That's right, travel fans... we're back and this time we're in Ireland (that phrase is Irish for "hello"). No jet lag, traditional food which you'd rather not sample, difficulty understanding English, inordinate amounts of rain, cool temps, or gray skies for you; just read along. Welcome to our new readers! (By the way, Barack and Michelle Obama, with the girls, are also here this week; but their adventures will be different from ours.) More important, we are accompanied by Pauline (Paulie) Baron--Wendy's mom; so she will attest to the validity of our reports.
We arrived Saturday and are finishing up the first leg of our journey.Our home away from home was the stately Dromoland Castle just outside of Shannon in County Clare (just realized they say "county" in front of the name, not after it like we do. And, of course, they also drive on the "wrong" side of the street.). Though it is located on the western side of Ireland (as you can see in the map), this area is called the "midwest" by the locals. So we feel right at home!
This beautifully renovated castle has been the ancestral home of the O'Briens since the mid-1500s.
Here is the view from our room (which is in the new wing, built about 15 years ago).
The tour started on Monday, but we arrived a day early, so on Sunday we hired a car / guide to take us to places not on the tour's itinerary. This is what we did last year in Poland, though this time we were not looking for the ancestral home of the MacRhodes's or the O'Barons. First, he took us to Limerick where we saw (English) King John's castle (built by him though he never actually stayed there) and St. John's Cathedral (built in 1861 and having the tallest church spire in Ireland). Then on to Adare, a charming town with actual thatched roof cottages, and a one-time winner of Ireland's Tidy Town Award.
But the highlight of the morning was lunch at "Durty Nellie's Pub" (operating since 1620!). There we had our first taste of real Irish Guinness (our driver told us it tastes different everywhere else outside of Ireland), and our first authentic fish and chips. The fish was quite light and airy and the portions were rather plentiful. (And the presentation, even in a pub, was rather formal). Very delicious! By the way, we loved the Guinness! We may change the name of this blog to "Paulie's Guiness Tour of Ireland".
It is mid-June and the temps have been about normal: upper-50s! During the day it alternated between a light rain (which our driver said was just "Irish mist"), to a harder rain (umbrellas up!). But the driver just shrugged and said it made things more refreshing. This is why Ireland is so green!!! But it seems that the people have the same mindset as those of Oregon and Washington: the rain is just a part of daily life, so they don't even notice it.
Monday was our first day of touring with the group. Wendy started it off with a traditional Irish breakfast: eggs, Irish bacon (more like ham), grilled vegetables, sausage, and black and white pudding. Usually, our criteria for "blog worthy" meals is that they were memorably good. We are making an exception here because this one was memorably traditional but by no means good. Indeed, after three bites, she basically "ran for the hills" or at least to the buffet for a piece of brown bread.
What is black and white pudding, you ask? Well, first of all, it has no relationship whatsoever to the black and white cookies of Wendy's youth. No way. It is the Irish version of Haggis--Pig's blood in a casing mixed with oats, flour, barley, and beef fat. The "white" pudding has less blood, hence the lighter color. This was one of those "we're here so we have to try it, but we'll never eat it again" foods. Ugh! (And the sausage was pretty nasty, too!). In Wendy's own words: "Ok, truth be told, after a sampling of the b&w pudding, I decided to frontload all the traditional foods on the trip--so I can quickly eliminate whatever doesn't work!" Read the lunch report for more details.
After that memorable breakfast, the first stop of the day was the Cliff's of Moher, about an hour north of our castle.
These sheer cliffs rise upwards of 390 ft. above the Atlantic and stretch for about 5 miles. It is Ireland's most visited nature area, a home to many species of birds and other wildlife. They were used as the "Cliffs of Insanity" in "The Princess Bride"! We were incredibly fortunate to have a rain-free day for our viewing.
The cliffs are the beginning of an area called the Burren (meaning "great rock" in Irish, but might as well be pronounced as "barren"). This 250 sq. kilometer area is mostly exposed limestone. It rises from the ocean in a series of plateaus and mountains all up the coast of Clare.
Obviously, very little farming can be done here (though there was some cattle grazing), so most of the area is desolate and empty.
Later in the day, we visited the famed Poulnabrone dolmen.
According to the experts, this is a doorway to a Neolithic period (4,200 - 2,900 BC) tomb. This makes it several thousand years older than the Egyptian Pyramids. Does it indicate a belief in an afterlife? Or was it just an elaborate "gravestone" for someone of great rank? Who knows.
