It’s hard to believe, but today is the last day of our sprawling travel adventure. I want to talk a little about what this trip has meant to us, but that will have to wait a moment. We haven’t been sitting in our room for the last week. There are more pictures and more stories that I want to share.

One of our favorite outings in Bordeaux was a visit to L’Intendant, a wine shop in the heart of the city. Bordeaux has plenty of wine sellers, of course, but this place is special for its presentation. I had read that L’Intendant approaches wine almost as theater, and I’d have to agree. The floor space is tiny when you walk in. The focal point is the spiral staircase. Wine lines the walls, grouped by type and region. We made two trips, one just to climb and gape at fancy (and expensive!) wine. One fun game is spotting the most expensive bottle. Is it 500 euros? Two thousand? Three thousand a bottle? The man running the counter was almost intimidatingly polite; he said “Madam” like he was talking to an heiress, not a backpacker in shorts and a questionably laundered T-shirt.

L'Intendant wine shelves

L’Intendant wine shelves

L'Intendant spiral stairs

L’Intendant spiral stairs

Bordeaux architecture

Bordeaux architecture

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Macarons! (The French answer to cupcakes)

Macarons! (The French answer to cupcakes)

Bordeaux by night

Bordeaux by night

Our last few days were in Orleans. We picked this city not knowing much about it. It was on the same list of “Most Underrated Cities in France” where we found Bordeaux, back when we realized some of the cities we wanted to see were outrageously expensive and that we needed to alter our course. Orleans is Joan of Arc’s hometown, so they have many statues and other sites dedicated to her.

Jeanne D'Arc statue in Orlean's central square

Jeanne D’Arc statue in Orlean’s central square

There was this bakery in Orleans with amazing fruit tarts

There was this bakery in Orleans with amazing fruit tarts…

...so we ate them by the river!

…so we ate them by the river!

Cute Orleans houses

Cute Orleans houses

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Road to Orlean's Sainte-Croix Cathedral

Road to Orlean’s Sainte-Croix Cathedral

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Also, the city square in Orleans has a really fun fountain

Also, the city square in Orleans has a really fun fountain that we played in

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The city is also right by the Loire chateaus. We decided to go see the Chateau Chambord as a day trip, which worked out great after a few mishaps finding the shuttle. Cheateau Chambord could easily be a Disney castle. I’ll admit I might have demanded that Andrew refer to me as a princess while we were walking around the grounds.

Cheateau Chambord, viewed from the front lawn

Cheateau Chambord, viewed from the front lawn

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Chambord's crowning tower

Chambord’s crowning tower

View from the top (Yes, that is a horse-drawn carriage.)

View from the top (Yes, that is a horse-drawn carriage.)

The chateau also has an impressive spiral staircase–our theme for the week!

Not pictured: two additional smaller spiral staircases on either far end of the chateau

Not pictured: two additional smaller spiral staircases on either far end of the chateau

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Wrapping up our final days, I’ve felt torn between trying to capture as much as possible (I photographed every street in Orleans, I think) and looking forward to being home. Andrew’s been craving Mexican food, and on our last night in Orleans, we found a Tex-Mex place that had fajitas and margaritas. So now that we’ve got that fix in place, maybe we don’t have to come home after all…

Just kidding. Mostly kidding.

Just kidding. Mostly kidding.

So that’s how I find myself on the train from Orleans to Paris this morning, with seats with our names on them for tomorrow’s transatlantic flight. When we set out on this trip, we imagined adventure, novelty, chances to push out of our comfort zones, and plenty of good times spent together. We’ve found all of that in the last six months, and in many ways traveling together has affected us more deeply than we’d imagined. We know now, for one, that we can spend 24/7 time together for months on end without getting tired of each other, or running out of things to say. We found new ways to support each other and discovered new ways we’re complementary (Andrew’s excellent at the here-and-now, always the one to look up how to get from the train station to our hotel. I’m your woman for what’s-next planning, thinking two countries ahead to make sure we’ve booked everything we need). Our marriage is stronger because it was the one thing we could count on for sure, from country to country.

