Ireland — Dublin and Galway

My first time here, and the reason is a Symposium on Molecular Biology and Evolution, held at the Convention Center Dublin (CCD). The CCD is a recently built, ecological gem of Dublin, work of Kevin Roche, winner of Pretzel prize for his work.

The thrill of adventure and discovery, always fills me with enthusiasm! Ireland is notorious for particularly unwelcoming, windy, cold and rainy weather, and to be honest, the weather forecast for my stay over there (17 degrees and showers every day) managed to slightly decrease this sense of adventure. But, all worse for the best though, once expectations are left at home, surprise surprise! there’s no disappointment and good things happen.

After a 2h flight from Zürich and a short shuttle bus ride, I am already at the check-in desk of my hotel, right across the CCD. The staff is very friendly, exhibiting right from the beginning the Irish hospitality.

Samuel Becket Bridge spans over the Liffey river and makes my way to CCD only a 5 min walk. Along the banks of the Liffey, the memorial of the Great Famish stands as a reminder for Ireland’s worst moment in history, when more than a mil ppl packed up their goods and left Ireland for Canada, in search of a living. Nevertheless, today’s Dublin is a very modern and contrasting city. Bustling streets, colorful front end doors, modern architecture mixes with Georgian buildings along the banks of the river. The spear shaped Monument of Light astonishes with a 120m height, in the middle of O’Connel street.

If you’re a fan of natural fibers, then you’re in the right place. Several regions in Ireland process the wool of cute black head/legged white fur balls. Some of the most famous tweed manufacturers are in DonegalFoxford and in Avoca(slightly pricier than the others), while the Aran Island produces the almost emblematic sailor woolen knitwear, that keeps warm and dryish in the same time (wool properties).

Celtic symbols, necklaces and jewelry, tin or golden plated silver mixture, you’ll find it everywhere. Pretty expensive – later on advised not to buy from Ireland – but convinced me to take one home.

You thought you know how to jumpstart your day with a good breakfast? well think about it twice, cause Irish will teach you a lesson! From cereals and fruit with yogurt, to scrambled eggs, sausage, beans and rice pie, they make sure you don’t start your day with empty stomach!

Be it in the elevator, on the street or at the counter of the shop (are you ok – now-? typical Q in the shop), fair skinned, red haired, scouting blue eyes. It won’t take long until someone addresses you, so keep always a smile on, cause you never know when you need it (soon for sure). Straightforward, easy going attitude soon starts up a conversation with the tourist that opens its mouth and fails to blend in the local accent. I’d like to think that this welcoming warmth has its roots in curiosity, honesty, altruism or a weighted combination of these. Whichever the case, it is definitely one of the most impressive phenomenon that made me want to return.

Beer’s not a favorite drink? Fresh draught Guinness is still a must try. I personally prefer red wine over any other alcoholic drink, but I must say, whenever I’ll pass by, I’ll have a stout! The fresh dark brown brew, with just a little mousse on the top, is delightful and while you enjoy it, without noticing, you simply forget about daily issues and get into the local spirit.

The symposium was super tiring! Somehow I also managed to walk a lot during these days and by the end of the 3rd day I just felt dead tired. It was an intensive workshop and truly big, with parallel talk sessions from 8:30AM till 8 PM.

While walking around I came across Earen book store and without noticing I picked up 3 books: Dubliners by Joyce, Fairytale for who knows when I’ll have time and you wouldn’t guess what else… The Origin of Species of Darwin! In his recent talk at EPFL, C. Papadimitriou made a note on how popular the book became in England after the first publication and how even grandma’ could go and get it from the shelves of the book store. He recommended it as a reading, and my surprise was big when I had this deja-vu. So I bought it for future reading.

I gave myself a 2 day gap between the conference’s end and my return to Switzerland and well in advance, I signed up for a 2 day trip to the west coast of Ireland, namely a trip to the Cliffs of Moher and Burren – Galway – Connemara and Kylemore Abbey – Dublin loop, before getting back to work!

I chose to travel with Dublin/Galway Tour Company, based on the Trip Advisor reviews they got. I’ve never seen before a company relying so heavily on Trip Advisor reviews, but it was worth it. Yes, looks line and ad, and no they are not paying me for it! They already did with their service I’d say!

