in quiet Castletownshend, Ireland it’s hard to believe about a week and a half ago our family was speeding along the highway in the Czech Republic and beginning a 10-day road trip involving 7 countries and over 2,200 kilometers of driving. We crossed the middle of Germany and a sliver of Holland in a single, albeit tiring, day. What was supposed to be an 8-hour drive turned into more than twelve after encountering substantial traffic and an unfortunately-placed screw, which landed itself in one of our front tires. We got very well acquainted with the inside of a repair shop. Needless to say, the German autobahn did not turn out to be the “Fahrvergnügen” experience Brian had hoped it would be.
The next day was spent in Antwerp, Belgium, birthplace of Brian’s aunt and the city inspiring his cousin Jon’s bar in Rochester, Minnesota, called The Thirsty Belgian. We saw the beautifully designed Central Station, stood in front of City Hall with its many flags, and strolled through the famous Grote Markt. Then we wandered down to the River Schedlt and walked along the Het Steen Castle, Antwerp’s oldest building. Next we stumbled upon St. Paul’s Church, a rather modest looking building on the outside, but once inside we saw the stark beauty and intricate woodwork of this traditional Belgian-style cathedral. Before leaving the city we had to take Jon’s advice and stop for a beer (or two) at Paters Vaatje, a pub sitting at the base of the ornate Cathedral of Our Lady.
Our second Belgian city made its way onto our itinerary after some suggestions from Facebook friends. We never would have known about Brugges had it not been for some comments on our trip photos. We’re so glad we went for a morning. It’s a town of cobblestone streets and historic canals where every other store is selling either beer or chocolate. Our kind of town!
After Brugges we drove two-hours to Calais, France and prepared to board a ferry taking us across the English Channel. Despite arriving an hour before the departure, we barely made it onto the vessel in time. A long, slow-moving line at the border patrol station preceded the twenty questions we got from the officer checking our passports. “Where are you going? How long will you be there? What about school for your children? What do you do for a living? How can you afford to be gone so long?” This extensive line of questioning probably had less to do with U.K. national security than it did with the guy just being bored and a bit curious about these weird American travelers in a French car coming to Ireland for over a month. Despite the third degree, we made it onto our ferry and arrived on the south shore of Britain less than two hours later.
Driving off the ferry and into the left-hand lane was probably the most surreal part of this road trip. Luckily, it was easy highway cruising for the first couple hours, which gave Brian time to adjust. However, once we hit London, things got a little intense. That town is stressful driving on its own, with winding, narrow streets and double-decker buses coming at you every ten seconds. Now add 22 years of driving experience using the other side of the road with all of the roundabouts and turns going the opposite direction. It was a little too much after a long day of travel.
The next day we woke up refreshed and ready for a full day in London (sans driving). We started with a walk through Piccadilly Circus and Convent Gardens, and then met up with new friends, Jeff and Tanya King. We’d met Jeff when he was visiting Prague. He and his wife have lived in London since his work transferred him from the U.S. two years ago. They took us to a well-known U.K. restaurant, Nando’s, for some Peri-Peri chicken and fun conversation.
From there we took “the tube” up to Queens Park and met up with Brian’s old friend, Eric. Brian and Eric were both sports instructors at Camp Robindel back in college and hadn’t seen each other since. An annual fair happened to be going on that day in Queens Park, so the girls had a great time playing with Eric’s son, riding carnival rides, watching various performances and even getting their first (and hopefully last) taste of cotton candy.
Our third social engagement for the day was with fellow Chattanoogans, Ted and Kelly Alling, and their three kids. Their family has come to London for the year to have an international experience and expand Ted’s business opportunities as a start-up investor. We had a great time with them over some good Italian food and some very good wine.
Our second day in London was an intense barrage of Harry Potter movie sets and London tourist attractions. I took Emily and Liv out to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour for the morning. We saw all the sets from the movies and did silly things like ride broomsticks in front of green screens. For die-hard Harry Potter fans, it’s totally worth it. For everyone else, it’s a big dorkfest. Luckily the girls and I fall into the former category.
Meanwhile back in the city, Brian and Ali began the double-decker sightseeing tour. The rest of us joined them in the afternoon for whirlwind touring of London’s historic spots. At this point in the road trip, we couldn’t subject the kids to much more of our parental “walking around and looking at stuff” agenda, so we did a lot of drive-by sightseeing, only getting off the bus for couple major stops. One of them was the Tower of London’s unique Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation, which marks the 100-year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. The exhibit shows 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British fatality during this tragic conflict.
After a couple days in bustling London, we were ready for a quiet retreat in the countryside, which is exactly what we got. We stayed at a guest house on an estate in Lechlade, which is located in the heart of England’s Cotswold region. The house came with a trampoline, huge meadow, basketball court, lily pad ponds, guinea pigs and two dogs. The result: Brian and I barely saw the girls at all. We relaxed while they played. Win-win! We toured the quaint villages in the area a little bit, but honestly it was kind of hard to leave the haven we’d found for those two days.
Soon it was time to head for our second ferry crossing of the trip. We embarked in Pembroke, Wales and four hours later arrived in Rosslare, Ireland, just two hours south of our next destination – Dublin.
Dublin was fun. We were “those parents” taking our three children into pubs, but in our defense we also hit a lot of playgrounds too. Our first day there we walked the city center and took advantage of its free Museum of Natural History when the weather turned rainy.
The next day we drove out east to Dalkey and went down the coastline along Vico Road. This led us first to Bray, a popular seaside area, and then on to the 120-meter high Powerscourt waterfall.
We left Dublin the next morning and drove to Kildare where we visited the Irish National Stud. Home to some of the most high-earning thoroughbreds in the world, the Irish Stud is a beautifully designed farm with rolling pastures and immaculate landscaping. There we met a stallion who makes $300,000 a day for simply mating with females. (This was a horse, by the way.) The stud farm is also situated right next to a beautiful Japanese garden, which the girls loved and were very sad to leave.
A little further down the highway we checked out Rock of Cashel, a complex of medieval structures which was once the seat of Irish kings. The castle and chapel buildings sit atop a limestone outcropping with sweeping views of the countryside. The temperature was perfect, the sky was clear, and if we hadn’t been on a schedule to get to our last stop of the trip we could have stayed there for hours.
Finally, after ten days of travel it was time to see our new temporary home in Castletownhend, a small village on the southwest coast. We’ll be here through the end of October, and so far we have to say this place is looking pretty darn good.