Tag Archives: Ireland

Another Day, Another Peninsula

17 May

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Friar's Glen

Friar’s Glen

We started our last full day in Ireland by backtracking. After another amazing breakfast at Friars Glen we set off back down the Ring of Kerry in the clockwise direction toward Kenmare. Within about fifteen minutes we reached Ladies’ View. Ladies’ View is pretty much what it says on the tin, a scenic view. There’s a car park, a cafe and a gift shop, and a spot where you can look north across the Killarney National Park. The panorama takes in Black Valley, the Upper and Middle Lakes, McGillycuddy Reeks and the Gap of Dunloe. The location is named for Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, who are said to have exclaimed and made much of the view when the Queen visited Ireland in 1861. After a brief stop we headed back toward Killarney Town.

We pulled over on the south side of the Upper Lake and walked a short distance through the scrub to the shore. The Upper Lake is one of the three in the park, the others being Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. We stopped just south of a short tunnel carved out of the side of the mountain that appeared to be nearly a feature of the landscape it looked so old. Indeed, I found an illustration of the same tunnel in The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, by J. Stirling Coyne and N.P. Willis, published in 1841.

The Upper Lake

The Upper Lake

We admired the view across the lake and I put a hand in the water (I have to touch everything), then we hopped back into the Suzuki Swift and scooted up to Killarney Town. We needed Irish stamps for a few postcards, and of course who can resist the “Everything’s €2” store? It was midday before we were on our way to the Dingle Peninsula.

The Beach at Inch

The Beach at Inch

Our first stop was the beach at Inch. It is nearly a mirror image of the beach at Rossbeigh on the Kerry Peninsula across the water to the south, a spot we had visited the day before, though the beach at Inch is sandy where Rossbeigh is rocky. We followed Bridget’s directions and after visiting the beach stopped about a mile outside of town to look back and take in the view. We drove west through the countryside, stopping occasionally to simply get out and stand and stare at the endless green patchwork of fields. After rain in London, rain in Paris, rain in Normandy, and rain in Amsterdam, we had a spot of good luck in Ireland. The weather was clear and stunning for the two full days that we were exploring the Kerry and Dingle peninsulas.

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

We stopped at Dingle Town in the early afternoon and did a little shopping. The shops and homes are painted lovely bright colors. From the look of it, Dingle is still very much a fishing town and is the largest settlement on the peninsula. Rather than stopping for lunch we simply snacked our way down the road. We purchased a few things for family and friends and then set out for the first real planned destination of the day.

I actually had a fair amount of trouble finding the Gallarus Oratory and it wasn’t the first destination in the area I chose. I wanted to see an ogham stone. I very badly wanted to see an ogham stone. There are a few websites dedicated to their locations and translations, and I had located one at the far west end of the peninsula. That the Gallarus Oratory was only a few miles away was an added bonus.

The often repeated story of the structure’s purpose is that it was a church for pilgrims. Séipéilín Ghallarais in Irish translates to “House of the foreigners” or “Shelter of the foreigners.” Like the stone forts we visited in Kerry, the oratory is difficult to date with certainty. The generally accepted time frame places its construction anywhere from 1,500 to 1,200 years ago, although according to at least one historian it could have been constructed a mere 900 years ago. I recall my humanities teacher touching briefly on the oratory’s construction in high school and I remember thinking it was a fascinating building.

Like everyplace else in Ireland the best I could manage as far as directions was a latitude and longitude obtained online (52°10’17.2″N 10°21’02.4″W, or 52.171440, -10.350660). This translated to a slightly less accurate location once it went into the GPS. This got us to a pull-off on the side of an unnamed road. I pulled over, looked left and right and directly ahead and saw hedges, fields and low stone walls. I knew I had to be in the right area but saw nothing to indicate where the oratory might be. I decided that this was a good spot to get the picture of the two of us in our tiny little rental car that I’d been wanting to take. I got out, put the camera on a handy stone wall, set the timer and then got back in the car. Smile! I noted that the car was all in frame and that we were both looking at the camera, and rolled on down the road. A short distance away I found the entrance to the Gallarus Oratory Visitor’s Center. What I did not notice until more than a year later when looking at the car selfie, was the little brown sign at the far end of the pull-off that pointed the way to the footpath that lead directly to the oratory.

So to be clear… you can park your vehicle on the side of the road and walk to the oratory any time, night or day, free of charge.