So we set off on Wed early morning, after a plethora of food and drinks at the ‘Taste of Ireland’ soirée in Trinity College, social even part of the symposium’s program, from the Tourist Info Center Old Church near Suffolk Str. Dublin. In a stretch of merely 3h, we were in Galway, took a city tour and in the afternoon went to visit the cliffs. Bottom line of the city tour: ‘If you can see the Burren from Galway it means it will rain. If you cannot, it means it is already raining’ :)

Curiously enough, on the trip I ran into CJ. Later on I learned she had participated too at the SMBE, totally unexpected even with such a high number of participants! The first part of the trip was a blast! I mean the whole day trip was a blast, but the first part, made the strongest impression on me. From Galway to Burren (first stop before the cliffs) we traveled with …well short memory, the guy on the other end of the phone, and it was my best bus trip EVER! I was laughing with tears the whole way! He usually sits on the other end of the phone, but this time (not sure why, he was the one transferring us). On the exceptional transfer bus, we were ‘like beans in the pot’, so there were not enough seats, and this is how our fellow Dan ended up being ‘the Man’. He volunteered to stand, and made the ‘mistake’ to say ‘no big drama’ – and that’s how it all start. The driver made sure to crack a few more jokes on him for this affirmation, but hey he got to see everything in HD from the front row and besides, he was the … Man! for that hour. Blue, green or turquoise? hard to tell Dan? but no big drama :).

The sights both at the Burren and the cliffs were very nice, though the weather was pretty capricious alternating between sunny and foggy. The guided part of the tour is very thorough. ‘wind was blowing and rain was falling’: geological structure of the rocks, history and New Found Land, hat designer Philip Treacy and Elton John, we got all we need to know about this corner of Ireland.

We were not short on Irish humor for sure and I must say I fell in love with it!

When we reached the Burren, we switched to Damien’s confi bus and that was the 2nd most entertaining road trip I’ve ever had. Irish humor and whiskey in the jar! more that one’s brain can take, endless information flow all the way back to Galway. We learned about Máire ní Mahon and made a stop at Poulnabrone Dolmen the Celtic tomb to take a tour on… ‘Ireland’s brain’ one might say.

Supposedly we learned a lot about Irish traditions and culture, and especially about the annual matchmaker event in Lisdoonvarna. Not to be neglected for a putative future escapade.

Back in Galway a quick check in at the hostel and went for the previously agreed drink with our dear Damien and Greg, our new Australian friend – funny accent :)

Again the night was a blast for fun as well as for my head! Guinness and Jameson with Pale Ale and here we go, all set for the 2nd part of the trip, Connemara and Kylemore Abbey with its Victorian style luxurious gardens.

But early in the morning before the departure, I decide to go down to the docks and check out the preparation for the Volvo Ocean Race Final. So on my way, I bump into Damien! What a nice surprise! He welcomes me with a warm good morning hug and some useful tips for the day and then we say bye. At the departure for Connemara, I also meet our previous day’s funny driver, and he tells me how he saw me going on my walk that early morning. This is very heart warming, it is a striking openness from these people’s side which I haven’t encountered in a long while, and it feels good to not have to try to read ppl’s face, mind and go guessing all the time.

The second trip started off slightly less motivating that the previous one, at least from humor point of view. The weather became typical Irish for the day and cleared up only by the end.

Though the fairy’s tree and oyster culture in the x lake was interesting story, though most of the trip was about the Silent Man’s shooting scenes.

The last night in Dublin, we spent it in Barnackle’s, Temple Bar area. Had a very nice friendly discussion around an Irish dinner and then we parted and everyone continued his own journey. Are we going to meet again? future will show… they say the World is small.

Tip: when booking female only room, one increases its chances to actually end up with less ppl in the room than when you go mixed.

Once I get off the plane, a chocolate melting, clothes burning heat strikes me as a welcome. I guess the air conditioning from the train was supposed to make the transition from cool 166 of Dublin to the hot summer >30 of Zürich(at least it felt like that).

Bottom line: I had a good time and I would recommend Ireland to anyone who’s up to experiencing Irish humor and hospitality, cooler weather and a pint of Guinness.

What to wear? A smile is the sexiest you can wear!

End of story … Cool beans!


 More pics here.


Birthday gift of this year. After a year when I strained myself to please my friends and nearly forgot that it was me the reason for celebration, and another year of the same story with less enthusiasm, I decided that it was time for me to finally do something that will actually cheer me.

Still, in a moment of over excitement, I decided this year as well to make a try and share with some closer friends and my lab mates, some dear memories of birthday celebration that I have from childhood, but I failed quite badly. Good that I have planned this long weekend trip a while ago. It yanked me out of my misery :).

But the trip wasn’t that smooth either. The flight was only one hour long, but even that seemed an eternity. In the whole aircraft, there were 3 places where people were hyperactive and of course one of the very lucky passengers to participate involuntarily in this, was me!

