Ireland Part 4: The Kingdom of Kerry

After driving around Ireland for a few days, we learned that the roads had 3 categories:an M road is a major highway, an N road is a smaller highway, and an R or L road is a country road. After Galway, our next stop in Ireland was Killarney, County Kerry. We packed our little red Toyota, took some Google Maps screenshots (21st century navigation), and headed south along the rugged Atlantic coast. We ventured down a lot of Rs and Ls during our travels around Kerry! Some of the lanes were so narrow we had to pull onto the shoulder to avoid being run off the road by buses. Driving on the opposite side of the road and sitting on the opposite side of the car was so disorienting!

On the way to Killarney, we stopped to see the Cliffs of Moher. The cliffs are about an hour and a half south of Galway and look out at the Aran Islands, where we’d been a few days before. It was cloudy, windy, and rainy when we got there (of course), so we didn’t stay long. I wasn’t too upset about the dismal weather because we’d had such beautiful weather and clear views at the Aran Islands. I did get a postcard in the gift shop with photos taken on a sunny day though! After walking around on the cliff edges and narrowly avoiding being blown over by the gales, we got back in our Toyota and pressed on to Killarney.

We got to Killarney and checked in to our hotel, Murphys Inn. One of the cons of having a car was figuring out where to park it. We were lucky that the hotel in Galway had a garage attached to it. We weren’t that lucky in Killarney, however. I had emailed the hotel before to ask where to park and they gave us the location of a car park where we could leave the car overnight. Somehow during our entire stay in Killarney, we never could find that exact car park. We did find another place to park it, but before dropping it off for the night, we drove through town to Killarney National Park to visit the Ross Castle.

Ross Castle was my first castle! It was built in the 15th century and had all kinds of cool castle features, like a backwards spiral staircase (designed to make invaders trip), tiny windows, and lookout points where castle guards could drop rocks or boiling oil on attackers (seriously). The castle’s original occupants, the O’Donoghues, all slept in one room on straw mats. They also had a long narrow chamber for the bathroom, where they would hang their clothes to be purified from the gases releasing from the waste…gross! The windows were very small, partially as a precaution from attacks and partially because glass was expensive and subject to taxation, so very little light was let in. At night, they used candles (I can’t remember exactly how they were made but I know they involved the rushes from the nearby lough) that only burned for about 10 minutes each. After touring the castle, we went back to town and had pizza for dinner and ice cream for dessert-a refreshing change from all the pub dinners.

We also stopped by a local pub, called Courtney’s! I’d read about Courtney’s in the guidebook and was instantly excited. Apparently Courtney is a surname in Ireland-who knew! I got some awkward pictures outside (for some reason I felt very self-conscious standing outside a bar having my picture taken) and asked for all the Courtney’s swag they had. Tim has a whiskey flight and we bought two whiskey glasses with the Courtney’s logo on them!

The next morning we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and headed back to the park to tour the Muckross House. The owners of the Muckross House in the 1850s did extensive renovations and improvements to the house in preparation for Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in 1861. Unfortunately, all the money they spent improving their house sent them into financial ruin! The house was beautiful to tour though and a firsthand example of how important it was for the Queen to have visited Ireland back then. We walked around the grounds and gardens of the house and of course had a scone snack in the cafe. We also hiked through the park to see a waterfall!

One of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland is the Ring of Kerry, a loop you can drive around to see beautiful views. We decided not to drive the ring because we didn’t want to spend that much time in the car (as entertaining as Irish radio was) and because we wanted to go to Dingle, a little fishing town on the Dingle peninsula. We left Killarney and made the drive to Dingle, which offered plenty of beautiful views! When we got to Dingle, we found a car park and wandered along the main road for a few minutes (one of the fun parts about not having Google Maps is all the time you spend hoping you’re walking in the right direction!) until we found the Dingle Brewing Company. Tim and I love touring breweries so we’d been looking forward to this the whole trip. The tour was self-guided so we walked around and the exhibits and then went back to the bar for the real reason we’d come: the beer! Their beer was called Tom Crean, named after an Arctic explorer who was born in Kerry. We had a fun time talking to the bartender, who had lived in Houston for many years. We walked through town to the marina and had a delicious seafood dinner at The Boat Yard. Our waitress told us that all the seafood was caught or farmed locally. We enjoyed the late sunlight and made a quick stop at Inch Beach to watch the sunset on our way back to Killarney.

