Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Final Stop in Ireland, Kilkenny

The last stop on my epic tour of Ireland was the town of Kilkenny. At this point I would like to give a shout out and a big "Thank You" to Roland's colleague Martin, who comes from Kilkenny and helped us out majorly with suggestions and pointers as we were frantically planning my last-minute trip. He suggested Kilkenny as a last port-of-call before returning to Dublin to fly home, so I spent my final day and evening here.

Unbelievably, I managed to get through my first 9 days in Ireland without any major rain or weather-related obstacles. This was incredibly lucky for me, as I had intended to focus on photography for much of my trip and managed to avoid juggling my camera and umbrella together for much of my adventure. However, this lucky streak ended in Kilkenny. I was greeted there by lots of rain and a windy cold front, which means that although I really enjoyed exploring the town, I have a bit less photography to share.

As with many of my stops in Ireland, Kilkenny had its own castle to explore. This castle was built in the early 1200's, and has been fully restored for visitors today. Unlike the other castles I visited during this trip, this castle is not in ruins. It is fully decorated in all of its historical splendor - with much of the decor having been carefully chosen to exactly duplicate that of its past. I was free to wander through and look in each room without a tour guide, which was great as I got to take my time - the downside being that photography inside was unfortunately strictly forbidden. The formal dining room was finished with a massive long table, fully set with fine china as if expecting royal guests at any moment. The bedrooms were dressed with huge iron beds complete with chamber pots. The study/library was stunning, decked out with floor to ceiling bookcases, oversize desks and stuffed leather chairs. One of the highlights was the portrait gallery. This long room featured painted portraits of each generation to live and rule in the castle. It was really interesting to put faces to those who had walked the same halls through the centuries. I really enjoyed this visit, with my only regret being that I'm not able to share photography. The castle also featured sprawling grounds, which were open to the public. I didn't go for a walk at the time because it was pouring, but they looked beautiful!

As I left the Castle I stumbled upon a food festival, which was in full swing despite the weather. I visited a few trucks along my walk back to my hotel, tasting a few sweets and purchasing some amazing Irish cheddar cheese to take back to Rome. This was a very happy moment, as there is no such thing as cheddar cheese in Rome and I miss it dearly!

Kilkenny Castle 

Food Festival! 

Kilkenny streets 

Smithwicks Brewery! I didn't get to take a tour, sadly, because I was there on Sunday and it was closed. 

This is the end of the road for my Ireland adventures. Following my Kilkenny visit, I headed North back to Dublin to fly back to Rome. Let me tell you, I have never been so happy to return a rental car. After I handed over those keys, my blood pressure finally went back to normal.

Ireland, what can I say? I love you. Your people are some of the warmest and nicest I've met while traveling and your scenery is among the most beautiful I've laid eyes upon. I'll miss seeing your cows and sheep along the side of every road, and what will I do without your rolling green hills to inspire me? I had an amazing, once in a lifetime visit. Except, it probably won't be once in a lifetime. In fact, I am already planning my return. The only difference for next time? A few more people to join me for pints in the pub. And someone else to take the wheel. Until we meet again!

Irish Adventures, Rock of Cashel

On my way from Kinsale to Kilkenny, I stopped to visit the Rock of Cashel. I had read in a few places that this historic site was a must-see, and happily it was located conveniently along my route.

I arrived in the small town of Cashel early on a sunny Saturday morning, and as I drove in I could see its historic landmark towering over the city. The "Rock" itself is actually an outcropping of limestone reaching nearly 200 feet into the sky. The site is steeped in history and mythology, and understandably so - it is 16 centuries old! It was the castled seat of the Kings of Munster as far back as 360 A.D., and remained a royal fortress until 1101, when it was granted to the church. Remaining on the site today are the ruins of a towering chapel, a cruciform cathedral, a cluster of medieval monuments and a 92 foot tall round tower - which is the Rock's oldest remaining structure.

There is just something about standing among ruins steeped so richly in history that simply takes your breath away. I arrived at the Rock of Cashel just as it was opening to the public, and as such, I had the place to myself. I can certainly understand why it is one of the most visited sites in the country of Ireland. As I wandered among the ruins in the cold morning sunshine, I was able to take my time taking everything in. From St. Patrick's Cross, to the stunning landscapes stretching out as far as the eye could see, to the Irish High Crosses dotting the grounds, I was a bit in awe of all of my surroundings. The cathedral and tower, even in ruins, were majestic and impressive - I can only imagine what it all looked like once upon a time. I had a great time exploring and snapping photos until the grounds began to fill up with tourists and it was time to go. I'm grateful for the peaceful, quiet time I got to spend alone at this landmark. This visit has added another item to my reading list - I look forward to finding a book describing the history of the Rock of Cashel.

A view from the top of the Rock of Cashel

Rock of Cashel 

Crosses on the grounds 

View looking up the round tower 

A note on the birds. While I was on the site, there were thousands of these birds flying around. They were completely silent, and swooped back and forth across the site in great masses. It was pretty breathtaking, especially considering my surroundings. 