Traveling has also impacted our ideas for the next part of our life. We’ve had so many conversations about where we want to live, how we want to spend our money and time, and what we want to steal from other countries in terms of food, decor, and life philosophy. It only sank in recently that we’re going back to the US, but never back to the life we left behind. There will be a new city to live in, a new job for me, new schedules and routines, a new apartment, all waiting for us up ahead. One night over dinner (in Venice? Greece? I can’t remember), we were talking about the life upheaval that is The Trip, and I said what really interested me is the full circle: not where we are July 30, but where we are next January 30, a year after we left. We are flying back to our families tomorrow, but the adventures are far from over.

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Paris was the last Big One on our trip, in terms of major cities, or wish-list sights to see. During our three weeks in Montenegro and Croatia, the thought of Paris got us through homesickness. We dreamed of familiar and new monuments, foods, and even language. We may not speak French, but it’s closer to any language we know than the Slavic languages, and the French are more likely to speak English.

Naturally, the city blew us away when we arrived. After a plane, a train, and a metro ride, just the sight of the Louvre right next to our hotel perked us up to explore. The first day, we rode a Ferris wheel to check out the panorama, walked to the Eiffel Tower, and ultimately ate a very late dinner at an Asian noodle place.

Eiffel Tower, day 1

Eiffel Tower, day 1

Over the next few days, we jumped in as hard as we could to experience Paris. We jogged from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, sealed our relationship again by hooking a lock onto a Love Bridge, ate lemon-sugar crepes, and went to Mass in the breathtaking Basilique de Sacre Couer in Montmartre. Then it was Bastille Day.

The city is full of parades!

The city is full of parades!

In addition to multiple flyovers and parades of soldiers, we also saw a few jeeps and at least one tank.

In addition to multiple flyovers and parades of soldiers, we also saw a few jeeps and at least one tank.

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The Bastille Day parades were festive already, including representation by every branch of the military we could think of. The planes were especially impressive. We wanted a good vantage point for the evening, so we camped out for a few hours in a park with a good view of the Eiffel Tower, listening to a concert. What kind of concert, you ask? Rock, maybe? Pop? Nope. Opera. Only in France. And it was gorgeous! But the coolest part, of course, is the firework display. It was by far the best fireworks display either of us has ever seen. They shot fireworks from the Eiffel Tower, folks. Literally. The rockets shot straight out of the sides of the framework, just about dwarfing the traditional fireworks popping beside the tower. It was dazzling.

Camping out on the Champ de Mars

Camping out on the Champ de Mars

The Eiffel Tower before the fireworks

The Eiffel Tower before the fireworks

During the fireworks!

During the fireworks!

Wrapping up the week, we spent a day in the Louvre, saw the Moulin Rouge before lunch and toured the Opera House, Notre Dame cathedral, and the Arc de Triomphe.

Moulin Rouge

Moulin Rouge

The view atop Notre Dame's towers

The view atop Notre Dame’s towers

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

The Louvre pyramid at night

The Louvre pyramid at night

One of the Louvre's scupture courtyards

One of the Louvre’s scupture courtyards

The Louvre's Napoleon apartment

The Louvre’s Napoleon apartment

On the Arc de Triomphe

On the Arc de Triomphe

The Opera House and the Louvre are both exceptional places (check out the Apollo Room and Napoleon’s apartment in the Louvre for a tutorial in glamour), but I want to make especial mention of the Opera House. If you go, and you are a lady, wear a floor length dress. You won’t regret it. Even if it’s a casual maxi dress, being able to feel your hem skim the stairs as you ascend into the Grand Foyer will make you feel like a duchess. Also, if you can, bring someone to gently close your hanging jaw for you when you see the room they built just to entertain patrons of the arts during intermission.

The Paris Opera House

The Paris Opera House

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The Opera House chandelier

The Opera House chandelier

Yes, this is where you go during intermission in the Opera House

Yes, this is where you go during intermission in the Opera House

Finally, when you get to Box 5–the Phantom’s Box–drop all your newfound high-society gravitas and ham it up. It’s good fun.

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We’re in Bordeaux now for a week. I’ll admit we had a day or two where it felt like all we could do was be frustrated we weren’t in Paris anymore (Paris syndrome–it’s a thing. Look it up), but this city has grown on us. We like walking by the River, especially at night, and the charm of the Old City. Bordeaux also has the coolest wine shop ever, called L’Intendant. Let’s just say we’re figuring out how to have fun in this part of the country!