Before we leave you with some general thoughts, back to traditional food that we wished we hadn't tasted. We had lunch at a traditional spot in the Burren and Wendy and Paulie (on the advice of two tour guides) opted for the bacon and cabbage--which is supposed to be divine. The Irish in Ireland never did corned beef and cabbage--that's American. In the day, pork was the least expensive meat here, so bacon and cabbage was "de riguer" for comfort food meals. Well, we had it and again, another checkmark on our list of "ok, thank goodness that's over with meals." Check out this photo and decide for yourself.
Extending benefit of the doubt to Irish cuisine, we have had some wonderful meals so far--Irish smoked salmon on brown bread--extraordinarily delicate and delicious--
and fish chowder. The brown bread is great and so is the butter. Indeed, so is all the fish we've had so far. We're heard that the cuisine overall is much enhanced from days of yore and we believe that is indeed possible.... so stay tuned for more truly memorable meals over the week to come!
An example of Irish sensibility: There is no thermostat or heat control in our room at Dromoland Castle. When we asked how to change the temperature, the bellman replied, "If you're too hot, open the window."!!!
The Irish language may be at risk. Though it is still a required part of the el-hi curriculum, it is the second language spoken (if at all) everywhere except in County Kerry. And, as our guide informed us, unlike French or Spanish, knowing it has zero value anywhere outside of Ireland.
Prior to the trip everyone told us about how the beer here is served warm (or at least, not cold). Thankfully, those rumors were completely false!
Tomorrow...on to Cork.
Love to all,
Our second day of touring consisted of a long bus ride from Dromoland Castle down to Cork. It was punctuated with a series of wonderful stops.
Farther along the road, we stopped in the charming town of Kenmare. We had lunch at a traditional pub, Foley's, which was fine but unremarkable. Then we walked around the town. Here is a sampling of some of the shop signs on just one block:
The sun was shining as the group happily munched away on the patio. Paulie really enjoyed it, and ate her fair share, but, truth be told, neither of us had any as we are well into vacation-food-coma status. Yes, you read that correctly…even Wendy passed up some free food! By the way, “Bally” (and the derivative “ballin”) means town, so Ballylickey is like “Libertyville”. We are also in the area of Ballincolig, Ballinclasher, Ballinascarty, Ballineen, and the ever popular Ballinspittle.
Wayne and Wendy shared West Cork scallops nestled in foam -- outstanding. On to the mains: Wendy and Wayne ordered the grilled lemon sole-- lovingly accompanied by purple sprouting broccoli, rhubarb jelly, watercress pomme purée, and fennel salad with lemon verbena cream. Paulie enjoyed pan seared trout with dill and butter Rossi, curly kale, samphire (a water plant), Irish seafood broth, and trout caviar. Now, this is dining! All of our pre-conceived notions of Irish dining disappeared in a puff of leprechaun magic with this meal. Our desserts continued this extraordinary upward trend. Wayne enjoyed a deconstructed pineapple cheesecake-- again presented in bite-sized pieces.
No visit to Ireland would be complete without kissing the Blarney Stone (or, in Irish: Cloch na Blarnan). Paulie and Wayne had had enough narrow-circular-stair climbing at Bunratty, so Wendy went as their proxy (she promised to kiss each of us afterward to share the stone’s magic powers!). Once again we were blessed with fantastic weather….going through this ritual on a cold and/or windy day would be uncomfortable to say the least. Wendy was a true champ and fulfilled her mission beautifully so she can cross off “kiss Blarney Stone” (as well as “Visit Galapagos” and “climb to Machu Picchu”) from the “100 things to do before you die" list. A word about the actual kissing process: Once you reach the site of the stone (after the long spiraled staircase), the "kiss master" directs you to lie down on a blanket with your head toward the wall. Next, you are directed to grab two poles and arch your head backwards (think an inverted downward facing dog), look way backwards and down and smack away (the kiss master thankfully holds you in place). While you are getting in position and then kissing the stone (which bestows upon you the gift of gab), the built-in camera is snapping away.
They offer you the photos (for a price of course) after your descent. The tour guides do not mention that if you have some height issues, you truly need to be prepared here. One other thing. Wendy was so fixated on the height she couldn't give much thought to (what should have been) the real "issue" behind kissing the stone. Let's just say there was no Purel in sight! Yuk!!! All in all, an adventure and worth every second (and the two pictures plus T-shirt). The castle grounds, with river and gardens were simply beautiful by the way-- and especially beautiful from waaaay up there. There was even a “Poison Garden”, which featured all kinds of poison plants and an explanation of each (like foxglove, juniper, etc.). The sign at the entrance warned “Do not touch or smell any of these plants”! After descending, you must of course stop in at the self-billed "Largest Ireland Store” in the country. Yes indeed…they had everything Irish.