 View looking down on a field of sheep

Sharing my view with the birds 

A view out the door of the ruins of the Cathedral, looking onto the grounds.

Cross of St. Patrick. This cross outside on the grounds is a copy - the actual cross is kept nearby indoors, in a climate controlled environment. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Irish Adventures, Kinsale

 The next leg of my Irish road trip brought me South, to the picturesque small town of Kinsale. Full of narrow streets, sloping hills and colorful storefronts, this waterside town has become quite the tourist hot spot. It has garnered a reputation for some of the best cuisine in Ireland, which for me turned out to be both good and bad. On one hand, the food was delicious. On the other hand, everything was quite overpriced, even in the "off" season. Kinsale is bustling and thriving all throughout the Spring and Summer months, but it was very quiet when I was there. I was told by a shopkeeper that I was there for the last open weekend of the year, and that almost everything in the town would shut down the following week and until Spring. Many places has already closed for the season, but I really enjoyed exploring everything that hadn't. I stayed three nights in my absolute favorite B&B of my Ireland trip - The Old Presbytery. Please, please, please, if you ever happen to visit Kinsale, you must stay there! It was elegant, cozy and full of character. I liked my quiet, top-floor room so much that I would have been perfectly happy to spend all my time there tucked into my ridiculously comfortable bed.

Kinsale is one of those quaint, small towns that I think is best explored with a significant other...where you wander through the streets, shop, eat nice meals and enjoy the little coffee shops and the pretty scenery. Coming from Dublin and Galway, I was in "wake up early and run all day mode." In order to fully explore those places in a limited time, I'd had to jump out of bed as early as possible and power through my days. Definitely not so with Kinsale. On my first morning there, I got up at 8:00am to find it was still fully dark out, and the world outside my window deserted. Confusingly, it stays darker for longer farther south in Ireland. After taking my time with the amazing breakfast at the B&B, I finally made it out with my camera, and looped around the town a couple of times fairly quickly.

At this point, I needed to find more to do as I had several hours until lunch. So, I took my B&B host's advice and headed out on the "Scilly Walk." Again, please please please - if you visit Kinsale, you must take this walk. It begins on a street heading out of the main town, and loops up and down hills, around Kinsale Harbor and through a gorgeous wooded path until it eventually ends up at Charles Fort, which looks out over Kinsale Harbour near where it connects to the Celtic Sea. The walk itself was beautiful and peaceful, and I came across very few other people during most of the 2.5 mile walk in each direction. It ended up being one of my favorite activities of my entire trip, which says a lot! Charles Fort is an old military fort built in the 1670's and formerly occupied by Spanish forces. It is now in ruins, but has been partially restored and sits on well-kept grounds open to the public. I spent quite a while climbing among the ruins and found it to be very beautiful and interesting. 

Kinsale Bay and the start of the Scilly Walk

Kinsale Bay

 St. Charles Fort

My remaining time in Kinsale was relaxing. I ate great food, took a cool tour of the town and visited the famous Old Head golf course for lunch. Despite the town being small, my time there really flew by and I was sad to say goodbye to the Old Presbytery.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Irish Adventures, An Unexpected Visit in Kilkishen

I met my oldest and dearest friend, Meghan, when I was only 5 years old. We shared a kindergarten class, became fast friends, and have shared a lifetime of friendship ever since. I spent almost as much time with Meghan's family during my childhood as I did my own. We were inseparable, and split our time among our two houses, both of us becoming an extension of the other's family. Meghan's mother, uncles and grandparents immigrated to the States from County Clare in Ireland close to 50 years ago. Their whole red-headed, freckled family is as Irish in looks as they are in their warm and funny personalities.

I have very fond memories of Meghan's grandfather, whom everyone called "Papa". He was elderly when I knew him as a child, and I remember him well as a staple in the Dwyer family kitchen, sitting at the counter and watching TV. I always found it a little bit tricky to understand his heavy Irish brogue, but I liked him very much. He always had a kind word - and a bag of M&M's - for all of us kids. 

When I found out I would be visiting Ireland, Meghan and I got to talking about the town her family had emigrated from all of those years ago. She told me about the tiny town of Kilkishen in County Clare, and about how her Papa had helped the build the church that still stands there today. We took a look at a map and I realized that, coincidentally, I would be driving straight past Kilkishen on my way from Galway to Kinsale. We thought it would be a wonderful gift to her mother if I stopped in the town to photograph the church that her grandfather had helped to build. She also told me how to find the house her mother had lived in until she left Ireland at 8 years old, and asked me to take a photo of that too. I was only too excited to take on this new mission!

I arrived in Kilkishen on a gorgeous fall afternoon, and it truly was a tiny town. I might have driven right through it, if not for its sign.

