Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Big Fat Irish Vacation: Day 5: Cliffs of Mohr and The Burren

Next morning we left “DunRovin” and returned to downtown Galway. This was slated to be a business sort of day – find an ATM, get some laundry done, find an internet cafe to I could check our e-mail and Tom could find out how his beloved Brewers were faring. The first two were done quite easily – Rick Steves' book was dead-on about the location of a place that would do our laundry. Yes, it cost 10 euros, but who wants to spend a day of precious travel time watching the drier go round and round? We went to the IT office again, and not only found another B & B to stay at, but a bus tour that would take us to The Burren and Cliffs of Mohr. I liked this idea just fine as the road maps all showed those sites we so wanted to see being on the roads that are narrow and winding even by Irish standards – and it was high time Tom got to look at the scenery instead of the road!

And what scenery! Even through a bus window on a blustery, showery day, it was amazing. This is the view from "Corkscrew Hill," the most twisty road in Ireland, at least according to our tour guide. Having spent most of my life in southern Appalachia, it's not easy to impress me with tight turns and steep grades, but this road managed to do the job. The gray color of the hills to the left is not bad color, it's The Burren, which was later in the day's agenda.
  On our way to the Cliffs of Mohr, we drove through the little town of Lisdoonvarna - the town's not much bigger than the city sign. Its main claim to fame is a Matchmakers Festival, which as so many things have done in Ireland, has inspired a movie called, remarkably enough, "The Matchmaker." The Festival ended the weekend before, but there was still one matchmaker set up, trying to drum up some business.

Cliffs of Mohr
Running for 5 miles along the coast of County Claire, the Cliffs of Mohr (pronounced "more") are the the third highest sea cliffs in Europe - 650 feet high. (The highest are in County Donagal, which is the extreme northwest corner of Ireland) They are spectacular, even in the uncertain weather we were having. I could go on, but I'll just let the pictures do the talking. And if they look a bit familiar, this is where they filmed the sea cave scenes for "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince."
Cliffs of Mohr looking south

Cliffs of Mohr looking north with the mountains of Connemara on the horizon.

We even had a couple of guys playing airs on their penny whistles - though their being huddled behind the walls out of the biting wind kind of killed the jolly effect.
 We had only 2 hours there, which went by like lightning. I wish we'd had more time to explore the exhibits at the Visitor Center, even if it does bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Teletubbies' lair. I kept expecting a periscope to pop out of the turf.

The Burren
It means "rocky place," and that it is. It's about 10 square miles of hill and coastline scraped to the limestone bedrock by glaciers, then eroded by rain and snow. This created a nearly continual sheet of stone above and an extensive set of caves below. People raise cattle and some sheep here, but mostly it is windswept and barren. An English surveyor working for Cromwell wrote of The Burren that it is "a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him." Real cheerful guy, this 17th Century surveyor. Must have been the life of the party.
Looking southwards back towards the Cliffs of Mohr. The boulder is an erratic, dropped by the glacier as it retreated.

The ground was incredibly rough. In some places it seemed like the rocky covering was thin, with sharp-edged circles eroded into it. People actually fish off the rocks closer to the sea. A bit further down the road, we saw rocks with numbers painted onto them. This is where people staked out their spot and had actually sunk anchors so they could tie themselves to the rocks and not be swept away by the waves. Sounds crazy to me - all this to try to catch a fish?
Looking inland, the hillsides themselves are of this stone. The road runs past the end of this dry-stack wall. The guide told us that there were times when the spray from the sea would reach the bluff on the far side of the road. Considering the cliffs were well over 100 feet high here, that is a scary thought!

 For our final stop, we had a quick photo op at Dunguaire Castle near Kinvarra just outside Galway. It was built on the shores of Galway Bay about 1520. Recently it's been restored and the owners host medieval banquets there for tourists. There were a pair of swans swimming in front of the castle as we pulled up, but of course they headed on out to deeper water as soon as the cameras came out.
Dunguaire Castle
There were or course, signs, mostly at the Cliffs of Mohr.
Before we set out, our guide made it very plain that we were to stay well clear of the cliffs' edges. 

He told us how earlier this summer, a German tourist had fallen over the edge. They found his car, found where the cliff gave way, but never found him. What worried me was the way the guide told the story. He seemed very casual about it, like "we always lose a few every year, but not to worry, there's always plenty more!"
I never did figure out what this one meant. Stay off the grass?
Do not pet the birds? It's a mystery to me!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Big Fat Irish Vacation: Day 4: Galway

This is the day our luck ran out - weather-wise, that is. The fine Indian summer weather gave way to something more typically Irish - rain. And rain it did. We had planned to go to Athlone and take a cruise on a replica Viking ship, but the idea of riding in a boat in the pouring rain held no charm for us, and we decided to head on out to Galway on the west coast.

We'd been warned about Irish road signs, but everything was working out alright - until we got to Galway. It was tangled, congested and what signage there was was awful. We had a good map, but it wasn't much help. The idea of having street signs in the cities hasn't seemed to have caught on in Ireland. If there is any kind of signage at all, it may be painted on the building, a stone, or inserted on a plaque in a wall, maybe a few car lengths from the intersection. You don't know where to look. We finally found the Tourist Information Office, and soon found that not only is Galway tricky to drive, it's murderously difficult to park. We found what we hoped was a quasi-legal parking space. Tom stayed with the car in case the local constabulary took an interest and I hoofed it for the TI office.

They found us a B&B in nearby Salt Hill. Getting there was a pain - we finally found it by turning down a road just to see if it was the right one. DunRovin is a 4 bedroom house run by Jerry Borgan, who, among many other things, is an Elvis impersonator. In fact, I'm not sure he didn't have a gig that night as he soon left us to our devices and took his "Elvis" sign with him.