If you ever go to Croatia, please promise me you will find a way to visit the Plitvice national park and lakes. In fact, if you’re even near Croatia, maybe in Albania or Montenegro or Kosovo, budget in a detour. This park is, along with the Gap of Dunloe in Ireland, the most beautiful natural site I’ve seen in years.

View from the park entrance

View from the park entrance

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Plitvice is the largest national park in Croatia. It’s a series of lakes, barely connected to each other on the map but clearly linked as you hike your way through the park over a mix of trails and wooden bridges. The topography has dramatic peaks and dips, so the air is full with the sound of water falling. The higher falls are 20 meters or more; the gentlest drops might only be a few feet. Water gurgles and splashes and hisses into a fine spray that cools you down when you pass the highest waterfalls. The bridges you walk on are built just barely above the water level, often inches. In some places, little surges bubble up through the gaps between the planks.

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Because the lakes are on a mountain, there are waterfalls everywhere

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The colors are just as striking as the sounds. Water churns white and frothy in one spot, collects in a turquoise pool in the next. The lakes are still as glass, so clear that it’s impossible to tell whether you can see the sandy floor there 10 feet down, or 20. The park is big enough that even with tourist crowds, there are places where all the people disappear, and for a moment the wood path curving around the bend could transport you anywhere.

 

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The lakes are full of fish, hanging out in the shallow water

The lakes are full of fish, hanging out in the shallow water

Hiking is one of our favorite things to do as a couple back home, so this day was not only beautiful, but a remedy for homesickness. We certainly weren’t in the Appalachians or my beloved Sugarloaf Mountain (one of our autumn traditions), but seeing four or five waterfalls streaming at a time had some of that same magic for us. It’s the chance to marvel at nature together, to climb or bend, look at fish and caves and trees and waterfalls, and be glad that we are another tiny part of it all.

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We are chilling in Split for one more night before we’re off to Paris (as of posting, we’re actually in the airport). It’s fun acting like we know our way around. We found a favorite bistro, walked along the marina at night watching the clouds turn sunset colors, and took our last pass through the Old Town. Tomorrow it’s an early morning to catch our plane, and we’ll be in the City of Light by lunchtime.

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The harbor by Split's Old Town

The harbor by Split’s Old Town

Dubrovnik is a popular European vacation spot, and it’s easy to see why. The city is built on a mountainside, and extends down the slopes to the Adriatic Sea. This means you get beaches (both rocky and sandy) where you can swim directly in view of a forested mountain range. Plus, the coastal city is next to a handful of small islands, only a short boat ride away.

Dubrovnik Old Town

Dubrovnik Old Town

The Old Town is the historic city center, surrounded by huge stone walls. The architecture is pleasantly similar to Florence, with cobblestone streets, cream-colored stone walls, and orange roofs. While the Dubrovnik’s Old Town is rich with history, today the walled city center functions as a kind of beach boardwalk, filled with restaurants and ice cream shops.

View of Old Town from atop the city walls

View of Old Town from atop the city walls

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On the nearby island of Lokrum, peacocks are EVERYWHERE. They're like pigeons.

On the nearby island of Lokrum, peacocks are EVERYWHERE. They’re like pigeons.

Harbor on a nearby island

Harbor on a nearby island

Being built directly a mountain slope means that Dubrovnik is incredibly hilly. From the Old Town to our apartment, we had to climb around 425 steps! The city could possibly have more pedestrian stairways than actual roads.

One of the thousands of stairways in Dubrovnik

One of the thousands of stairways in Dubrovnik

On our last day, we took a ride in the cable car that runs from the Old Town up to the top of a nearby mountain. While the hills made the walk to our apartment something of a challenge, it also means the view from the city’s mountaintop is amazing.

View from the cable car

View from the cable car

Mountaintop view

Mountaintop view

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It’s been a busy travel week. After a 5-hour ferry ride to Athens, I was wiped out for a day. Fortunately, we still had time to visit the Acropolis. We saw the Parthenon, the temples of Dionysus and Zeus, and the Temple of the Caryatids. On our last day in Athens, we’d hoped to see the sunset from the Parthenon, but this turned out to be impossible, as the Acropolis closes about an hour before the sun goes down these days. Instead, we clambered up on a big rock in a free garden and took silly pictures of each other (“You’ve just been caught stealing a cookie!” “You’re trying to rescue a friend over the edge of a cliff!”) while our last day in Greece came to a close.