Or…

You can go to the visitor’s center and pay €6 per person. That may sound like a bum deal, and if you’ve studied and just want to have a look at the building I encourage you to park at the pull-off (It’s actually a shorter walk), but you do get something for your €6. There is a small gift shop, a cafe (Not open when we visited), a parking lot, a short film on Irish archeology, and toilets. We also got to meet Katy the Kitty, who was very sweet. As I understand it, the visitor’s center is a private venture put together by the fellow who owns the property adjacent to the oratory. Good for him I guess.

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory is of cut stone assembled into a single long corbel vault. Howard Goldbaum points out on his really really awesome website Voices from the Dawn, that this method of construction continued in Ireland with only minor alterations for thousands of years. At a glance it looks to have been put together with no mortar, although apparently a thin layer of lime was used internally to hold the stones in place. There is a single entrance just over 5′ tall and a narrow window set into the east wall. The roof has a just visible sag in the middle. I remember that in my humanities class it was introduced as an example of an “Upturned boat” building.

Katy Kitty

Katy Kitty

While it is traditionally said to be an early Christian church, the name suggests it may have been quite literally a shelter. A place for people from outside of Dingle to spend the night while in the area. The building bears no markings and practically nothing has been recovered from the sections taken in the area. It’s true use may remain a mystery.

After watching the film, seeing the oratory, using the toilets and giving Katy Kitty a scritch behind the ears we headed on to the Church at Kilmalkedar, about 4 km away in a loop around R559 through Murreagh.

The Church at Kilmalkedar

The Church at Kilmalkedar

I first learned about the church solely as the site of an ogham stone. The church itself is fascinating. The current structure is a ruined church from around the 12th Century with some Romanesque features. While the area is associated with Saint Brendan, it is thought to have originally been a monastery founded by the local Saint Maolcethair. There are finials atop the three gables (The roof of the church is gone), incredibly beautiful arches throughout, and a columned gallery.

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The Latin

The Latin “Alphabet Stone”

Inside the church is also an alphabet stone dating perhaps from the 500’s covered in Latin with an inscribed cross. One local legend has it that the church was built in a single night by the faeries. The church is surrounded by graves from various periods, and a modern cemetery that appears to still be in use sits adjacent.

Sun dial

Sun dial

In front of the church there is a huge rectangle stone cross of unknown age and a sun dial. The dial has beautiful carving on both sides and the dial face is divided into four sections, likely for the five canonical hours that made up the divisions of the monastic day.

And then there was the ogham stone. This was essentially the reason for our visit to the area. Well, what brought us to this particular part of Dingle at any rate. Ogham is the written expression of Primitive and Old Irish. The earliest inscriptions date from the 300’s, although the belief is that the form originated sometime in the 1st Century BC. It is composed of a series of slash marks along a vertical or horizontal line.

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The vast majority of surviving inscriptions are proper names, and are believed to be funerary in nature. The ogham stone outside the Day15 Ireland (64)Church at Kilmalkedar bears a partial inscription on one face, and “ANM MAILE-INBIR MACI BROCANN” on another. This translates to “the name Mael Inbir, son of Brocan.” It is likely that this was a local religious leader of some import and there is the possibility that the inscription was made on an existing Standing Stone. The stone also appears to rest in it’s original position, something of a rarity.

You can download fabulous 3D PDF renderings of the ogham stone, the alphabet stone, and the sun dial at the Ogham In 3D project website, here.

We continued to the end of the peninsula on R559 and around Slea Head. We pulled over to admire the view of the Atlantic and the Blasket Islands from the cliffside.

The whole country s like this exercise caution.

The whole country is like this, exercise caution.

Further along are the Dunbeg Promontory Fort and several bee hive stone huts. I’d have loved to have visited them as well, but there are only so many hours in a day, even on the ould sod. There are as many as 30,000 ancient stone sites in Ireland. Not enough time indeed.

Slea Head

Slea Head (You can see Valencia Island and the Fogher Cliffs across the water to the right of the headland)

As you make your way along the southern coast of the peninsula you’ll also be treated to an up close view of a lovely stream that comes rushing down the hillside and crosses the road before continuing on to the sea. I’ve checked, this is a permanent feature. As if the narrow road loaded with tourists in rental cars (Like myself) wasn’t enough, you now have to contend with running water over a hairpin turn on a cliffside road. We learned pretty fast that in general you had nothing to fear if the folks behind the wheel were a little severe-looking and wearing a hat. They were locals. Four girls in a Kia looking EVERYWHERE but directly ahead? Tourists. Watch your butt.