Today we were lucky that the farmer’s market was open. There were not many vegetables, but lots of stalls selling all kinds of other local and homemade goodies. We had a wonderful lunch at a restaurant called “Fishy Fishy"-- superb fish chowder and Wendy and Paulie shared a delectably lightly pan- fried sea bream with beets, crispy potatoes and zucchini tempura. Yum.
Then it was a short ride to Charles Fort (ok we would call it “Fort Charles”). This state-of-the-art star-shaped fort was built in the late 1600s to protect the entrance to the harbor from the Spanish and French fleets. A smaller fort, James Fort, was built on the other side of the harbor entrance. In some places the walls are 16 feet thick! And it was surrounded by a deep, wide moat (factual note: moats were not filled with water, despite what Hollywood has taught us). Here is a mozaic representation of the fort.....
Ironically, it was the British themselves who actually attacked and took the fort from its vulnerable land side. After that it was used as an army barracks until the 1920s.
The last stop of the day was back in Cork, at the English Market. This covered market has been on its present site since the mid-1800s. It was the model for the Boqueria Market in Barcelona (which, in our opinion, is much better). The market did not have a lot of colorful vegetables, but it did have the usual assortment of bizarre (to us) fish and cuts of meat.
From the market we walked about a mile back to the Hayfield. Here is a picture of a typical street sign, with the name of the street in both English and Irish.
A little later, the group bussed over to a nearby cathedral for a private concert given by Nancy Long
They alternately played as a group and in smaller combinations, and Nancy also sang a number of songs in a beautiful voice. The setting of the huge cathedral made it even more ethereal. And the topper was when they asked for requests and Wayne asked for (and was rewarded with) the most beautiful song ever written, "Clare de Lune", played on the most beautiful instrument.
Dinner was back at Hayfield Manor, but this time in the casual dining room. The menu had many of the same dishes as the previous night, but this time they were more fully constructed. For example, the Caesar salad was more recognizable and substantial.
Wendy had the seared halibut with coconut-infused risotto. Wayne had pan-fried duck with bok choy and potatoes Dauphinoise.
During this time, we have passed by green field after green field, all separated by greener hedgerows. So many hues of green! And we have even seen a few gloriously golden fields of flax.
Next we head toward our final stop in Ireland, the capital of Dublin.
Dia dhuit everyone:
Thursday morning we bade farewell to Cork and headed east and then north.
Our first stop was Waterford....yes, that Waterford...home of the famed crystal. The guided tour was one of the best and most interesting we have ever been on. We actually walked through the factory and could stop and talk to the workers! However, we must note here that this is just a small factory; the majority of the production is done at a larger factory in town. And we were surprised to learn that they are now owned by a conglomerate which also owns Wedgewood and Royal Doulton! The first stop was a time line showing the history of the brand. It also included information about what it takes to become a crystal cutter: 5 years as an apprentice. Then the person has to successfully cut a test bowl. If it does not meet the required standards, they have to do another 3 year apprenticeship! Yikes! When we got to the area where these cutters worked, our guide said all 6 of them had at least 30 years experience.
Then a short trip to the Waterford train station for our 2 1/2 hour train ride to Dublin. The train was labeled:
The ride was great: very smooth and comfortable, and there were only about 4 stops along the way. We enjoyed seeing the names of the towns written in Irish and English.
We got into Dublin about 3:15 and got a quick overview as the bus went from the station to our hotel. Dublin is built on the banks of the River Liffey. The capital of Ireland, and home of Trinity College, it has a population of about 500,000 (1.2 million for the metro area). If anyplace could be said to be the birthplace of great authors, it would be Dublin, having produced many prominent literary figures, including Nobel laureates William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett. Other influential writers and playwrights include Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, and the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker. The city also seems to have, by our estimation, the most pubs and restaurants per square meter of any city we've seen.
Friday morning, we had another sumptuous breakfast (this buffet gets an "A"; first time we ever saw one with mini quiches!). Then we did another (!) bus tour of the city, including Phoenix Park, the largest enclosed park in Europe (it has an 11 km perimeter wall). The English name is somewhat of a misnomer; it comes from the Irish fionn uisce meaning "clear water". Ooops!
Here is an obelisk dedicated to Lord Wellington (yes! That Lord Wellington!) who was born in Ireland.
Then we stopped at St. Patrick's Cathedral. This classic prototype Gothic church was built in 1220 on the site where St. Patrick purportedly performed baptisms
It is the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, which is an Anglican denomination. Jonathan Swift (yes, that Jonathan Swift!) served as the Dean here (i.e., the top guy), from 1713 until his death in 1745. He is also recognized as the creator of the genre of satire. Swift is entombed here under his self-penned epitaph.