My father always tells me that I speak too fast and I never gave took him seriously. Well all things at their time. The 2 seats next to me were taken by 2 probably Catalan women (mid age). One of them was the hyperactive type. You could see only when looking at her: skinny, mignon and… talking a lot. I mean A LOT! Continuous process, nothing discrete in it. She out talked the pilot both at take off and landing and the only interruption was when she ate. Thank God they invented manner around the table. I imagined I’d read a paper for the exam later on. Well, forget it. As Bernard pointed it out, people get anxious in the air, lack of oxygen makes you irascible. So either it was me, or she who suffered of oxygen insufficiency!

Finally made it out the aircraft, far from the talkative entity, right into the heart of tapas and paella land. The city is neat. Clean, though the streets are packed with tourists all year round I’d guess. The beach is less attractive, for me at least. Though some might enjoy the increasing degree of nudity as you go north, the sand is full of stubs and the water was cold, not for swimming.

On the other hand, the hop-on hop-off double decker open top tours for visiting the city are good value for the money. There are 2 companies, one offers 3 circuits, the other 2. We end up taking the 2 line one (red). They are very nice for visiting the milestones of the city and getting an intuitive sense of the city’s topology.

First things first, as a traveling habit, as soon as I get into a new place, I go straight away to the Tourist Information point to get a map. Said, done .. and got a map big as a bed sheet! It is only later when in Dublin that I realize how much of a difference it makes to have a proper guide with the list of sights and a reasonable sized map with street names in alphabetical order. I guess a change in traveling style will follow soon (for me).

Accommodation in a neat hostel, room with balcony looking the main road (-> ear buds for a good sleep). Sightseeing: basically one day went by with a trip to Colonia Guell and some sightseeing around Placa Catalunya. The colony wasn’t really worth the effort. Besides the fact that Iulia double validated her train ticket at arrival ( poor system setup poorly – at least made the trip more interesting), the shrine of Gaudi is beautifully built in the same ornamental style as other masterpieces of his, but that’s all there is in Colonia Guell.

Magic Fountain Placa CatalunyaSame evening, we made our way back to the Placa Catalunya and spend there at least an hour by watching the wonderful play at the Magic Fountain. It is a truly beautiful spectacle. The water changes in height according to the accompanying music’s rhythm, and so do the lights change. The show is over by midnightish.

I guess I should learn Spanish too, or at least improve my Italian, since in Barcelona, I got along only by miming and speaking a mix of Spanish and Italian. No French, no German and not too much English was of help.

Shopping: YES! Amazing variety of colors and fabrics! I just love the various floral and abstract patterns in the clothing and they are reasonable priced too. And shoes, bags, very nice leather goods, of good quality and design as well, at a reasonable price.

Sagrada Familia: unending story! It is a pity that Gaudi couldn’t finish it. Seems like its construction will go on forever! The guided tour is very nice! Again you become an information junkie by the time you finish with the tour, but you learn a lot. The idea that stroke me the most, is how Gaudi used his inspirations from nature, to create a futuristic masterpiece, a very complex and totally innovative, for his time, architecture. The pillars sustaining the structure are inspired by trees from the forest and they are made of different materials according to the weights they have to bear. The stained glass patterns and icons are simply amazing and the resonance of the inner space during services must be outstanding, since he dedicated time to study this feature too.

The 2 different stories depicted on the 2 entrances of the cathedral and many many other details embroidered in the minutely sculptured figures. Souvenirs with his work can be found everywhere, but as a lesson, next time I just buy what I like on the spot cause you don’t find the same things everywhere.

The remarkable features of the city are its markets. La Boqueria and Mercat St Caterina are just wonderful!

Lovely, the fish market is delightful, at least for someone coming from a mostly continental environment. You find all the exotic fruits possible, sold as well as ‘macadamia’ or zumo. Very refreshing!

Park Guell, well it is probably the busiest park of Barcelona, but the most decorated too. All the columns and gangways are covered in an unusually beautiful and creative architecture. Winding lanes and colorful mosaics. And of course, black market merchants who will offer you cold water and sell you nice glass necklaces for affordable prices (though some bargaining is recommended – tested, works!). Was a bit surprised to see some cute green parrots nesting in the foliage of the palm trees hanging over.

Of course it is not possible to see everything, but at least most of the things didn’t go undiscovered.

Tip: Barcelona supposedly has public Wifi connection but it is not straightforward to make it work. So have a look at that beforehand especially if you go, like me, with a list of to sees and you don’t want to get a headache by trying to find them on your paper map.

More pics here.

