“Good morning! How are you?”
Eyes shine behind a genuine welcome at Sparks Bistro whether it is a busy day or a quiet day. “It is good to see you. What can I get for you today?”
Service is laced with the joie de vivre of staff who love their place of work as much as the regulars do. It is a beautiful little gem in Smithfield where elegance is understated in the simplicity of the open plan cafe. Decadent sauces sizzle from the kitchen on the other side of the counter while the lunchtime crowd fills every inch of floor space. Chef, Guiseppe Cipolla, creates daily specials that intertwine an Irish style with exotic influence: sea bass, Wicklow lamb, steak, chicken, salmon, cod … all paired with veg and sauce that melt in the mouth. With good food in front of you and lively conversations you could forget the world for an hour.
In the morning, afternoon or evening you might just find a quieter table to have a more intimate conversation or get some work done. That is how I ended up in Sparks for the first time. Laura and I met at the table beside the window shortly after Sparks fully opened in January of this year. Comfortably situated, we began putting together plans for C Squared – the community creative project we are working on. It didn’t take long before I began to bring everyone who came to visit or suggest to friends that we meet for coffee, lunch or dinner either in the main room of the bistro or, on a special occasion, in the beautiful tea room in the back.
On a long summer evening, Sparks takes on the feel of a classic European local in the making, situated in its perfect corner of the world. Confident in good food, good wine, good service and good friends – what more do you need unless you are searching for the chaos of hurried crowds searching for a night out. And in this city, Sparks is affordable with a two course dinner menu for under €17. You’d be hard pressed to find something equal in quality of flavour or service off Grafton Street for twice the price.
Perhaps Sparks is a small influence on the city that Dublin will become. With rich hospitality and excellence in the smallest things, Hassan Higazy and his staff take the finest things of local community living and create something extraordinary.
The snow drops, crocuses and daffodils are teasing us with their greenery peaking through and yet the temperature is as cold as it will likely get during the year. There is something incredibly special about the end of winter and the promise of spring in Ireland.
As evening begins to descend the shadows seem to reach out over the earth in a sleepy stretch. Trees in particular cast long shadows, gathering into their dark arms new growth on the forest floor. (photo: Coole Park, Co. Galway)
Snowdrops & New Growth
Bright red and green tips begin to form on bushes creating blankets of colour along the roads. They look so vulnerable in their newness. Buds appear on the trees and flowers begin to push through the ground as spring is ready to be born again. Delicate white petals form a covering that is a gentle teasing reminder that winter is never harsh with snow here. Just when we are making more cups of tea and are knocking the heating on once more today, the snowdrops let us know that it won’t be for long. (photo: Burtown House, Co. Kildare)
Following the harsh winter storms where wind and waves beat against the western sea coast, the sea swirls around in chilly playfulness. Crisp sunsets paint the horizon in soft blues, whites, greens, greys and pinks. (photo: Lahinch, Co. Clare)
Giant trees stand exposing the gnarls in their branches and their windswept growth. They display the incredible strength that helps them to stand with heavy summer loads. To me, these are the most beautiful of the late winter beauty. They have stood for decades watching over the changing decades and centuries, welcoming spring over and over again after having been stripped bare of all their finery. (photo: Slane, Co. Meath)
Time to prepare ourselves for spring!
Meet “The Pilgrims”: First there is Susan. Originally from a farm in Wexfored, she now lives in Lahinch, a little surfing town just south of the Cliffs of Moher in Co. Clare. Optometrist by trade, musician and seeker of Jesus in all things. Christian cliches don’t do it for her. She wants a real faith with a real God. I don’t know if I adopted myself into their family or if they adopted me … or when that was exactly. Her sister, who was my first and closest friend in the family, left us for life in New Zealand. Enough time has passed that Susan now introduces me as her friend … instead of “This is Liesel, my sister Rachel’s friend.” Nice. And then there is me. No further explanation needed since this whole blog is about me – I named it when I was young(er) and couldn’t bother changing it.
Introducing “The Pods”: Top of the Rock Pod Pairc and Walking Centre is located way down the road in West Cork, about four hours drive from Dublin. By the third hour I was thankful for my hands free set for my phone so I could get a few phone calls made. And then I called my brother at his work in Canada just because I had international minutes on my phone that needed to be used. I think it was 8:30am there. I arrived to the site with few expectations of what to find – mostly because my head has been busy thinking through too many other things to anticipate the pod getaway. I hadn’t even researched what was all in the area to see and do. All I could think of was, ahhhh, rest. I walked towards Droimeann, our pod named after an old Irish bread of cow. With each step on the grass of our little “yard” towards the pod it felt more and more peaceful around. When I stopped on the deck and righted the sturdy white chairs I looked out across the valley and the hills and felt like the only person in the world. The slight overhang at the front of our pod framed the view of pastures, stone walls, trees and rows of fuschia. When I finally turned around and unlocked the doors to our pod I was greeted with the sight of simplicity and the smell of wood from the panelled, sloping walls. There was just enough room for two small, comfortable beds pushed against the walls and our suitcases. It was perfect.
Over the next couple of days we took advantage of a couple of the walks in the area. We followed streams and waterfalls. We spotted bright red holly berries heavy on the trees. We got caught behind a herd of cows on the road and had to duck off to the side to let them pass. We found a castle. We visited Glenilen Farm and bought fresh butter. We got to know the other guests in the mornings and the evenings. There is a certain sort of person who stays at these places and they are all really lovely people! We even managed to find some of the best food in Ireland at a small restaurant in the middle of no-where! We went to Bantry on market day and followed the road to Gougane Barra. Somehow I even managed to get a bit of work done as well and emailed it out 5 minutes before the main building was being closed for the night.