At the Parthenon

At the Parthenon

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The Theatre of Dionisis, just outside the Parthenon

The Theatre of Dionisis, just outside the Parthenon

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Surveying the ruins of the Temple of Zeus

Surveying the ruins of the Temple of Zeus

The view from the Parthenon hill

The view from the Parthenon hill

We made terrible faces

We made terrible faces

On Saturday, the street outside our hotel turned into an all-day fruit market!

On Saturday, the street outside our hotel turned into an all-day fruit market!

We’d thought about spending a week in Albania, but changed our minds after hearing another backpacker talk about beautiful canyons in Montenegro. We only had one day in Tirana (the capital of Albania), so we picked up a few necessities and ate at a restaurant with no English menu, trusting the wait staff to recommend something we’d like. We took a bus to Shkoder and caught a cab to the border of Montenegro. Our driver, Freddy, was eager to tell us about his country. He pulled over so we could take a photo of the castle, talked about the old historical tales of princes kidnapped and raised in Turkey, only to renew devotion to Albania once they’d seen it again and fight to take back their kingdom. Freddy grew up under the communist regime and shared stories about getting up at 4 am to wait in a line for a few small bottles of yogurt, or fishing Coke cans out of the river and using them as decorative ornaments in his family’s house. He was almost laughing in relief talking about the new way of democracy.

The Rozafa Castle in Schroder

The Rozafa Castle in Schroder

We saw many hours of beautiful Albanian countryside from our bus window

We saw many hours of beautiful Albanian countryside from our bus window

Communism is an ugly word in Montenegro, too. Our host, Judo, waves his hands away from him when he says it, pushing the word as far from him as possible. We made it here yesterday morning after a series of buses and cabs, and a border crossing that would star John Cleese if it were dramatized. You hand in your passport in one window and must collect it three feet down, in the new country. Once we had entered Montenegro, we asked a guard where we could wait for the bus from the border to the city of Ulcinj. In answer, the guard waved generally at the peninsula of concrete that separated the two roads into and out of the country. “Anywhere you like,” he said.

We ate cake as we waited 20 minutes for a bus at the Montenegro border

We ate cake as we waited 20 minutes for a bus at the Montenegro border

Our hosts are an older couple, who were thrilled when we arrived. It was about 10:30, but they insisted on pouring a small glass of 10-year-old brandy for Andrew, as well as bringing out tea and Turkish coffee. Judo’s wife literally gave us our pick of rooms, showing us each one before asking where we’d like to sleep. When I was lying outside reading later, she ushered me over next to her, calling me her daughter. Today, Judo is eager to drive us to the Long Beach and tell us about the sites. While Judo’s wife has spoken nothing but German to us (which is neither a language native to Montenegro nor a language either of us speaks), Judo himself has good English with a few scattered idiosyncrasies: one of his favorite English words, “catastrophe,” becomes long-O “ca-ta-strofe“. He and his wife are so adorable, we cannot handle it.

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Ulcinj is gorgeous!

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At Small Beach, Ulcinj

At Small Beach, Ulcinj

Fishing huts in Ulcinj

Fishing huts in Ulcinj

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My dream of Santorini started with a calendar. The first year I lived on my own, I marked each month with a new photo of blue sea, white houses, and vivid skies. The island seemed so idyllic, so out-of-reach on the shoestring budget I worked with. I hardly believed the place was even real. From the earliest stages of planning this trip, my heart was set on seeing Santorini.

We're in Oia, Santorini!

We’re in Oia, Santorini!

It’s so beautiful here it actually made me nervous for the first day! The island is thin enough that in some places you can look right and left and see the Mediterranean on both sides. The clusters of clean white houses are real, so bright in the sun that shades are a necessity. We booked a cave house with a view of a cluster of houses and villas winding their way across the cliffside, with a few evening cruise boats lounging in the natural harbor. The sea is almost close enough to jump into. At night, when all the houses are lit up and the sky is still the ghostly blue it turns before true night falls, the sight literally stops us in our tracks.