Next we went over to the Trinity College Library to see the Book of Kells, a world-famous illuminated manuscript produced by Celtic Monks in AD 800. It is actually several books; they rotate them for public viewing. However, since they are very small (about the size of a hard-cover book), the first part of the exhibit features poster-sized replicas of some of the pages, along with excellent descriptions of why they were written and what (especially the illustrations) they mean. Here is a sample of one of them.
While it was very impressive, it reminded us a lot of how the Jewish Torah was (and still is) produced: on treated sheepskin, with guide lines marked, and very fine, precise lettering (although without illustrations).
At that point the organized touring was over for the day, so the three of us went across the street to Kilkenny's, a recommended cafeteria-type restaurant. We had a quick light lunch and then headed out to explore on foot. Paulie has been on a mission to find a James Joyce t-shirt. While hunting one down we learned that Bloomsday was last weekend. This celebrates Leopold Bloom, the main character of Joyce's Ulysses. So we probably could have found one then, but, alas, now our search was in vain. But our hunt took us all over the main part of the city. We first headed toward the river, where we saw the statue of Daniel O'Connell, a 19th century nationalist leader, and, behind it, the Monument of Light (also known as The Spire of Dublin, but it looked like a gigantic lightning rod to us).
love padlocks in Dublin:
Finally, we walked over to St. Stephen's Green, a beautiful, lush city park, with ponds and blooming flowers, and walking paths with benches. It was gloriously sunny and warm, and many people were there soaking it up.
Click here for other (internet) pictures of the park.
It would have been wonderful to visit one of the synagogues on Friday for Shabbat but we didn't have our act together in getting the proper clearances. So, we decided to do something altogether different. Seeing that Evensong is a choral service, we decided to check that out instead. Apparently, St. Patrick's Boys' Choir is second in renown only to the Vienna Boys' Choir (according to our local guide). The choir school was founded in 1432. (By the way, the St. Patrick's girls' choir was founded in 2000 "to provide girls with an opportunity provided to boys for many centuries" - taken directly from the cathedral's website). The music was stirring; to imagine such soaring, angelic voices from such little boys was awe inspiring. The singer among us was VERY glad we went. However, since it was a service, we were not able to take any photos.
For mains, we did a flip-flop from our normal food preferences with Wayne ordering fish and Wendy ordering meat (yessiree). They serve a lot of turbot here and that was Wayne's choice with fennel purée, shellfish ravioli, braised chicken wing, and vanilla clam sauce. Again, his plate cleaning skills were exceptional.
Saturday was our last day of the tour, and last in Ireland.We started out with a 1 hour ride to Glendalough, the word's best preserved monastic site. It was founded by Saint Kevin in the 6th century.
Next, back to Dublin, another quick light lunch, and then (off-tour) we went to "Jig", a very kitschy place dedicated to Irish dancing. There is a small theater off of the "museum" area. First, there is a video of "man on the street interviews" asking people in Dublin what they know about Irish dancing. It appears from this video that most Irish children (boys and girls) learned some of the dances (in school?) at an early age. Then, the owner, Sean (who is a former Champion) and Megan do a series of Riverdance-type dances. Next, everyone in the audience is asked to come up on stage and learn to dance! There were 12 other people there besides us, and all went up, but Paulie and Wayne decided to stay firmly planted in their seats. After all....someone had to take pictures and be the audience! Right? Sean and Megan led the group through a number of step combinations. Some people picked it up quicker than others, but all were having a great time. After about 15 minutes of learning and practicing, here's what they were able to do:
Pretty impressive, huh? And a fabulous way to end our time in Ireland.
"Kil" means "church" in Irish. In the old days, there were often not real "towns"; rather there was a cluster of people who lived around the focal point of their community, the church. Thus, these communities eventually did become towns with such familiar names as Kilkenny, Killarney, Kildare, Kilcullen, etc.
In Dublin, we have seen many anti-abortion signs. For such a strongly Catholic nation, abortion is still illegal (except in extreme circumstances). However, over the last few decades attempts have been made to legalize it. Another such attempt is being hotly debated in the national legislature right now; hence the signs.
So we leave our quick spin around the Republic of Ireland Sunday morning. Our impressions? The people are warm and family-oriented with little pretense. As a culture, the Irish are wise and witty with a wonderful sense of sarcasm. The scenery is spectacular -- we opened this trip's blog with "fifty shades of green" partially tongue in cheek (without having truly experienced the scenery). But that description wasn't far off -- they talk about 40 shades here -- but who's counting? The scenery was breath-taking and particularly wonderful given that we had unexpectedly great weather. The history is fascinating and the castles and monasteries captivating. The food (once we got past several traditional items) was great. The literary, dance, and musical talent is impressive. Lots more to do and see here but that is always the best way to leave a new destination. So glad we came.
On to London!