Sozopol, Bulgaria

Our next stop on our tour of Bulgaria was to dip our toes in the Black Sea. We stayed in the beach town of Sozopol, which is south of the more internationally popular beach resort towns of Bulgaria, and is geared more toward families and beach-goers that don’t care for parties until sun-up. While most people were Bulgarian there was a healthy crowd of Russians and Germans. At times it felt like like Ocean City, MD (without the boardwalk but throw in all the kitschy shops, restaurants and hoards of people) but it was still a beautiful beach and a bit lower budget. We originally booked to stay for 3 nights, but upon arrival a storm front came through and hovered over the coast, bringing in lots of wind, cooler temperatures and rain. The day we were supposed to leave was when the weather improved, so we moved reservations around and instead stayed from Sunday 16 July through Thursday 20 July to get a full day of sun on the beach.

Transportation: We woke up early on Sunday to catch the local bus from our hostel to the main bus station. We didn’t know when it was coming thanks to a lack of available bus schedules, so we went earrrly. We managed fine and caught our long distance bus at 7:30 AM that took us from Veliko Tărnovo to Burgas, one of the biggest cities on the Black Sea coast. The bus trip went smoothly, with an arrival in Burgas within 3 hours. We tried to locate the next bus down to Sozopol but realized we would need to take another bus to the center of Burgas to catch yet another bus south. We ditched that idea as we were not entirely sure where the right bus stop would be and instead hired a taxi to drive us 30 minutes south to Sozopol. We knowingly got over charged as tourists but given we had no idea of the true value we just accepted an easy way to our destination for what was still a pretty low price of approximately USD 20.

Accommodation: Sozopol is packed to the brim with hotels, resorts and vacation condos. We stayed at the Family Hotel Sofi for the first 3 nights. We got one of their top floor rooms with a balcony that has a view of the city and the Black Sea. The beach-front was only a 10 minute walk down hill. The hotel had a nice little garden area on the ground floor with a pool and a bar. It was simple, walking distance to everything and perfect for our short beach stay. For our fourth, impromptu, night, we stayed at the Hotel Kamea, which was chosen for its convenient location next door to Sofi (guilty for not wanting to walk with our stuff much further) and still getting a view of the water. It wasn’t the best, but it worked.

The pool and garden on the ground floor of the hotel.
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A view of Sozopol from the Hotel Sofi. Large waves are not common in the summer, but the storm clouds overhead brought high winds that whipped up the surf.

Here at the hotel we encountered another Balkan country concept previously unknown to us: the shower-toilet combo. There is no tub to separate your shower from the toilet nor is there a shower curtain. Why would you need a curtain if you create a bathroom with a central drain and tiles all around? At first we were astonished and confused. We had just left a disgusting bathroom in our previous hostel and were ready for a nice shower in our hotel, and then we discover THIS. How would we do it? Isn’t that gross to shower where the water is running off the toilet? Won’t water get EVERYWHERE? Upon closer scrutiny, the floors, toilet and drain appeared to be clean, providing relative comfort. In order to fully understand the mechanics, we resorted to google searches to see how to properly shower. We quickly learned {and subsequently implemented} the trusty 4 P’s to use of Balkan showers (see funny blog article): Preparation, Plenty of towels, Positioning and Power. With the use of these key tactics – we were successful and learned that the shower wasn’t terrible and it is functional. The article has the methodology, but the key solution is to use the towels to wipe up the shower when you’re finished so that the floor dries out. Additionally, we’ve now had the pleasure of learning a different way that people shower in another part of the world that we never expected, and, well, anything is better than our previous hostel.


Eats: We tried a few restaurants where we got fresh salads, freshly grilled seafood and meat. While I did not think that any of the restaurants were the best of our time so far in Bulgaria, we did find some good spots hidden in the corners of this touristy beach town.

