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!

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