"Blue Hour" is the hour after sunset

“Blue Hour” is the hour after sunset

Greek Orthodox architecture

Greek Orthodox architecture

On the streets of Santorini

On the streets of Santorini

We arrived with a short to-do list, mostly involving relaxing at a few key beaches. (Such a dramatic change from farming!) We tried Kamari Beach first. It’s got plenty of shops and restaurants, good for people who prefer the boardwalk scene. The beach itself is much more pebbly than sandy. I found it impossible to stroll along the beach, the pebbles by the waves being too uncomfortable. We did at least spend a few hours relaxing in sunbeds admiring the color of the sea.

The view at Kamari

The view at Kamari

Amoudi Bay was next. Everything we’d read told us not to miss it, and after seeing it, I wholeheartedly agree! The bay is a little tricky to reach: you walk down 200 steps from Oia, then hike a short path that sometimes disintegrates into patches of boulders. It’s something to undertake with decent shoes on, but doable.

Just a small sample of the hundreds of step to Amoudi Bay

Just a small sample of the hundreds of steps to Amoudi Bay

But we made it!

But we made it!

Once there, you see a small patch of grainy sand and pebbles, a dot of an island maybe 30 feet out in the water, and people shouting encouragements to their friends to jump from the cliff ledge. Making it to Amoudi Bay creates a base level of camaraderie between the few people who reach it, and the cliff jump from the island is a rite of passage for the bay and Santorini itself. It doesn’t look that high from a distance, but from the top, it might as well be miles!

Practicing our jumps on a small rock

Practicing our jumps on a small rock

Getting warmed up for the big plunge!

Getting warmed up for the big plunge!

After some nervous butterflies, Andrew and I decided to jump together, on the count of three. Andrew was smart enough to shout, “JUMP!” after “three” to jolt my hesitating self into action. There was a moment of panic just after my feet left the cliff edge, where I clearly remember regretting my decision. But just as clearly, I remember the next instant of letting go and enjoying the rush of plummeting toward the water. We bobbed up to the surface laughing.

This isn't us, but it's what we did

This isn’t us, but it’s what we did

Yesterday we visited Perissa Beach, which we both loved. It’s a little quieter than Kamari–not so many restaurant owners clamoring for your attention–and the beach is finer. In the water, it even turns to soft sand. The water is warm enough to swim in, so we alternated between swimming and reading in a sunbed all afternoon. It feels magical to be able to see so much beauty.

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Last night we also tried a fish spa pedicure! The tanks are filled with fish that feed on dead skin. As soon as you lower your feet in, they swarm to nibble. It feels like tiny jets of bubbles. Andrew and I are both ticklish, so we spent our 10 minutes hugging our sides.

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The hungriest fish ever

The hungriest fish ever

Of course, picking out a great spot to view the sunset is almost an unofficial sport. Oia is a great place to be because we’re on the west coast of Santorini. I love how, with all the tourist draws and shops and various restaurants and resorts around, the one thing everyone clamors for most is the one thing that no one can restrict, commodify or control. The sunset takes an hour to watch, changing colors slowly from gold to peach to mellow pinks and purples. It’s a great time to be still, talk to each other, and appreciate slow beauty, instead of scenes that are easily captured in a snapshot. When the last red sliver of sun disappears, the crowds erupt into cheers and applause. I’ve never seen such a large group of people react so joyously together to a natural event. It feels like a moment of grace at the end of the day. If we take one thing with us from Santorini, I hope wherever we call home next, there may be a place to sit sometimes and watch the sun set together.

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We’ve finished our final work day on the farm, which means we’re down to our final days in Ireland. We couldn’t be happier with our farming experience. Eoin has been a great teacher, and our work schedule has been brisk but never too much to handle. Between the tomatoes, potatoes, onions, beans, and leeks, we’ve put thousands of plants in the ground (and with all the weeding, we’ve probably pulled thousands out as well).

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A wild artichoke, growing in the fields

A wild artichoke, growing in the fields

 

It’s been a shift in perspective to get a sense of how much work goes into keeping a farm functional, never mind making a living off it. We got here excited to help catch up the schedule; Eoin has been encouraging and appreciative, but he said if we really expected to pick up all the slack that accumulates from weather, other volunteers not showing up, and various other factors, we would have had to cram all the work we’ve done into the first week! Farming takes tremendous planning, resourcefulness, tenacity, and adaptability to the many things that can go wrong. We have a whole new level of respect for the challenge of growing things, and we’re happy that we had a chance to be part of it, even for a short time.