Andrew at the restaurant of our late lunch on Tuesday, overlooking the water.
My fresh fish from the Black Sea

Bulgarian Cheese

During our time in Bulgaria we’ve noticed that there are only two types of cheese used in their local dishes and can be served as part of any meal. Кашкавал (Kashkaval) is a yellow semi-hard cheese typically made of cow milk and tastes similar to string cheese, but with better flavor. Сирене (Sirene) is a white brine crumbly cheese typically made of goat’s milk. It is less salty but similar to feta. Both are excellent!.

Activities: When it wasn’t raining, we made time for some nice morning runs and beach time. Otherwise, we relaxed and enjoyed the time to slow down and hang out.

On our first run at the beach on Tuesday we headed south and ran around a little peninsula. It had beautiful views over these grassy cliffs looking over the water
Our first day when we went running was gray but still perfect for a run!
Andrew on our run on Wednesday morning, a much sunnier day!

On Wednesday, the day we were supposed to leave according to our original plan, the weather was beautiful. We woke up early at 5am to catch the sun rise over the sea.

Andrew and I, at the sunrise on Wednesday morning

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Wednesday proved to be a beautiful day at the beach. Warm and clear skies. We were not able to go too far in the water as the lifeguards were not allowing us to swim beyond the first breakers. A bit of a disappointment but it was refreshing to dip our toes now and then and gaze out at the water.

The Black Sea is not black! Quite blue in fact 🙂 During our stay the waves were unusually high. Normally it should be more similar to the Mediterranean with tiny little ripples making it easy for swimming, but the storms brought rough surf.

While the weather could have been better, we were both able to relax and unwind at the beach. It was a great spot by the sea and a welcome respite from our previous touristy days. Next up: Bansko to see the Pirin National Park!

Amsterdam and First days at Sea

For the third week of our summer vacation, we planned to take a cruise in the Norwegian fjords with Holland America Cruise Line. Both our families joined us (1st time meeting!) and we were scheduled to depart from Amsterdam on Sunday August 7. I previously visited Amsterdam in ’07 when I studied abroad, but this was Andrew’s first visit. Andrew and I, my mom, my sister Corinne, and Andrew’s parents all flew in on Saturday August 6 and Kelly and Gregg (my uncle & his girlfriend) flew in on Sunday (after narrowly missing our cruise due to a delayed flight, thank goodness they made it!).

We had checked the weather before our cruise, and all of us had noted that it was not looking so great. Forecasts were for rain and clouds 😔. But I do not think any of us knew the extent of the storms nor the impact they would have on us, as immediately upon checking in to the cruise, we learned that due to a storm coming across the North Sea (a body of water we needed to cross) our departure from Amsterdam was delayed one day and they cancelled a stop in the port of Ålesund. This reduced our stops in Norway from 4 days to 3 (out of a 7 night cruise). Speaking for myself, this was a disappointment since this took time away from Norway and I was looking forward to seeing the destination. However, when in these situations I do realize that we have to accept that the cruise line makes these decisions for our safety and comfort. Also, when you choose to go to a cruise destination in a northern region, you are more likely to experience inclement weather.

Amsterdam Accommodation:

We stayed near the museum district at the Leonardo Hotel Amsterdam City Center (formerly a Best Western). It had a bus station nearby that was a direct shot to the airport, which was convenient, and it was next to a very big park that was great for my Sunday morning run with Andrew’s Dad and my mom.

Eats:

Saturday night in Amsterdam, we planned dinner with my Mom and Andrew’s parents at Restaurant Dubbel, a great spot along one of the canals. It would have been my Dad’s 58th birthday (August 6) so we downed a couple Belgian ales in his honor.

Amsterdam Sights:

With a one day delay in departure from Amsterdam, we had a little extra time to explore the city, which we all took advantage of.

On Saturday we began a walking tour from the Rick Steve’s guide book and quickly ran into the source of a high volume of colorful people running around town: The Amsterdam Pride Parade on the canals! We had fun watching the crowds and the boats packed with dancing partiers in bright colors for a bit and then we continued on our walk.

On Sunday morning we woke up for a run in the park and then took a canal boat tour with Lovers Canal Cruises. It was only an hour but it was a great way to get to see the city sights and canal house boats from the water. While we ran, Andrew and his Mom did a self-guided walking tour through the Jordaan neighborhood.