View down Main Street, Kilkishen

From what I could see, it was all of one quaint, colorful and cozy street. The church was the largest building on the street and I found it easily. 

St. Senan's Church, Kilkishen 

After taking photos of the Church, I set out down the street to find a pub called Gleesons. I had been told that the house next to Gleesons was the one that Meghan's family had lived in, nearly 50 years ago. A quick inventory of the street found only a pub called Jack's. As the street was totally empty and quiet, I ducked into a small general store next door to the church to ask where I could find Gleesons, or whether it had long since been closed. In the shop, I met a sweet and helpful older woman, who lived in a small house behind the shop. She was quick to tell me that Gleesons was a couple of miles down the road in the direction that I had just come. She could sense that I was puzzled by this, having been told the pub was very near the church, and pressed as to why I wanted to know. 

As I explained why I was there, she began to rattle off names of families who had lived in the house next to Gleesons Pub for as long as she could remember. I was amazed by her memory, which stretched back through the decades she had spent living in the small town and seemed to me to be a vault of details. As the list of names stretched on, I stopped her and told her the family I was inquiring after was named Hannan. Her face immediately lit up. "You can't mean Patrick Hannan and his family? They didn't live next to GLEESON'S, they lived next to JACK'S!" And just like that, I realized that I had stumbled upon a woman who not only could point me in the right direction, but vividly remembered the entire family in question. She had run the same small stop in which we were standing for all of these decades, and as I listened there with my jaw dropped open, told me she remembered Meghan's mother, "Sweet little Marian" who was always running around the shop with her brothers all of those years ago. We were both equally stunned, and thrilled at the coincidence.

The woman, who I now knew as Norah, insisted that I join her for a cup of tea to swap stories and talk about the family that had inspired my visit to Kilkishen, which she so fondly remembered. The next thing I knew, I was tucked away in her kitchen with a mug of tea, cake, and biscuits. We were both slightly overwhelmed by the afternoon's turn of events, and took turns asking each other question after question. I listened as she recounted Meghan's mother and Uncles, asking after each of them, describing them as children and drinking in all of the new information I had to give her. She talked about Papa and and remembered Meghan's grandmother, who I had never met. I showed her photos of the family on Facebook, and she marveled that she could remember Meghan's mother's face especially. All the while she carefully took in all of the details I told her, and I could tell she was committing them to her inner vault of a memory. Honestly, I have never been more impressed with a person's memory as I was of Norah's in Kilkishen that day!

After tea, Norah insisted on walking me down the street to show me the house I had been looking for, which sat next to Jack's Pub. She waited for me while I took photos, and allowed me to take her photo as well to show Meghan's family. Ironically, she told me she had never had her picture taken before! Afterwards, she rustled around in her shop, insisting I take an armful of chocolate bars as well as a Kilkishen town newsletter and a scrap of paper with her address on it. She also wrote down my address, and I found myself feeling sad to be saying goodbye to her so quickly. She tucked me back into my car and stood by the curb, waving as I drove off. 

The hour I spent in Kilkishen was one of the most special of my time in Ireland. I drove the rest of the way on to Kinsale feeling warm and happy after my unexpected visit. It just goes to show that it is a small world after all! 

The former Hannan household

Jack's Pub 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Day Trip from Galway, The Cliffs of Moher and the Burren

On my last day in Galway, I decided to "Go Full Tourist" and join a highly recommended bus trip out of Galway to visit the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren. I've never been much of one for sightseeing in big groups, but after several days of solo travels, I was up for some conversation, and also for taking in the views from the road while someone else did the driving. The trip was run by the Galway Tour Company, and they lived up to their good reputation. I had a great time winding through the narrow country roads of Ireland with 45 of my new buddies, taking in some truly stunning scenery.

We made several stops throughout the day, including one morning stop at a pub for an Irish coffee, and a later stop in a great little pub in Doolin for lunch. The amazing rocky landscape of the Burren was really interesting, and stretched on as far as the eye could see. I'd never heard of it, or seen anything like it before  in my life. The highlight of the day, of course, was the 2 hour stop at the Cliffs of Moher. It's hard to describe the experience of seeing these cliffs, and I don't think the pictures do it justice. It's an incredibly peaceful place, and very green and lush. I could have stood (behind the nice, safe concrete barrier wall) for hours, watching the sea smash up against the base of the cliffs  below. Apparently, these barrier walls were not  always there...in the past, visitors could walk right up to the cliffs' edge, lay down on their belly, and look over the edge. Whoever these people are - they must be nuts. My stomach dropped just thinking about being up there without the walls! But I digress. This was an amazing visit, and I recommend a stop at the Cliffs to any future visitor to Ireland.

Our first stop, at Dunguaire Castle

Poulnabrone Dolmen

Poulnabrone Dolmen 

The rocky landscape of the Burren 

Pub lunch in Doolin 

Cliffs of Moher 

 O'Brien's Tower at the Cliffs of Moher