It's not bug, but a feature.

It’s not a bug, but a feature.

We made our way back to Killarney Town, parked near the town center, and wandered about on foot until we found a likely looking pub. We had a nice dinner, throughout which we kept hearing shouts from the back corner of the pub. Bachelor party apparently, and the lads were having a grand old time. At one point I got up to use the gents and rounded the corner headed toward the gathering. There were two of them. I smiled and nodded and got the standard Irish greeting “Y’ aright?” (Gotta love a people who don’t say “Hello” or “Good evening” but ask “Are you ok?”)

I replied “Yeah. You?”

“Yeah.”

One of the things I find wildly entertaining about Ireland and the UK is their approach to bachelor and bachelorette parties. They are very, very, very easy to identify, and we encountered them everywhere. They wear shirts. We encountered far more “Hen Nights” than “Stag Do’s” while on our trip, but these guys were wearing the uniform. White t-shirts with photograph on the front and the groom-to-be’s name across the back with the date. But the guy on the front didn’t look like either of the gentlemen before me. I asked which one of them was getting married. Neither, as it turned out. The groom was stuck somewhere hours away yet and they had no idea if anyone else from the do was going to make it. They’d started without them. Congratulations, offers for me to join them, and fist bumps all around, and I went back to join Julia.

We finished our dinner and returned to Friar’s Glen. Mary was fantastic as always. We settled up our bill and she made sure there was a lunch packed for us in the mud room refrigerator, since we’d be up and out at fist light to make the drive to the Shannon Airport. We were heading into the last week of our trip, and the downhill run would begin… in Scotland!

Take good care

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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There’s Ancient, and then there’s ANCIENT

7 Feb

The sun came up on Day 14 of our trip. On the advice of our innkeeper, Mary, we slept in. She suggested we let the big tour coaches get a head start on the Ring of Kerry so we’d not be stuck with them on the roads or stopping at attractions swamped with tourists. We went down for breakfast a little after 9AM.

Breakfast at Friar’s Glen is a work of art. Traditional Irish breakfast as well as fruit, muffins, scones, butter, cream, oooooooooh just plate upon plate of fabulous food! This was the absolute best breakfast I’ve had anywhere in England, Ireland, or Scotland. Seriously. According to our waitress everything we ate for breakfast was made by Mary’s own hand. Her name was Bridget, and she was incredibly friendly. Bridget, like Mary, was full of helpful hints about the Ring of Kerry, excitedly giving us exact directions to specific locations and suggesting things to see and do that weren’t on the map.

As for Friar’s Glen… our room had what I consider a standard hotel room layout and was spacious and well-suited to our needs. You can control the radiator in your room but be advised that as with other places we stayed in Europe, the heat will shut off overnight during the hours that you are (Presumably) asleep. There was a refrigerator just down the hall in the mud room for guest use. I believe I mentioned in the previous post the common room that had a lovely peat fire burning when we arrived. The room is stocked with books and games and is quite cozy. Friar’s Glen does have WiFi, but I had trouble picking it up on my device.

I highly recommend Friar’s Glen for a number of reasons. It’s out away from Killarney Town and so very quiet and secluded. It is within the Killarney National Park, with a number of pleasant trails just across the road. The price was reasonable for what you get and Mary offered a cash discount. It is a great base of operations for both the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. Visit their website for information and reservations. 

Armed with Mary and Bridget’s recommendations and fortified by the amazing breakfast we marched out to the car and fired up the GPS. Since you can’t just tell the GPS “Follow the Ring of Kerry” we programmed Killorglin as our destination. This would start us on the Ring in the “Anti-clockwise” direction as per Mary’s recommendation. The tour coaches also travel anti-clockwise. This means that you are unlikely to encounter one coming at you on the very narrow cliff-side roads, and if you do… you’ll not be on the side of the road with the several-hundred-foot drop to the sea. (Having taken Mary’s advice about the late start as well, we hoped not to encounter them at all).

We made our way north through the countryside. It really is unbelievably beautiful. Much of the land is divided into countless stone-walled fields. Each field is often a fractionally different shade of green from its neighbor, making the whole of the landscape seem like a never-ending emerald quilt dotted with cotton-white sheep and golden flowers.