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Running through the Vondelpark with my mom and Andrew’s Dad on Sunday morning before boarding our cruise in Amsterdam.

On Monday we had until 1 pm to explore the city a bit more before our departure from port. We all split up to do our own thing, and my mom, sister and I did some walking through the city for a bit. Andrew and his parents went to the Amsterdam museum and Kelly and Gregg did a little tour through the city.

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Amsterdam Centraal train station
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Lovely view of an Amsterdam canal
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Mother/daughter walk through the canals on Sunday morning

First days at sea on the MS Koningsdam Monday and Tuesday (Aug 8-9):

This was my first cruise, so I was really interested to see how it would go. Our ship is brand new and launched in May 2016. The itinerary had us at sea from Monday afternoon through all day Tuesday with our first day at port in Geirangerfjord on Wednesday August 10.

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Entering the North Sea on our first day of the cruise. We cruised through the  North Sea canal from Amsterdam and then passed through the Spui Locks in Ijmuiden in order to get up to sea level. The lock took about 45 minutes and then we were on the open ocean! This is the last bit of the Dutch coastline we saw until the end of the cruise.

Shortly after we began cruising, the captain came on and notified us all of the planned time at sea and also the weather forecast. We learned that there would be high seas and worse weather than we had hoped.

It’s hard to tell in the below photograph, but we made it through 10-12 (approx. 32-39 ft) meter waves and 56 knot winds. They had to close the decks on all the floors so we could not go outside. The ship’s stabilizers were able to prevent the rocking side to side, but there was still plenty of pitch (rocking from front to back).

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As I have never cruised before, all of this fascinated me. People were walking around as if they’d had one too many drinks and all needed to hold on to things. Even in my shower the water was sloshing around and I couldn’t help but laugh when I tried to reach for things and missed. There were people getting sea sick quite often (unlucky me saw one of them). Many things were cancelled due to sea sickness or to prevent people from getting in a situation that might lead to sea sickness. Luckily our group of 8 made it through the seas without getting overly ill, but I think most (aka me) had to take it easy all day.

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This is on the Ledo Deck in the center of the boat. You can really see the water shloshing here! No one was allowed in and we aren’t sure why they did not empty the pool but it really shows how much the boat was pitching!

We made it through, and while I will say I would not ever want to go through seas like that again (okay, who does?), I am so glad that our ship was able to make it through. The captain of the ship said it, and I believe him, that if our ship had not been as strong and capable as it is (and the newest ship in its class in the world) then we would have had to cancel the cruise or delay further, cutting the trip even more. In fact, two other cruise ships that left Amsterdam for Norway on the same day as us had to cancel their trips entirely.

So, we all did our best to enjoy the cruise ship on these first days at sea despite the weather. We tried out the restaurants (I was impressed by the cuisine on the ship!), the gym (for those of us who could handle the motion of the ship!) and even checked out the spa (pedicure for me, massages for Kelly & Gregg). There was a really fascinating interview with the ship’s captain I attended with my Mom and Andrew, plenty of live music, trivia (which we never managed to win the entire trip, though we came close!) and plenty of chatting over drinks or as we looked over the water.

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As is typical on cruises, our first day at sea was one of the formal dinners, so we all got dressed up. They had photographers so we had some taken. Unfortunately, they cost a fortune to get the photos of our entire group, so we settled for just this one.
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My mom, sister and I at the formal dinner in the main dining room of the ship on our first day at sea (Tuesday). (Photo credit: Susan Kuntz, thank you!)

Wednesday would be our first day in port, so we rested up and prepared to wake up early the first day as we were planned to ride into the fjords early in the morning and the views were promised to be good!

ICELAND: Part II

From days 3 – 5 we drove to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which is to the north of Reykjavik. We chose to come here when we had our big “switch in plans thanks to IcelandAir” because it’s only a couple hours away from Reykjavik and also a bit more remote and less traveled than other areas.