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Hoeing

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Howdy

Andrew in particular has gone native! He was born to rock the dirty t-shirt, straw hat, and pitchfork ensemble. We will miss so many things about being on the farm: the satisfaction of feeling a tough-rooted weed give way, the cozy peace of living in a cottage in the country (and the creative atmosphere it’s provided us for writing/coding), the Jurassic-sounding cries from the cows next door, and the inquisitive chickens just outside.

This guy woke us up every day at 5:30 AM, without fail. (We immediately went back to sleep.)

This guy woke us up every day at 5:30 AM, without fail. (We immediately went back to sleep.)

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Jessica’s favorite chicken, who was really into getting his photo taken

We are getting hungry for adventures again, though. Last weekend, we wrapped up our Irish must-see list at the Cliffs of Moher. They live up to everything we’d heard. They are massive and rugged, more steep and sheer than anything either of us remembers from East Coast USA. The caution signs warning us about cliff erosion were a reminder that this is a wild site. The cliff we stood on may not be the same 30 years from now–may not be there at all! It’s different from castles and other monuments that way. The Cliffs of Moher are inherently Irish because they are carved out of Ireland itself, and they change according to wind and sea and rock, not any human deliberation.

So majestic!

So majestic!

The day we saw the cliffs was cold (“fresh,” the bus driver insisted), with slanting, icy rain. The new ponchos we bought are small, and whipped around in the wind. It may not have been ideal weather, but you could say we felt immersed in the wildness of the sight, for better or for worse!

So windy!

So windy!

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The lucky part, weatherwise, was the clear visibility. Fog can come in too thick to see the cliffs well even when you’re right on top of them. Other tourists told us horror stories of driving in for hours just to have to turn around and leave. Our day was clear enough to see the texture of the rock all the way down to the water. We could hike up to one clifftop and take photos of the other side, and even get a view of the countryside behind us.

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We’ll spend two more days in Cork before catching a plane to Athens. We’ve done a little bit here to celebrate Andrew’s birthday, but we’ll continue in Santorini. Maybe on a black sand beach, or watching one of the famously beautiful sunsets? We’re not sure yet. But we’re eager to find out.

First week of farming down! We are enjoying working on new things every day. We worked about 30-some hours last week. On a typical day, we start at 9 and end around 4 or so, depending on how the work goes that day. We’ve planted lettuce seeds and over 2,000 (!) onions, moved seedlings from module trays to the polytunnels where the extra heat can help them grow, pulled last year’s stray potato plants (which are now weeds), and moved wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of manure. On Friday, delivery day for the customers who order customized baskets of fresh vegetables, we got up earlier to cut lettuce, parsley, and cilantro and dig potatoes to bag. Then we spread more manure! And today, we raked a small mountain of rocks out of a long bed that will be used for planting carrots. Carrots are apparently one of the more finicky crops to grow, and the rolling machine used to plant the seeds can easily get caught on stony ground.

Planting potatoes

Planting potatoes

A heaping wheelbarrow of weeds

A heaping wheelbarrow of weeds

Fingernails, after a day of weeding

Fingernails, after a day of weeding

Boots, after a day of manure-hauling

Boots, after a day of manure-hauling

As you can imagine, we are working hard and coming in tired at the end of the day. Thankfully, Eoin and Dee are lovely people–warm and funny, and generous with time and tips on what to see on our free weekends. Jessica is spending a good chunk of her free time buried in books Dee’s recommended, and on Friday evening we got to see a production of As You Like It at the community college where Eoin teaches. They’ve made us feel welcome in their home.

An English/Gaelic street sign in Cork

An English/Gaelic street sign in Cork

After whirling from city to city for so long, it’s a pleasant breather to spend some extended time in the country. Carragline is a bike ride away, and there are regular buses to Cork, but those are weekend options for us. Monday through Friday we’re on the farm, or going for walks just down the road. It’s turning out to be a fruitful environment for writing for Jessica, who is happy to be writing and revising new fiction. We have time to read and write, we spend our days outside doing work that feels needed and useful, and next Saturday we’re planning a day trip to the Cliffs of Moher. Life is good!