Volunteering to dig up the past …

August 2007, Freixo de Numão, my first voluntary camp. The location is pretty remote: Lisbon -> Vila Nova de Foz Coa -> Freixo de Numão -> Porto -> Lisbon -> Home…

The Arrival

The plane landed on Ana Airport of Lisbon (Lisboa) earlier than expected, but the precious time we gained was soon wasted with baggage claim. My connection to Freixo de Numao was a bit tricky and a long drive. After I retrieved my backpack, I sprinted for a taxi and made it just on time for the bus leaving for Vila Noa de Foz Coa. A 6h 30 drive followed and with no time between connections, I never got the chance to eat, so the sun was shining and I was starving.

When I arrivedAfter an exciting trip where nothing happened, I reached my destination. The place was very clean and neat–imagine that movie scene, where the girl is standing in the middle of nowhere, with the bus leaving her in a cloud of dust, with a backpack on her shoulders and without living soul around. Status check: I am in the middle of nowhere, starving and alone at 20:23 as dusk is falling, no pick up as agreed-> not walking 11km!

My first survival lesson followed. The provided contact was unreachable and after a few unsuccessful tries, I decided to start looking for accommodation. Still starving, thirsty and tired after a whole day of traveling with a heavy bag hanging on my back and one in the front. Before leaving home, very fortunately I looked up some places where I could stay in case nobody was waiting for me so I knew there was a youth hostel in Vila Nova de Foz Coa, however I did not write down the address.

The road to my youth hostel and a pretty stone fence with an olive tree

What could I say it wasn’t that bad but I felt a bit … forgotten? The best part of this experience was that at about 9 pm when I gave up trying to make calls, two elder ladies came into my way and after some negotiation in a very broken French on both fronts, they were so gentle and offered to put me on the right track to the hostel, outside the city …well almost there. At 10:00 pm I got my first “real” meal for the day, a hamburger for 3 Euros and that was it: DELICIOUS!

Day Two +

I woke up early morning, all excited about the new challenges awaiting, an amazing sun welcomes me in a totally new world. The previous night I passed by some very beautiful sights and I just got to see them the next morning. It felt so good, a new beautiful sunny day, bright and warm and a lot of time to reach my final destination, even by foot. Had a decent breakfast, took my bags and I was on my way to the bus station. The only bus going to Freixo de Numao was at midday so I had enough time to work out a plan and try again contacting the organizers. I need to say thanks to my mom here, since she was the one who sorted out my pick up–she gave me promising news for the day: I wasn’t the only one left under ways! Victory! :) another participant, Ana from Slovenia was still in Guarda (80 km away from my location). She misunderstood the meeting place, but provided me with a contact that later on came and picked me up (last night’s unfinished business…).

The night before must have been one of the famous weekend parties from the region
The night before must have been one of the famous weekend parties from the region

While waiting for my ride, I went for some sightseeing and discovered how strikingly peaceful can life in Portugal be. No rush, no schedule to follow, if you want something you simply have to ask for it and not expect to naturally get it.

Finally there! only half a day late, and I am checking in. When I got there, the other who made it the day before, have already left for the archaeological site. Accommodation was ok. Separate dorms. And now chill!

After unpacking, I sat my camp on the terrace and had a nice warm-up chat with one of the French archaeologists around. He presented me in a nutshell how things work–in theory, what about the others and some words about sightseeing in the region. My arrival had a perfect timing: I skipped work for that day and arrived in time for lunch. The meals were amazing and always accompanied by a pint of wine–after all we were in the wine region of Portugal, not far from the river Duoro, where they cultivate all the exceptional Porto wines.

Soon, the team returned and I got to know the others. As I learn later, the party from the previous night got confirmed, so the French guy must have been in recovery mode~~.

The usual work schedule was early morning wake up, breakfast and then 3-4 h work on the site, until midday and then back for lunch, free in the afternoon. There were free time activities previewed for each day. Sobral, our Portuguese host from ACDR Freixo accompanied us on most of the trips. We visited castle ruins, went down to the river Duoro, had picknick and rain.

Coriscada Archeological Site KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOn the only weekend of the camp, we visited Conímbriga, one of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal, classified as a National Monument. It is situated not far (±16 km) from Coimbra. It is amazing how beautiful the roman baths must have been and how well they were conserved/reconstructed!

For the evening, we attended a local festival — what an experience! It takes place each weekend in a different village. This was an amazing insight into the local culture, a moment of joyful celebration, where age doesn’t matter and people just love tradition, music and dancing. Youth and teens having fun on the rhythm of the local folk music. Foreigner or not, we were part of it and it just felt so good!

TrancosoKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAOne more outing worth mentioning was the one to Trancoso. It is a small village not too far from Freixo de Numao, built upon a hill, guardian of the pass. The village stroll was so pleasant, while architectural gems delighted the eye. Beautiful tile rooftops visible everywhere, from the castle.

The journey continues though, so we left with a handful of the people to visit Porto and then, Lisbon.

More pics here.