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Dingle Peninsula from the beach at Rossbeigh (You can always click on any picture to open a larger image in another window)

We made it to Killorglin without incident but even with the GPS we got briefly off the track, found our way back on, and proceeded to our next marker, Glenbeigh. Here we left the Ring and followed directions from Bridget to the beach at Rossbeigh. The entire time we were in the southwest of Ireland we were constantly amazed at the deep blue of the water. I’m not sure what I expected… green perhaps? Or maybe the gray of the Irish Sea I remembered from a very rough crossing 20 years before? Dunno. I just wasn’t prepared for the startling sapphire blue of the waters around the Kerry peninsula. It was windy and cold. There were a few whitewashed cottages nearby, and the ubiquitous sheep were scattered about on the far side of some sports fields near the rocky beach.

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It’s hard to capture an incline in a photograph when you’re sitting on top of it. Trust me… very steep, narrow road.

Rather than backtrack, we continued along R564 (A one-lane road over the mountain above the inlet) through the countryside. We hooked up with the N70 (The Ring of Kerry) near a place called Drom and continued on toward Cahersiveen. Once we reached the town we turned north on Bridge Street/Castlequin. There are signs for “Stone Forts” and in a few minutes we’d reached a wide spot in the road, the parking area for Leacanabuile (10º 15′ 43” W, 51º 57′ 30” N, if you took my suggestion and you are using a GPS).

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The interior of Leacanabuile

We’d found the location of the fort by searching Google for ancient sites along the route of the Ring of Kerry. As well as can be determined by the archeological research carried out thus far the small hill fort dates from the 9th or 10th Century. Habitation could stretch back as far as the 500’s, but there’s just no way to be certain. Inside are the low remains of several stone buildings. Day 14 (42)Within the circular structure built against the western side of the enclosure is an entrance to a narrow subterranean passageway that leads to a small chamber built into the outer wall, at least according to the information placard posted near the fort entrance. Day 14 (46)We had to take their word for it, because try as I might, I was unable to get more than my head and the top of my shoulders into the tiny opening. According to the really fantastic website Voices from the Dawn put together by Howard Goldbaum of the University of Nevada, an excavation of the site conducted over 1939-1940 records the passage as being one meter tall.*

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t dream of sticking my head (Or any other part of me) in a hole in the ground. Ah… but this is Ireland! No snakes! Unlike where I grew up, you may tramp through field and over rocky dale, even reach into dark crevasses, without the slightest fear of meeting a Copperhead, or a Water Moccasin, or a Timber Rattler. Nope. Not so much as a garter snake in the grass of the Emerald Isle, and it is a glorious thing! In fact, at breakfast that very morning two women seated next to us remarked upon the great number and diversity of songbirds they’d encountered on a hike through the Killarney National Park. I suggested that this may be in part because there were no snakes. One of the women said “Oh! No we didn’t see any. I didn’t think of that at all, we should have been more careful.” I explained that she’d mistaken my meaning, and that there are no snakes to be found. She had no idea. Neither of them had. I was frankly amazed. How does one grow to adulthood, make the conscious decision to travel to Erin, make arrangements and then actually board a conveyance and make their way to Ireland and not know this single, simple fact? I’m afraid I sat there staring at her with my mouth open for longer than is polite in anybody’s book.

I digress…

As much as I would have liked to make the trek to the wall’s interior it was not physically possible. Even Julia (Who is less than half my size) could not wriggle inside. I’ve learned now (Doing more detailed research almost 3 years after the fact) that had I exited the fort and walked down to the bottom of the western wall, I’d have found the other end of the passage covered by a (Most likely unlocked) gate.

While I was unable to make good a full impression of Darby O’Gill, we enjoyed looking about the interior of the fort, and looking off to the east we saw another. We descended the hill and walked a few hundred yards to Cahergall.

Cahergall

Cahergall

 

Cahergall stone fort is very similar in appearance to the Staigue stone fort on the opposite side of the Ring of Kerry near Sneem. Like Leacanabuile, this type of fortification is difficult to date with precision, one reason being that the naturally defensible sites were built upon again and again over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

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According to a placard at the site the upper portions of the outer walls have been restored.

Again I refer you to Voices from the Dawn for a high resolution photograph of the site as it appeared in the late 1970’s for comparison. While we stood atop the fort we looked to the south and saw…

A castle….

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… as it turns out….