ACCOMMODATION: The Old Post Office Guesthouse There weren’t many last minute options available, but we managed to snag a room in this hostel. This village is nestled in the village of Grundarfjörður on the northern coast of the peninsula, with the breathtaking Kirkjufell mountain towering above us. The hostel was clean, comfy beds, quiet, and the kitchen is lined with windows viewing the mountain and bay. It’s the perfect spot for two nights up here while on a budget.

EATS: Andrew and I are not prioritizing our choice or quality of restaurant while we’re here in Iceland. Not to act like we have a chip on our shoulder, but we travel quite a lot and we need to cut corners at times to sustain our travel schedule. We will likely have a couple nice restaurant meals later in the week, but otherwise we cooked dinner here at the hostel and are trying to keep things simple and low-budget.

On the bright side, it’s a novelty to wander through Icelandic grocery stores (so far Bonus and Hagkaup) and see what is sold here in comparison to the U.S. and our Swiss stores. The grocery stores we have seen clearly don’t put effort into making it look nice (it has the appearance of a Costco or Shoppers Food Warehouse) but there are plenty of options and  quite a lot of stuff that Andrew and I never see in our Swiss stores. The alcohol is sold only in state-run stores called Vinbudin, which is similar to our Virginia ABC store. The grocery prices haven’t been bad, but we’ve noticed beer and wine prices are higher than we are used to.

VOCAB LESSON: This is Andrew’s idea to summarize the meaning of some words in Icelandic to help everyone understand the names of some of the places we are visiting. I agree, I think it helps!

  • Jökull: glacier
  • Vik: Bay
  • Foss: Waterfall
  • Fjörður: Fjord

DAY 3: Driving from Reykjavik to Grundarfjorður

After making stops in the morning to buy a couple last minute items at the store (thank you Iceland for having opening hours on Sundays, even if they aren’t til 11AM!) we started to drive north on the 1, the so-called “Ring Road.”

Stop 1: Eldborg Crater 

This is a caldera which sits on the property of a farm. We did about a 1.5 hour hike to go up to it and back. The day was cloudy and it was raining a bit, but it was nice to get out to stretch our legs and hit the trail. It didn’t hurt that there were tons of baby sheep to ogle at along the way 🙂

Stop 2 (below): Gerduberg basalt columns, showing the hexagonal shape here. These were only about a km off the main road!

Stop 3: We drove out to the village of Stykkishólmur, on the northern coast of the peninsula. It was a cute little village (emphasis on little) and the view was stunning from this island at their harbor.

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Stop 4: Lava fields – We have seen a lot of this on the island, but this area was the coolest for its formations and the texture to the fields. Beautiful and cool to see the moss taking action to re-vegetate the earth!

Stop 5: The waterfall approaching our destination village, Grundarfjörður.

It just so happens that after we pulled off the road onto a gravel shoulder to view the above waterfall, as we drove away heard an awful KLUNK KLUNK KLUNK SCREEEEECH EEEEECH! Bad sound to hear when you’re on a road trip in a remote area of Iceland. After some google searching for self diagnosis and noticing that the sound wasn’t shaking off with our continued driving and turning of the wheel, we decided we had gravel stuck in our left front wheel in between the shield and the rotor. But we did not know how to fix it. Of course, as things go, we had to be in a village 45 minutes drive away in the morning at 9AM for a glacier hiking tour and the village car mechanic would not be open until 8AM. We were not sure if this would work out, and planned on waking up early Monday and giving it a shot to see if someone could help us fix it in time.

Day 4: Mechanic’s visit and hiking Snæfellsjökull


So, Andrew and I arrived at the local mechanic’s before they opened. Luckily, these Icelanders arrive on time, and I knocked on the door to a sleepy and yawning man who responded to my inquiries with “unhhhhh” and “yreahhhh” when I asked if he was available to help. He shuffled some cars around, brought our car into the garage, and within seconds pushed on something in our wheel and out popped the culprit. Half the size of a marble! The man kindly did not charge us for his time. We thanked him profusely, then hopped on the road as there was JUST enough time to high tail it to the next town to catch our glacier hiking tour. We were so glad that this incident happened so close to a town with a mechanic, and also that nothing serious was wrong with the rental car. Here’s hoping that the rest of the trip goes smoothly with the car!