We didn’t follow the pilgrim trails in the area. We didn’t even spend time thinking about the historical significance of the structure of the pods we were staying in. We just were, for those couple of days, two pilgrims in a pod. We were two people who stumble in pursuit of Jesus where ever the road or conversation might take us.
“Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing which will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfilment.” ~ John O’Donohue
Walking towards my car after visiting the Medieval Museum in Waterford this past weekend, a friend and I noticed that the rear, passenger side wheel was flat on my car. My mood deflated a little in that moment. Having just had one slow puncture fixed this past week, and not exactly being an expert at changing tyres, I had to consciously gather together handfuls of optimism until I was motivated enough to just get on with it. Thankfully:
- I had a spare tyre in the boot that was full
- There was a jack and tools there too
- I wasn’t alone
- It wasn’t raining
An older man in a suit saw us pull the tyre out of the boot and came to ask if he could help in any way. As he started loosening the tyre a couple of younger Wexford men came to join in. Not even asking if we needed help they just took the tools and said they would take care of it for us. One quickly fitted the jack while the other proceeded to remove the tyre and replace it. In under 5 minutes the tyre was replaced, the car returned to the ground and the tools were put away. I just stared in amazement and shook their hands in thanks.
While my tyre was being fixed the following day, we adventured around the area. Mount Congreve was a garden set apart with the pond lilies and hydrangea walk in full bloom, the secret garden with the pagoda set deep in its sunken floor and summer fruit ripe on the trees, just waiting to be tasted. Within view of the Metal Man we joined others in jumping into the choppy sea just before the rain returned. Through a camera lens the feeling and beauty can be captured in part. But I have yet to capture the true beauty of adventure – the friendship, strength and heart of those who invite me to explore this life with them every day.
But fundamentally, life off Earth is in two important respects not at all unworldly: You can choose to focus on the surprises and pleasures, or the frustrations. And you can choose to appreciate the smallest scraps of experience, the everyday moments, or to value only the grandest, most stirring ones. Ultimately, the real question is whether you want to be happy. ~ Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Hidden away in the Wicklow mountains is a lush valley set aside for locals and hill walkers – I would call them mountain climbers but that might be a bit of an exaggeration after just having been through the mountains of British Columbia. Just down the road from the pub and inn is a place to park. Those are also exaggerations. The road is more like a one way barely paved street for two way traffic. The place to park is more like a meter of warn down area from people having parked there before. The pub and the inn are just as they sound. And actually, the old white building is quite long, with a considerably large car park.
Glenmalure is a little gem just tucked away nicely.
I was staying with friends down in Wexford this past long weekend. We’d determined that Sunday was adventure day. Looking at the sky we had to determine whether to wear our waterproof jackets or if our light t-shirts would be enough. After voting for bringing the jackets along we started down the hill towards the cottage at the base of the waterfall. You might have even called the waterfall “roaring” after the torrential downpour the day before. It slowed to a wide and shallow pool just in front of the cottage. There were seemingly two directions we could have gone. Only one of them had the “allowed access” sign on it. The property belonged to someone and there was only one way through it that wouldn’t have been considered trespassing. We zigzagged with the path up the hillside. At times it sounded like the whole mountain was nothing but a waterfall. Under the dense ferns water flowed steadily all around us. At times the path was even a secondary stream.
It’s good to catch up with friends and share life.
As we reached the top of the hill we saw a sign announcing that we have reached the limits of the allowed access and any further would be at our own risk (bring your compass, etc, because it’s going to get treacherous). I was reflecting on the dreams that I have for the year ahead. Some of them seam just a little too impossible for me. Then we would pass an “allowed access” sign. And God would speak to our hearts about how he has made a way through the impossible with a series of allowed access points. I would rather just bushwhack through life. To me paths are confining. The reality is that when we attempt to anything great that is so much bigger than ourselves, bushwhacking doesn’t cut it. God is a part of the process: going before, walking with, following behind. I need to start off along the way and trust that with each step he will show me the next part of the journey. On that hill we prayed that God would show us the “allowed access” in all aspects of our lives – the safe places to put our feet so that we live our lives to the fullest.
Pink and white petals now gather in drifts at the side of the road as a sort of spring snow. Eager to welcome the warmer days, the cherry blossoms covered the trees in clusters of unusual abundance weighing down the laden branches, sometimes becoming the only clouds to an unblemished blue sky. Beneath them and all around the yellow narcissus call into season the leaves on the trees. An April visit to Burtown House did not disappoint. The white snowdrops that covered the same ground in February were completely replaced with thousands of yellow and white narcissus and other spring flowers.
Through the gates of the old demesne the sounds of the city are replaced by wind whispers. Behind me I hear the approach of runners with the steady friction of their shoes meeting the paths touring the park. Children’s laughter comes from the playground to the left. I cut across the grass to the gateway of the old walled garden.
An arched entrance with open gates stands in welcome. The path slopes down the centre of two lawns towards an empty sunken concrete pool. Gardeners are out with their wheelbarrows weeding, preparing and planting the perennial beds that colour the borders of this first sanctuary.
Ascending from to the pool I enter the gates of the heritage orchard. Pale pink almond blossoms proclaim a promise of a good harvest. The fruit trees from a few hundred years ago are finding their way home again. In the far left corner bees are waking up from their winter sleep and are busy making their honey behind the green mesh of their designated home.
Through the opening of the back wall I step into the kitchen garden with its sculpted herb garden, neat rows of strawberries under mulch, rhubarb borders, fruit trees espaliered on the back wall, central garden tunnel, vegetables growing from the bulbs planted in the winter, and empty beds waiting for their purposes to be fulfilled.