… another McCarthy castle!Day 14 (77)

Ballycarbery Castle sits on a grassy hill on the north shore of the Ferthy River estuary that feeds into Valencia Harbor. There is a gravel parking area just at the bottom of the slope. The lot is at the end of an unnamed road that runs southwest from Castlequin about 100 yards east of Cahergall. There’s a brown sign on the south side of the road.

(n.b. While there are signs leading you to the castle, and a sign at the site giving some of its history, it is also surrounded by a barbed wire fence which you will have to climb over/shimmy under to access the site. Sooooooo, strictly speaking you’re probably not supposed to be in there. Explore at your own risk.)

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Looking out from the ground floor

Ballycarbery Castle was built in the 16th Century and is associated with the powerful Mac Cárthaigh dynasty (My wife’s ancestors), however habitation on the site goes back perhaps as far as the late 12th Century and Tagdh Mac Cárthaigh is recorded as having died in a residence on this site in 1398. Tradition says that the current ruin was constructed by Carbery O’Shea “Using the blood of bullocks to cement the stones.” However, the region was controlled by McCarthy Mor and a constable clan chief from the Clan O’Connell was installed in the castle.Day 14 (88)

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Arrow slit in the curtain wall

The castle was surrounded by a curtain wall but only a fraction of it remains. Even though half of the castle is missing, blown up by Oliver Cromwell’s forces (Curse his name forever) in 1652 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms , it is an easy climb to the intact sections of the upper floors, and part of a stairway is still passable within the western wall. The weather was gorgeous and it would have been a lovely spot for a picnic had we thought to bring one. We pushed on, hoping to make a creamery and a candle maker on Valencia Island that Bridget had recommended.

We arrived at Portmagee and made a quick stop at the Village Public Facility (Runner Up for Ireland’s Top Toilet Award, 2002 according to the sign) and then crossed the bridge to Valencia Island.

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Keeping watch in Knight’s Town

Valencia is about 6 miles by 2. The modern spelling appears most places as “Valentia” while it is “Valencia” on tombstones on the island. I’m not sure exactly when the spelling changed. We drove to Knight’s Town and had lunch and a pint at The Royal Pier Bar then got back in the car and immediately got lost looking for the Fogher Cliffs. We found a ruined church and parish cemetery on the north side of the island before we found the road leading up to the cliffs.

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Looking north from the churchyard

 

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Many of the stones in the churchyard had a nautical theme

 

 

 

Geokaun Mountain is the highest point on the island. There’s a self-serve parking area where you feed €5 into a machine for a ticket to put on the dash. A short walk leads you to an overlook where you can view the cliffs. The Skellig Islands are visible in the distance, as well as the Dingle Peninsula, the Atlantic, and all of Valencia Island. There was a roaring wind coming off the water as we stood above the 600′ cliffs. Day 14 (115)We weren’t able to stay put for very long, and even taking a photograph was difficult as I could barely hold the camera still. Placards along the path relate the history of the area, along with tales of the Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhail.

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The Skellig Islands from the path overlooking the Fogher Cliffs

 

We beat a hasty retreat to the warmth of our little rental car and drove back down the mountain. Next up on our list of things to see was a very ancient site… the Tetrapod Trackway.

After seeing it on the local tourist map of Valencia Island I recalled having watched a brief blurb about Ireland’s Tetrapod Trackway on PBS or some similar network not long after the prints were discovered in the 1990’s. It wasn’t something we’d set out to see, but we were in the area and I certainly didn’t want to pass it up.

The Irish just aren’t that interested in naming roads, so you’ll need to rely on your GPS again to get you into the vicinity of 10° 20′ 38″ W, 51° 55′ 51″ N, or ask someone local for directions. As you approach the radio station at the northernmost bit of the island there’s a car park on your right. From there you proceed on foot along a path right down to the shore.

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The Tetrapod Trackway

Back in the Devonian Period the land that would one day become Erin was situated down near the Equator. One day about 385 million years ago one of the earliest creatures to make their way out of the sea and up onto dry land was wandering about the tidal shallows. It was about a meter long, about a third of that length being its tail, and it had four legs lately evolved from fins. As it walked along, or perhaps pushed itself along the bottom in the shallow water just off shore, it left footprints in the soft mud. It’s belly dragged the surface and here and there it’s tail cut an S pattern as it trailed along behind. After these few minutes of activity our Tetrapod friend (Or friends) passed again out of our knowledge to whatever end, leaving behind only those few impressions in the mud. The impressions were filled in with silt and over the eons hardened into rock as the plates of the Earth shifted and Ireland wandered north. Eventually the stone with the prints was again exposed and a geology student discovered them in 1993. They are the oldest known in-situ tracks made by a living thing on earth.