This whole time while in Iceland, I have been thinking of my Dad and how much he would have loved to hear of this trip or rather that he would have tried to join us here in Iceland if his health would have been better. So, while bittersweet at times for me, I know he would be so proud of us for coming out here and is really here in spirit. I was reminded of the time that my Dad and I went on a backpacking trip in the back country of Utah to Salt River Canyon in Canyonlands and got stuck in a rut in a wash (a dry creek bed) and had to walk about 3 miles to the nearest trail head with people, hitch hike to the nearest town and get a local four wheel drive tow truck to go drag us out. It was so frustrating at the time but it reminds me that when stuff like this happens, you just have to go with the flow and be glad it isn’t worse!

Driving in the morning to the tour. So many waterfalls in this country!

Andrew and I signed up with the Go West! eco touring company to take us on the “Snæfellsjökull Glacier Hike – Wear the Crown” tour. I cannot say enough how much we loved this tour! The man who ran our tour, Jon Joel, was clearly passionate about his trade and love for promoting tourism of his country through eco-friendly methods. He was a fantastic guide and I would highly recommend anyone to call him up for a trip in the Snaefellsnes peninsula, or even a trip out of Reykjavik.

The trip was to hike up to the top of the Snæfellsjökull, which was a mountain with a glacier on the edge of the peninsula, and took about 8 hours round trip. We could not have done this hike without a guide as there are several crevasses along the way covered in snow, and you have to have a guide who knows where he is going in order to get you safely up and down. The trip was on our first and only blue sky & dry day so far (here’s hoping we get some more soon!) so it was pretty incredible. I think the photos speak for themselves! (be prepared for picture overload. The guide posted on DropBox and his pictures are unreal)

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Our hiking group. On the left, two sisters from the U.S.; Andrew and I and then a German Dad plus his two daughters
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At the summit. You can tell which way the wind typically blows!

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On the drive back to our hostel, we had to stop a few times….

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Even more waterfalls. Unbelievable!
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The bay where our village was, you can see Grundarfjordur off in the distance in the left of the photo

Day 5: Driving from Grundarfjorður to Hella

This day we planned to drive around the rest of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, then head out to return the car we rented for our impromptu trip to Iceland, pick up our originally booked car at the airport then head off to Hella to pick up on the originally planned itinerary of our Iceland vacation before the flight fiasco occurred.

1st Stop: We drove through the Snæfellsjokull national park first thing on Tuesday. We drove out to the very tip of the peninsula, which involved a lot of twisty roads through lava fields, a beautiful coastline, tons of incredibly strong winds (seriously, the strongest I have  ever experienced) and even involved picking up two women from Chicago and Ann Arbor who needed a ride back to their car after they were sick of hiking through the wind.

Skardsvik Beach

 

The beach from the town of Hellnar
Leaning into the crazy strong winds in the national park

Stop 2: Olkelda Mineral Spring for some natural mineral spring water brought straight out of the earth! Tasted strongly of iron, but was a novelty to say the least 🙂


Stop 3: Landbrotalaug Hot Spring

This place is a natural hot tub! We had some GPS coordinates to guide us off the road to find this spot, which is a teeny little circle in the ground with the perfect temperature of water. It was cold, windy and raining sideways on us when we got in, but it felt SO great to sit in a hot pool while looking out at the Icelandic mountains and revel in where we were in the moment. Amazing!

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So, that’s the end of Part I-II, which was essentially the part of the trip that we had not planned. From now on, we pick up with the initial planned vacation, and we will begin to travel the southern coast of Iceland. We are sad that we missed the time in Texas with Andrew’s family, and have felt FOMO since then, but we are looking forward to the rest of this trip because it has been pretty amazing so far!

