Saturday, January 26, 2013

My Big Fat Irish Vacation Day 8: Cashel to Kilkenny

Tom and I headed out of Cashel with an idea of  spending the day in Kilkenny - I wanted to see the Design Center and National Craft Center there. But under as clear and blue an autumn sky as you could wish, we were in no hurry to get anywhere in particular. We were enjoying the ride and the sheer pleasure of being in Ireland on a fine fall day. Here, in this valley between two mountain ranges, we really felt like we had come home. It reminded me of where I grew up in Tennessee; it reminded Tom of southwest Wisconsin. Even when we got a bit tangled up and had to backtrack, we didn't care. We were just happy to be there.

Kilkenny Side Street
 When I think about our time in Ireland, our day in Kilkenny was far and away my favorite. We ambled in around lunch-time, located the local shopping center, and prowled a bookstore for a bit, had a bite to eat, then strolled around the city streets. We watched the street musicians, and got thoroughly turned around looking for the Tourist Information office. When we asked a young lady where it might be, she didn't know, but instead of suggesting we ask somebody else, she ran across the street, asked the lady running the shop there, then came back across the street to tell us. It made me sad she was selling ice cream and it was really too cold and windy to buy her wares. She was charming.
Kilkenny Castle
 We walked up to Kilkenny Castle. Once the home base of the Butlers, an Anglo-Irish family, the grounds stretching down to the River Nore are now a public park, and the side Cromwell did not blow up is the backdrop to a lovely rose garden that seems as popular with the locals as with the tourists. With our usual aversion to the the lifestyles of the rich and famous, Tom and I watched a video about the history of the place, then crossed the street to the Kilkenny Design Center, and through it, the National Craft Gallery.

Butler House and Gardens behind Craft Gallery
  The Gallery  was closed for lunch, but some of the workshops beyond were open, so we did get to see some silver and goldsmiths at work, and I could at least fantasize about what it would be like to be able to take some classes in the workshops in the renovated stable area. When they did open, the Galleries proved to be well worth the wait. The Modified Expressions Show was amazing. It featured artists from Europe and America working in paper - books, maps, calligraphy, even cardboard, if you can imagine such a thing. Amazing stuff. I'm going to try to put a link to their web site so you can look at a slide show of some of the work. You've got to see some of this stuff to believe it.

 The Design Center was a mixed bag. What as good was very, very good, (and unfortunately but understandably way beyond my budget) but there was also a goodly part devoted to factory-made goods. Now I know that things like Waterford Crystal and the china with the shamrocks on it are part of Ireland's tradition - and I am good with the crystal, I really am - but I have a problem with them being in a "craft" gallery. That may be snobbish on my part, but then I come from the craft tradition and definition of the Southern Highlands Crafts Guild, and when you about literally cut your teeth watching people like Virginia Dare Strother and Going Back Chiltosky, you do tend to cop a bit of attitude.

Club House Hotel: Your back is to the Check In Desk, now you get to find your room.

The Tourist Information Office had no B&B for us, but instead sent us to the Clubhouse Hotel. That was quite an experience. First we had to find it. While walking Kilkenny was no problem, finding where to leave the car in the lot behind the hotel was an adventure. Directions included going down an alley; we went down the wrong one to find ourselves in a situation where I thought we were going to mess up yet another rental car. Luckily the Golf had a very tight turning radius and we managed to get out without messing up ours or anybody else's vehicle, though some of the shrubbery suffered. We finally found the right very narrow alley, though we had doubts even as we saw signs saying it did belong to hotel. The hotel itself was, well, different. It started life as a Hunt Club back in the 1700s, then morphed into a hotel. It's like of like Topsy, it "jest growed," and if I thought the hotel in Dublin was a bit confusing with all the doors that looked like fire doors but weren't really, that was nothing compared to the Clubhouse. What with all the different levels and hallways going off at odd angles, I considered putting down a trail of breadcrumbs but was pretty sure they'd have been swept up. The room was on the order of an American hotel room, except colder water and one of those irritating shower heads that just didn't go far enough from the wall to be much good that the Irish hotels have but the B&Bs do not. Oh well, I wasn't there for the ablutions.