 The B & B was on a cul de sac, but there was a footpath connecting it to the main street. We'd had enough of dealing with Galway traffic, so we walked back to the city - a bit of a hike, but it was a pleasant evening and after all the hassles with the car, much nicer.
Galway in early evening

It was a cold, rainy evening, yet Galway's streets were packed. There are at least 2 universities in Galway, the locals, and lots of tourists besides, all literally rubbing shoulders in the pedestrianized medieval part of town. We bounced like rubber balls back and forth trying to pick a place to have supper. Tom started chatting up a very charming young lady who was promoting a small restaurant on the second floor. On her suggestion, we got wine at the pub on street level, then went up. I ordered lasagna on the premise you can't mess that up too badly. I need not have feared, the sweet young thing did not steer us wrong, and it was a very nice meal.

Now, a quick word about Irish road signs. 
For starters, they are in Irish first, English second. 
Most of the time this is No Big Deal.
 Sometimes though, you have to read fast.

And sometimes, it's better to just not even ask!

Monday, October 31, 2011

My Big Fat Irish Vacation: Day 3: Newgrange

Dublin was calling, but so was the rest of the country - and this was, after all, as much a reconnoiter as a vacation. So we got up the nerve to go back to the airport and pick up another rental car – this time following the nice clerk's advice to get onto the major roads first. We headed up to Bru Na Boinne where the ancient tombs are. Once we got to the excellent visitor's center, we found out we had 2 options – 3 ½ hours with “more history and art” at Knowth (rhymes with “south”) or 1 ½ hours, “less art but you can go into the tomb” at Newgrange. We opted for Newgrange – cheaper and getting to “go into the tomb” appealed to us.

We had a bit of a hike to get to the buses – down to the ground floor, across the Boyne River (the Battle of the Boyne Historical Site is nearby) then up again to where the buses took you up to the tombs. 

Sheep safely grazing by the Boyne River
Using the buses not only made it easier for we visitors to find these tombs, which are up on very narrow country lanes, but I'm sure make life easier for the locals who only have to watch out for buses and not hundreds of cars every day!

My camera's batteries chose our arrival at the Newgrange Tomb to run out, so the shots that follow are off the web. It also meant that I couldn't get pictures of “Clarence,” the very nice orange tom cat that visits with groups waiting to go up to the tomb. For the following shots, thank the web sites for Irish education and/or tourism.

For starters, when we got to the tomb, I was stunned at the size of the thing. I'd always imaged these things about the size of a large house. This was more the size of a small subdivision! Predates the pyramids in Egypt a good 500 years.
The Tomb at Newgrange, County Meath
Carved stone and entryway into Newgrange Tomb

Newgrange is the only tomb of this sort that has a “fan light” over the door. The exterior is actually a restoration that was done in the 1920's. The archeologist in charge of the site figured that judging from the way the stones had fallen down, the walls were made of quartz studded with the darker stone. We've no idea if these were done in any kind of pattern. The carvings are everywhere, even on the undersides of the stones. The thinking now is that they may have been expressions of visions the people had.
Tomb Passage  
I like this image because it shows the passageway and some of the carvings. The carvings at Newgrange are very evocative. As you stand in the chamber, you start to notice one here, then another – it is as if they begin to emerge from the stone. There are three small chambers in the main one, with elaborate carvings. This tomb was first discovered in the late 1600's, so no real archeologist got to see it in its original state, but judging from other similar tombs, the dead were cremated and their bones were placed in these side chambers. 

At the Winter's Solstice, the light from the rising sun comes through the “fanlight” and the door and illuminates the chamber. The current thinking is that these people believed that the spirits of their dead would follow the light out and into the next world.
 If you want to see the sunlight penetrate the tomb, you can put your name in for a lottery drawing. The deadline for 2011 was the day we were there. Winning a space in the lottery is no guarantee that you will see this happen, though. Ireland is notoriously cloudy in the winter; the guide told us that in 2010, of the six days they took groups into the tomb, only one got to see the sun! Yes, the climate was different in Ireland 5500 years ago, and the odds of a sunny winter day were much better. For visitors during the rest of the year, the sunbeam is played by a small spot light.

Back at the Visitor's Center, we asked Marie, the clerk at the gift shop about finding lodging. We'd been thinking Trim or Navan. She made some calls, but there seemed to be no room in the inns. But when she said that tonight was “Live Music Night” at Daly's in nearby Denore, we knew we'd found our spot! She made the call and we had a place to stay.

Denore is like a lot of Irish towns we saw- a road with a few businesses on either side. Daly's is a pub with a small lodge on the other side of the parking lot. The room was very basic, a clean well-lighted place, but the bathroom was more modern than the Dublin Inn, for which Tom and I were both grateful. Hot showers for everyone!

Daly's Pub and Restaurant
We had dinner at Daly's Restaurant, when went over to the pub at 9:30 to hear the band. “The Full Shilling” were fantastic! They played some “trad,” some more modern stuff - including a Johnny Cash medley with a very Celtic slant that was a panic. In Ireland, where we would say somebody's “elevator doesn't go to the top,” they say “it's not the full shilling.” Hence the name of the band.

While there were a few visitors there, the locals were out in force - very very friendly, very happy locals. As the night wore on and the Guiness grabbed hold, we had some dancing, but only one guy was really out of it. I have particularly fond memories on this older lady,just a little bird of a gal, first nursing her drink, then getting up to dancea bit with the younger women. Bet in her day she was the life of the party!

Before supper, we took a walk along a nearby canal - a very pleasant interlude, got to hear my first European blackbird. What a song. but I did get a chuckle out of this sign - though looking at the black waters of the canal, I think they mean it!