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We finally got a chance to rest in Dublin! There’s plenty to see in the city, but we skipped over most of it. The one thing you can’t miss if you find yourself there is Trinity College. The campus is pretty, all gray stone and solemn statues, and the real draw is the library and Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript, full of elaborate decorations that showcase the creativity of the monks who transcribed the gospels in a small island off the coast of Scotland. It’s a treat for book lovers to see writing–the physical form of it, that is–elevated to such a masterful piece of art.

And the library itself! The Long Room is what you see on the tour. The ceiling arches as though you’re standing inside a giant hardcover book, and some of the books in the library are about as old as printing itself. The books are categorized by weight, with the heaviest tomes on the lower shelves and some books on the top shelves being smaller than your hand. It plays with perspective a little to see them arranged like that, as though the shelves are much taller than they first appear. Mostly, the library has an archetypal feel. It’s part of that shared imagined space that mad scientists or wizards or adventurers after mysterious artifacts disappear into and emerge from hours later triumphant, dusty and powerful book in hand with the instructions on what to do next.

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We also made a stop by Davy Byrne’s. For those in the know, this is the spot Leopold Bloom stops in Ulysses, by James Joyce. It’s a point of literature cred to make a trip there if you can and have a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola sandwich, like Bloom does in the epic novel.

The problem is, gorgonzola is just a touch unappetizing when eaten in a thick, soft, feet-smelling slab on a piece of bread.

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After a few bites in the name of great literature, we called the server back and asked for smoked salmon, a traditionally Irish and much more appealing sandwich.

From Dublin, we took the train south to Killarney, a small town with a lot of gorgeous scenery to explore. We spend a day in the national park, making our way from the ruins of a 7th-century abbey to the Muckross House, to the Torc waterfall. We started out with a run to the entrance of the park, which was a lot of fun given the mountain view.

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As we made our way through the park, we came across several ‘thin places,’ where the boundary between reality and fantasy seems to waver. I loved the peacefulness of the cemetary, and the unearthly loveliness of a glade filled with purple flowers. The color was so luminous that it almost seemed to glow. The sounds of trickling water followed us everywhere, explaining the thick green moss on the trees.

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The Torc waterfall itself was absolutely worth the long hike.

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For Jessica’s birthday, we visited the Gap of Dunloe, a highlight of her 1999 student ambassador trip. This hike through mountains, wild pastures, and a chain of lakes took our breath away. We even got lucky enough to have sunshine, which we’re told in Ireland is pretty special.

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Back at the hostel, Jessica called home while Andrew planned a surprise in the kitchen. There were cupcakes, and everyone at the hostel sang.

Our last stop in County Kerry was Dingle, a quiet seaside town, with nearby stone “Beehive” huts.

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Blaskett Island, or more popularly, "The Sleeping Giant"

Blaskett Island, or more popularly, “The Sleeping Giant”

Beehive huts

Beehive huts

We’ve now made it to the farm we’ll work on for the next three weeks. Turns out Eoin is about 30 years younger than we’d pictured, only a few years older than we are! He grows vegetables for the most part, and there are a few laying hens. Right now, there’s lettuce, basil, tomatoes, corn, zucchini, broccoli, brussels sprouts, potatoes, beets, and several other veggies and herbs in various stages of growth. The volunteers who were supposed to be helping during April cancelled on short notice. There’s plenty for us to do because several crops have fallen behind schedule. In the upcoming week, we’ll be preparing a new bed, spreading manure and straw, planting and transplanting crops, and plenty of weeding. On our weekends off, we can borrow bikes to ride into the small town of Carragline, or possibly make plans to travel further, depending on how much energy we have after a week of work!

Where we live now!

Where we live now!

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Polytunnels: the do-it-yourself greenhouse

Polytunnels: the do-it-yourself greenhouse

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Barcelona was a break in the schedule, a chance to loaf around and get some energy back from the high-paced travel schedule we’ve been following lately. For four days, all we wanted to see was the Sagrada Familia cathedral and a plate full of tapas. Or at least that was the plan.