Street Musician
 The fine folk at the check-in desk had assured us both of good food and good music were easy to find in Kilkenny, so we set out. It was a bit of a walk, but like Galway, Kilkenny is an excellent place just to walk around in. We crossed the river and set out for Langtons, recommended to us by both the folks at the hotel and Rick Steves' book. I had doubts going in, simply because it was so lovely and elegant. They didn't seem the least but put off by as scruffy a pair as we, so we settled in. We'd had lunch and tea and were going to be drinking Guinness when the band played, so we decided we'd better get appetizers. When Tom's arrived, it wasn't what he expected, but it was tasty, so he dug in. He was almost done when the waitress arrived in great distress and explained that they'd brought him the wrong dish. Tom tried to explain that was alright, he was very happy with what he had gotten, but nothing would do but that they bring him what he had ordered - at no charge of course. The problem was that I was quite full with what I had eaten, which had been delicious, Tom had had quite enough with what he had eaten - and now we had what really was another meal on our hands and the waitress and manager standing at the table so apologetic, waiting for us to tuck in. In the meantime, there was no sign of any musicians - and we found out that the band had had to cancel. Yet another reason for the staff to get itself into a swivet of apologies. And we are sitting there not really wanting to eat another bite but feeling terribly obliged...  We managed to mess up the third appetizer enough to calm the staff down before we made our escape.

Matt the Miller's Pub on the River Nore

There was a small group at another table who had also been waiting for the No-Show Band. Turned out it was being lead by a professional tour guide. He had talked to the staff and found out that another pub a few blocks away was sure to have a very good local band. So we pried the perpetually apologizing staff off our arms and set off to find Matt the Millers. The walk was long enough for the extra food to settle down and make some room for the Guinness we knew we be having. The band was just finishing setting up - and I have go give the Irish pub bands credit. Mountain bands can drive you crazy with their constant tuning. They are obsessed with tuning; they'll dang nigh stop in the middle of a song to re-tune. Irish bands get in and get to work. This bunch got right down to it, and it was a hit parade right off my play list - they opened with "Mary Ellen Carter," and two tunes later it was "Ballad of Saint Anne's Reel." (Yes, I know I mis-spelled it on this blog title, but I can't figure out how to correct it without the computer deciding I'm starting a whole new blog, which is way too much work for 1 letter.) No Johnny Cash, but lots of Stan Rogers and Liam Clancy and I was one happy Yank.

Unfortunately, I am a night owl - my mother has long sworn I was born to be a night watchman - married to a lark of the most extreme sort. Tom was pumpkinizing in the worst way. I gave serious thought to letting him go his way. I had every confidence I could find my way back to the hotel just fine. It was finding my way back to the room once I got to the hotel that gave me pause and made me leave long before I wanted to. If I'd had my way, I'd have probably been there till the sun came up. It so would have not be a problem for me. We passed several other pubs oh the way back to the hotel with music, though none as appealing to me was what I'd been listening to. But the hotel room wasn't as appealing as any of them, even the pub with the weird off-key guy with the badly tuned guitar and no sense of rhythmn. I sat on the bed in a fine snit and contemplated bread crumb trail substitutes while Tom went to sleep.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Big Fat Irish Vacation Day 7: Galway To Cashel

It was back into the rental - a diesel VW Golf, BTW, please don't tell "the lads" at Top Gear. The couple of days off really helped Tom with the driving. Getting through the roundabouts was still a team effort - Tom concentrated on keeping us out of everybody's way and I figured out which exit we wanted - but he was handling the whole left side of the road thing like he'd been doing it for years. We headed south on the N18, a limited access highway.  I occupied myself by delving into the now familiar Collins Comprehensive Road Atlas. I was getting a feel for the general lay-out of the place, but could not figure out where "Amach" was. I was seeing it on sign after sign, but could not find it on any map. Then it dawned on me. The way Irish road signs are worded. Irish first, then English. There was a reason I couldn't find "Amach" on the map. Who in their sane mind would name their town "Exit"?
We had a vague idea of heading down towards Limerick and maybe on towards Tipperary. The weather was blustery but fine, and we were feeling very foot-loose and fancy-free. We stopped off in Gort for a quick break. I saw the words "Tim Horton" on the hot drink machine in the gas station and though "Aha, American (or at least Canadian) style coffee!" I had high hopes as I poured myself a cup of the stuff - and was teleported to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as soon as I took as sip. Just as poor Arthur Dent did when he tried to get a cup of hot tea on the spaceship Heart of Gold, I found myself confronted with "a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike" well, coffee in this case. I like good coffee, but I am not all that fussy, and I simply could no handle this stuff. Luckily it seemed content to ride quietly in the cup holder, so I left it to its devices. We both seemed happier that way.

Things got much better when we reached Tipperary. At this point both of our guide books abandoned us, and I don't know why. I was quite pleased with Tipperary. We walked around the town a little bit, and my only real regret is that I forgot to write down the name of the pub where we had an excellent lunch. Of course all the pictures of race horses on the walls gave it some extra points as well.