Easter weekend in Saas-Fee

It was a four day holiday weekend in Switzerland for Easter. The prime ski season at most areas is winding down (quite literally melting as the weather warms for spring) so we took our co worker’s advice and booked an Airbnb in Saas-Fee from Friday to Monday. Saas-Fee is one of the higher elevation ski villages known for still having good snow later in the winter. We were not disappointed!

Saas-Fee is a car free village. We left our car in the parking garage on the edge of the village for the weekend and took one of these sweet electric taxis up into the village.

We arrived Friday afternoon during a snow storm, which gave 5ish inches of fresh snow for skiing. The village is relatively small and easily walkable from one end of the main street to the other within ten minutes. There are tons of restaurants, shops, and bars to keep you busy when you aren’t on the slopes. During our visit we enjoyed dinner Friday at Ristorante Don Ciccio, Sunday at Restaurant Bristol and had a great time for the Saturday aprés-ski party at The Larix.

The ski resort has a few cool things I’ve never seen before. First, to get up to the top of the mountain you take two long cable cars followed by an underground furnicular that they call the “Alpine Metro” which was kind of like a subway that takes you up inside the mountain. To get to the top it took us at least 45 minutes but it is pretty amazing how fast they can get you from 1,800 m (5,900 ft) at the base of the village to 3500 m (11,500 ft)  at the top. Second, because the pistes at the top of the mountain resort are on a glacier and the glacier is moving, you cannot install permanent lift systems. Instead, they have “t-bars” or “poma lifts”  (if you’re curious, here’s a description). True Jessica style, I fell down trying to get on at one point and a very sweet old Swiss German man helped me stand up and get on safely. Our conversation on the ride up was limited but I managed to use some of my high school German skills with him and say thank you 🙂 Not surprisingly if you know my ability to get myself lost or in stupid situations, this was not the first time that an elderly Swiss German man would help me out for the day. At the end of the ski day I found myself on what I thought was the “easy way down” the mountain (while Andrew took the direct and more advanced route) and instead hesitated in front of a sign saying “for good skiers only.” As I stood there considering whether I felt like braving it, an elderly man skiing by, stopped next to me staring at the sign and gave his sage advice, “You should not do this.” Clearly he should know, so I hopped on the lift and took a series of gondolas down the mountain and joined up with Andrew who had already been at aprés-ski for an hour 🙂

Third, the glacier we were skiing on was massive and had amazing features. The pistes were literally surrounded by visible crevasses and glacier ice. Certainly important to stick to the piste for safety purposes and wow was beautiful!

View from the top of Saas-Fee on Saturday
Andrew and I hung out at this place, the Dom Rock, on Saturday afternoon. There was a live band playing music out on the terrace, a full bar and lounge chairs to hang out. As you can see from where Andrew is sitting, it was pretty tough to leave this spot and we miiiight have stuck around for a few hours 🙂
The glacier field full of crevasses. Cant go skiing out there!
Sunday skiing was another beautiful day!
Our Sunday lunch spot at the Morenia station. It was juuuust warm enough with the sun to sit outside.

Andrew and I finished the weekend by stopping midway on our drive home in Leukerbad at the Walliser Alpentherme. Again, we aren’t allowed to take pictures inside these places since you cannot take your phone in but if you check the link and look at the photos … the views were incredible from the thermal baths! It was the perfect way to treat our tired muscles after skiing and, well … it’s just relaxing 🙂

So, March was a busy month of weekend travel and skiing. I think I can speak for Andrew and I both to say that we have been so thankful to have these opportunities in Switzerland. It really is amazing to look back over the past four weeks and think about all we have seen and done. We both work hard during the week and our weekday life is truly not that exciting (which I do not bore you with on the blog). We are fortunate to get to be weekend warriors and explore all this country has available within a couple hours drive of our home in Lausanne. But the fun isn’t over (it never is, is it?), next up: Our good friends Kim and Cody will be visiting from SF this upcoming weekend as they do a Swiss vacation before a work trip to Ireland. So excited for their arrival and to show them around 🙂