Within minutes of checking in–we hadn’t even unstrapped our backpacks–one of the hostel workers sat us down with a map and started circling things we HAD to see while we were in the city. It was Saturday night? Perfect. This museum was free on Sundays after 4:45 (we should be there at 4 for tickets). The monument section of the Gaudi park was free after 8pm, if we wanted to take our chances there. Tuesday was paella night at the hostel, Thursday flamenco. If we wouldn’t be here, we could still get a discount if we brought the hostel’s business card along. Walking tours met at the hostel every morning at 10:10, and here and here were cheap, tasty restaurants we should try. Andrew and I looked at each other and saw our lazy days slipping away as we jotted down a rushed Barcelona bucket list.

It was so worth it. On the walking tour, we brushed up on some Spanish history that helped explain why people in the province of Catalunya (where Barcelona is) are so fiercely proud of the Catalan language. It’s incredible to think that it was barely more than 40 years ago that Spain was led by a fascist dictator, or that an entire people were threatened with execution if they spoke their local language in public. Walking through the streets, we saw Catalan flags hanging from many windows to display the family’s pride.

We also took advantage of the chance to see a flamenco show. The mix of sorrow, pride, and fury in the music and dance gets under your skin. I couldn’t help swaying along.

The beach in Barcelona is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek affair, as it’s not really native to the city at all. The guide on the walking tour explained that the beach was artificially created for the tourists (and many TV cameras) flocking in for the Olympics. Barcelona wanted to show them a paradise beach, rather than the industrial shipyard they had at the time. So we were lying out on tons of sand imported from Egypt. The city orders new sand every year to replenish the grains that wash away with the tide, heading back to Egypt. Artificial or no, the beach was real enough for us. We stopped by the Boqueria market first, which is a sight in itself, and bought jamon- and walnut-stuffed dates and fresh apricots for a seaside snack out of Arabian Nights.

At the market: peppers!

At the market: peppers!

Fruit!

Fruit!

Empanadas!

Empanadas!

A year's worth of ham!

A year’s worth of ham!

The highlight of Barcelona was exploring several of the works of Gaudi throughout the city. This architect had plenty of opportunity to perfect his work here; there are at least three houses, a park, and of course the Sagrada Familia. We saw the park last, but I’d like to talk about it first, because I think it serves as a wonderful introduction to the cathedral.

Gaudi’s style is characteristic for its joyful attentiveness to nature and fascination with geometric patterns. Gaudi was the kind of person to look at a leaf and see a line anchoring an undulating, sine curve. He was interested in the way trees branch off like fractals, into smaller versions of themselves. He saw cylinders and planes and spheres and beautiful order in the natural world, and felt something like an artistic duty to depict it. I believe he also had a wonderful sense of playfulness. The park he designed has clever, practical designs, like aqueducts and pillars that help siphon off rainwater. It also happens that those pillars look like a giant mushroom forest, and that he designed gingerbread-style houses that Hans Christian Andersen would be proud of.

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One of Gaudi's gingerbread houses

One of Gaudi’s gingerbread houses

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A long slanting tunnel, carved into the base of a cliff

A long slanting tunnel, carved into the base of a cliff

The Sagrada Familia, of course, is Gaudi’s opus, still in progress after over 125 years of construction. Word is it will be finished in about 12 years, but who’s to say how construction schedules go? All I know is, if what we saw is the unfinished work, this building will be in Wonder of the World territory when it’s complete. The love of nature, genius design, and celebration of mathematical order are so strong here. The space feels like a song of praise to a God that could weave patterns into an organic world, like themes that guide great triumphs of music.

When we walked into the Sagrada Familia, we were both awestruck. I recovered first and took this photo of Andrew that I think does justice to our amazement.

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One of the things that tickled me, and suggested again how brilliant the design is, is that each of us saw nature represented in a different way inside the cathedral. Andrew, whose favorite place to be outside is a lush, old forest, saw towering trees.

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I love the ocean, and the clarity of the color coming through the stained glass made me feel like I was underwater. The use of circles in many parts of the interior, like bubbles, heightened my feeling of being in some deep-sea grotto.

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It’s noisy with the sound of power tools now, but there is choir music playing softly from speakers within the pillars. You hear a soaring note now and again and look up and up into the arch of the ceiling, and it’s like all the other sounds drop away. We’re reminded daily how blessed and fortunate we are to see so many inspiring things. I can’t imagine designing a project that I knew I would never see in its finished form, but I am astounded by the beauty this artist found in the intersection of science, art, and faith.

The view from the Cathedral's Nativity Facade tower

The view from the Cathedral’s Nativity Facade tower

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