After several lovely days in the Irish countryside, we were ready for the last leg of the trip: Dublin!

 

Ireland Part 4: The Kingdom of Kerry

Ireland Part 3: Connemara

Where’s the farthest north you’ve ever been? South?  It’s a different way to think about the world and how much-or how little-of it you’ve seen. I added two new superlatives on my trip to Ireland: Leenaun for the northernmost and Dublin for the easternmost.

Leenaun is a tiny village in the western Irish region of Connemara, home to Ireland’s only fjord (well, depending on how you define fjord) and my new favorite place in the world. Our only firm plan for Connemara was to visit the Kylemore Abbey, which had been recommended by my aunt and uncle. We found a Connemara road trip itinerary online and headed off from Galway (after taking about a million screenshots of Google Maps, of course).

The drive from Galway to our first stop, Leenaun, was beautiful. The rain and fog had set in so we had picturesque views of green mountains shrouded in fog and covered with sheep. Sheep! There were sheep everywhere! The landscape reminded me of southern Montana, where I spent a few cloudy and rainy weeks in college. I should have taken some pictures of the drive but I think taking pictures from the window of a moving car is pretty silly. We arrived in Leenaun around lunch and ran out in the rain to look at the fjord. It was so foggy that we could only see a few feet, but the views were still awesome. They have boats that will take you on a harbor tour and I hope to go back on a sunny day to take one! We had lunch at a local cafe (Tim=full Irish breakfast, Courtney=chicken soup and brown bread), then walked across the street to the Sheep and Wool Museum.

The sheep and wool museum was fascinating! Wool used to be a major industry in Ireland but has largely died out. Our tour guide at the museum had a small herd of sheep and she told us it cost more to have the sheep shorn than she could actually sell the wool for. Most of the wool she sells goes to China to make carpets. The museum had an old Connemara spinning wheel, which is apparently only one of few left. We also got to practice carding wool and learn about the dyeing process-I loved reading about the different materials they used to dye wool, like flowers and plants. I bought some yarn made from Donegal wool and knit a cowl! Of course, I haven’t been able to wear it much since the winter in Texas was nonexistent.

We headed southwest along the N59 to Letterfrack to visit the Kylemore Abbey. The Abbey is one of the most stunning houses I’ve ever seen, especially with a background of emerald green hills and mist. It was built for a weathly Englishman, sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, and soon after sold to Irish nuns. The Abbey was used as a refuge for Belgian nuns who had to flee during World War I and served as a school until 2010. We only got to tour a few rooms on the first floor, which was a little disappointing, but that meant we could spend more time wandering around the grounds! There are still some nuns who live there and they make chocolate, which we bought some of in the gift shop. They were cute chocolates shaped like sheep!

After touring the Abbey and gardens, we headed down the road to Connemara National Park. National Parks in Ireland are the equivalent of state parks here in size/amenities. We got there right when the visitors center was closing, just in time for the staff to point out the trail to Diamond Hill, the small mountain in the park. What they call a “walk” is what we would call a trail here! It was cloudy and a little rainy, but we headed up the walk anyway, aiming to make it to the top of Diamond Hill. Well, the weather got worse and worse as we made our way up. We were almost to the top steep part when we decided to turn back (well, I insisted we turn back) because it was so windy I could barely walk without being blown over. Tim really didn’t want to turn back (“I didn’t come all the way to Ireland to turn back before making it to the top of Diamond Hill!” he said) but I’m glad we did, because the next day on the radio we heard about some high schoolers hikers who had to be rescued from the top of a nearby mountain by helicopter!