Nice street scene of a nice town.
 Once done with lunch, we headed for the one place in the MidLands that Rick Steves admits exists - Cashel. The Rock of Cashel, which is a set of Cathedral ruins atop a high tor over the town, was on my list of Places I Really Want To See.  Unfortunately, The Rock soon began to remind me of a certain very annoying hotel in Atlanta. I could see the place, and circled around it for what seemed an interminable time, but like to never actually got there. Tom and I were doing that with The Rock. Though at one point I was surprised and happy to see a field of corn. Not European corn, which refers to about any grain, but real American corn, or maize. I've no idea what it was doing there, but it was like seeing an old friend there for a moment. And we needed all the friendly reassurance we could get, frustrated as we were getting at being able to see where we wanted to go so plainly and not being able to get there. Round and round we went, until we saw a very small sign, bolted up the hill, and found ourselves (at last!) where we had been trying to go for the last half hour.
The Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary
 A visit to the Rock of Cashel is a quick overview of more than 1000 years of Irish history. From about 300 AD, it was the seat of the High Kings of Munster. This was where Saint Patrick decided he'd make his biggest splash by converting the High King, Aengus, to Christianity around 450 AD. The high ground of The Rock became a center for Irish Catholicism. Around 1000, the Round Tower was the first stone structure built there; it served as a lookout for the Vikings who were beginning to raid the territory. Cormack's Chapel, Ireland's first Romanesque church, was built about 100 years later, when things calmed down a bit. The Roman Catholic Church may have gotten the upper hand of the more free-wheeling Irish Church by then, but the carvings and engravings on the Chapel's walls and arches harken strongly back to the motifs we saw at New Grange. Even that far back, the Irish were mastering the fine art of following the letter of the law - but with their own particular spirit. The Hall of the Vicar's Choir where we started the tour is actually the youngest building, dates to the 1400s, so you have quite a spread of years to deal with. One of the hardest
things for an American to get used to when dealing with Irish history is that there is just so darned much of it! 
The Nave of the Cathedral, showing the secret passage. The Round Tower is to the right.
 What I enjoyed the most was studying the carvings on the stone sarcophagi in the niches, and the secret passageways behind the walls, now exposed, where the Bishop could have escaped from his quarters to the Round Tower if need be - or peered through screens to do a head count during Mass and to make sure that everything was up to snuff.

The graveyard on the Rock of Cashel with Hore Abbey below.
 Outside the Cathedral is what the guides assured us was a graveyard with the finest collection of Celtic crosses in Ireland. The view was certainly one of the finest. Even with the weather closing in, the view of Hore Abbey and the Plain of Tipperary were breathtaking for reasons that had nothing to do with the dropping temperatures and rising wind. We wanted to linger, but closing time was getting near, and we had not dealt with the issue of finding a place for the night, so we set out, though not without a lot of backward glances.

The "Golden Vale of Tipperary" with Hore Abbey

The Tourist Information Office set us onto a B&B called Sister Fidelma's. Tom went to get the car; I walked it because I had a couple of errands to run, wonder why the name sounded so familiar. We found the place with little trouble; as usual, the folks at the TI Office gave very clear instructions. We found it on a side street, and all was soon revealed. The name came from a mystery series by Peter Tremayne, which I had read years ago. It was like meeting an old friend. They had the complete series in several languages in the lobby; I helped myself to a collection of short stories. I'd bought Tom a book about the geology of Ireland at the Tourist Information Office, so we were both happy.

Sister Fidelma's B&B, Cashel
We weren't so happy when we set out to get a bite to eat. It had gotten very overcast, and the wind was strong and biting. We went down the main street until we finally found a place to eat, and had what was probably the worst meal we had outside of an American airport for our entire trip. Very insipid sort of Italian. I got fettuccine Alfredo on the premise it's hard to mess that up, but they succeeded. There was hardly anybody else in the place, and it was easy to understand why. We made our way back to Sister Fidelma's and curled up until we got some warmth back into our bones.

I was very irritated when I went back to the lobby to return my books the next morning to find a bunch of local maps and see that if we had gone up the street instead of down, we would have found quite a few restaurants, and probably have done a lot better. That's what we get for not looking around thoroughly! But during the night bad weather had blown away and while a cold wind was still blowing, the sun was shining, the folks at Sister Fidelma's had made us a fine breakfast, and things were looking bright again.

Not only can doors in Ireland be alarms, apparently they can be rude!