We headed back south and stopped in Clifden for dinner at a pub. Tim had the local delicacy, Connemara smoked salmon, and I had one of many lamb stews. The rumors are true-everything in Ireland is served with potatoes, and I loved it. On our way back to Galway, we stopped for petrol in a tiny town along the coast and had our only experience with a language/culture barrier. We didn’t know how much petrol the tank held, or how much the petrol even cost (the prices were displayed in euro cents…I think), so we didn’t know how much cash to prepay with. Well, we learned that in Ireland, if you want to pay with cash, you just fill up your car, then go inside and pay. Crazy! We heard stories on the radio later in the trip (we obviously listened to the radio a lot on this trip) about someone who had been caught and convicted of stealing petrol-I guess the reason they’re so trustworthy is because if you get caught, they’ll tell everyone in the whole country on the radio! Tim also asked the clerk where the bathroom was and he looked really confused-I think we should have said “toilet” instead but that feels so weird! It’s funny how something we’ve been doing since age 16 can be so confusing in another country, but there you have it.

When we got back to Galway, we went out for one last Galway pint (we drank a lot of beer on this trip too) and headed to bed. Next stop: Cliffs of Moher and Killarney!

 

Ireland Part 3: Connemara

Ireland Part 2: Aran Islands

In total, we took 6 different forms of transportation during our trip: plane, car, bus, ferry, tram, and bike. Well, 7 if you count our feet. The only time we had an issue was on the Aran Islands, when Tim’s bike tire had a blow out!

We started the day on a bus to Rossaveel, a coastal town about 45 minutes from Galway, where we boarded the ferry to Inishmore. Inishmore is the biggest of the Aran Islands, a sparsely populated group of islands off the western coast of Ireland. There are only a few hundred residents on Inishmore, many of whom speak Gaelic instead of English. All the road signs in Ireland were in both English and Gaelic, but a lot of the places along the western coast were only in Gaelic! It was interesting to see throughout the trip where Gaelic was more common-and conversely, where it was absent. More about that later!

The main attraction on Inishmore is the fort on the northern end of the island, Dun Aonghasa. When we got to Inishmore, we rented bicyles and made a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up provisions for lunch. Then we started up the island to Dun Aonghasa! The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm, and the island was crowded with other tourists and high school travel groups. We passed a giant group of high school students from Spain (I think) and hurried up to the fort so we could enjoy our picnic lunch in relative peace and quiet before they got there.

The views from the top were stunning-sparkling dark blue Atlantic ocean, massive limestone cliffs,and an ancient fort. We wandered around Dun Aonghasa for awhile (and took about a million pictures) before heading back to the southern end of the island to the blow holes. Instead of biking along the main road, we decided to follow a trail through the island. This was really fun, because we got to see all the houses, farms, and sheep, but also incredibly bumpy and hilly! We made it all the way to the opposite end of the island before realizing that Tim’s bike tire was flat. We hung out at the blow holes for awhile and enjoyed the view, then walked our bikes back on the main road into town (fortunately a short walk). A few people, including one of the local Garda (police), gave us strange looks for walking our bikes! We walked around in some of the shops for a few minutes, then boarded the ferry to go back to the mainland.

When we got back to shore, several ferries had docked at once, so there were tons of people milling around, waiting to get the bus back to Galway. This was one of the times when not having cell phones was kind of scary! The bus that we were supposed to catch was late and when it got there, it filled up immediately. They told us another bus would come soon but it took a lot longer than soon for one to come. We (well, mainly me) definitely had one of those panicked “are we going to be stranded here in this ferry terminal with no way to call a cab, bus, or uber” moments. We made friends with a girl from Germany who was also waiting for the same bus and collectively rejoiced when our bus finally showed up.

The Aran Islands were one of my favorite stops on our trip. I loved biking around in the sunshine (amazingly, I managed to get a sunburn)-I think we biked over 20 miles total! The islands are definitely a tourist attraction now but it was fascinating to see glimpses of what life in Ireland used to be like. Small, modest houses with sheep everywhere. So different from my hectic life in Houston. Back in Galway, we had fish and chips for dinner. Funny story-when we ordered our meal, we forgot to ask for tartar sauce. As soon as we sat down, the line got really long, so we didn’t want to go wait in line just for a little cup of tartar sauce. Also, tartar sauce cost 60 cents and we did not have any cash or coins and definitely did not want to use our credit cards for a 60 cent charge. Soooo we had bland fish and chips! Lesson learned: carry cash. Or just remember to ask for tartar sauce when ordering.

After dinner, it was time for one more pint, and then off to plan our trip to Connemara!

Ireland Part 2: Aran Islands

Ireland Part 1: Galway

I love reading, especially crime novels/psychological thrillers, and when I first discovered Tana French in 2013, I became obsessed. Her books follow the Murder squad of the Dublin police, each focusing on a different murder, and are the kind that stick in your mind for days after. The books take place in both Dublin and the Irish countryside, and when my boyfriend and I were planning a vacation for the summer of 2015, Ireland immediately jumped to mind. Idyllic landscapes, Guinness, castles, whiskey, sheep, cider, and a decent dollar to Euro exchange rate! We took advantage of the Independence Day holiday from work (sorry America) and headed to the Emerald Isle on July 3rd, 2015!

After spending months reading the Lonely Planet Ireland guide and talking with friends/family who had traveled to Ireland, we decided on three main stops: Galway, Killarney, and Dublin. Galway was our first stop and our home base for the first few days of the trip.

We landed in Dublin in the morning on Saturday July 4, 2015, a little tired, dehydrated, and ready to explore! I was surprised/amused to see that the airport was decorated for Independence Day-I guess in Ireland they celebrate July 4 like we celebrate St. Patrick’s day here?? We got our little red Toyota and some Euros and headed off (on the wrong side of the road-so weird!) towards Galway. Now, I grew up in Houston, so I’m used to massive highways, crazy drivers, debris on the road, and ridiculous signage, but the highways in Ireland were the total opposite! We were nervous about having to navigate without Google Maps, but really had no trouble on the way from Dublin to Galway. We stopped in a little town to get some water and Diet Coke (I’ve stopped drinking Diet Coke for the most part but just had to try some European DC to see how it compared), and made a lunch stop in Athlone, about halfway between Dublin and Galway. We had sandwiches and coffee and pressed on to Galway!

We debated for a long time about whether to take a bus/train or rent a car. Cons of renting a car: expensive, driving on the other side of the road, most cars in Europe are stick shift, parking, etc. Pros: we can go where we want when we want, adventure, flexibility, roundabouts (just kidding, those still confuse me). I’m glad we decided to have a car for the first part of our trip-we planned a spontaneous trip to Connemara (which I’ll write about soon!) and we had SO much fun listening to Irish radio. Again, I’m used to the majority of the radio stations being rap, Spanish, or traffic reports, so it was fun and refreshing to listen to the equivalent of  small-town newspaper on air.

Galway! This fun university town on the western coast of Ireland did not disappoint. We stayed at Jurys Inn and had a lovely view of the River Corrib. As soon as we got to the room, I wanted to go to sleep, but instead we had more coffee and tried to get on the local time zone. That first night, we wandered around Galway, touring the Spanish arch, the Galway city museum, the local Cathedral and the High Street. The High Street was exactly what I imagined an Irish street to look like-narrow, winding, and full of pubs! Our first dinner was a delicious seafood meal at Oscar’s Bistro-we got to the small restaurant just in time to snag a table. We loved the late sunsets in Ireland (10 pm in the summer) and took advantage of the extra daylight to explore Galway and of course have a few extra pints. Before dinner, we saw some funny Americans in the lobby of our hotel drinking Bud Light and wearing ridiculous USA gear, and they were still there when we came back that night. Sigh.

 

We slept well our first night in Galway and got up early the next morning to catch the bus to Rossaveel to catch the ferry to the Aran Islands, which I’ll talk about next time on the CB Radio blog!

Ireland Part 1: Galway