It was getting on in the day and the sun was sliding down toward the sea. We made a circuit of the island looking for the candle maker and the creamery recommended by Bridget but neither were open, either due to the lateness of the hour or the earliness of the month (We were still a few weeks from the start of the high season). We did find a heard of deer and ever more stunning views of the Atlantic and the islands to the west. Day 14 (129)In season you can take a boat from the visitor’s center just by the bridge from Portmagee out to Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastery from roughly the 6th to 13th Centuries. Fun fact: Skellig Michael was used as a location for the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens during the summer of 2014.

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Valencia Island. The white line center-left is the bridge from Portmagee.

 

We crossed the bridge, took a wrong turning, and ended up on the Skellig Ring track over the mountain to the south toward Ballinskelligs, which Bridget was horrified to learn of later and declared us to be “Very brave” for going that way. We survived the trip to the southern part of the peninsula and once we found our way back to the N70 we stopped in Kenmare for supper.

We had dinner at The Wander Inn, where the food and drink was very good. There was live music in the form of two young men playing original contemporary compositions on a guitar and accordion that I didn’t really much care for. We listened to a set and then decided to get on. Julia was disappointed for me that it wasn’t Irish music. Well, it WAS Irish music. They were Irish musicians. We were in Ireland… but her point was taken. Traditional Irish music had been the hope. The food was still good.

We had the last 20 miles to go back to Friar’s Glen. We’d saved the most twisting and mountainous leg to do in the dark. I’d built up a fair bit of confidence over the course of the two days I’d spent driving in Kerry and was feeling pretty good about it as we made our way.. SHEEP!!! All day they’d been fluffy white accents to the landscape but now that it was pitch black the sheep were no longer in the pens but out IN the bloody road! I had this picture in my head of them all looking around at each other once the sun went down and saying, “Farmer O’Connell is down the pub boys, over the wall!” then lacing their front hooves to boost each other over. They were around every 3rd or 4th bend in the road. It was nerve wracking.

We made it back all of a piece. We’d passed a spot with the intriguing name “Ladies View” just a few miles out of Killarney and decided we’d head back in the morning.

We’d spent the day driving back in time. From medieval Ballycarbery Castle and the more ancient Leacanabuile, to just about the deepest pre-history imaginable and the Tetrapod Trackway. For tomorrow there was the Dingle Peninsula, but before that another amazing breakfast!

 

 

*Much of the information for this post I obtained long after the fact. Several of the places we visited on this particular day became destinations only the night before and only the information printed on placards posted at the sites was available to us. We had a great time anyway, but maybe a third of the information in this post I discovered only recently. For ancient sites in Ireland I refer you again to the excellent site Voices from the Dawn. Loads of additional information on Ballycarbery Castle can be found there, as well as on the North American McCarthy Clan website.

 

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Eating on the Floor (And Train Station Food)

31 Oct

I know… you’ve been more than patient. It’s been nearly 2 months since my last post. I must throw myself on your mercy constant readers, and plead my insane work schedule. I hope to pick up the pace now that a very time consuming side project is now coming to an end.

Onward…

I’m working on posting Julia’s packing list.  I mention this now because of an important item that we brought along at the suggestion of our friend Holly.  I can be depended upon to become sick with bronchitis every four to six months.  I have been laid low by the disease between St. Patrick’s Day and Easter for the last several years.  Holly suggested that we visit our physician to obtain a preemptive dose of high powered antibiotics so as not to lose a travel day should I become sick.  On this advice I visited my doctor about three weeks before our trip.

We’ve moved a lot over the years, and so do not have anything really resembling a family doctor.  Dr. Tran comes closest since I have been seeing him whenever I begin to get bronchitis for about three years now.  He is almost disconcertingly youthful in appearance (More and more of the health care professionals I deal with these days fall into this category. They can’t all be Doogie Howser, right?  I wonder if it’s me?)  He is a slight Vietnamese fellow.  It would be little exaggeration to say that I am nearly twice his height.  I would never before have thought to describe him as “Excitable,” in fact I do not think I had ever seen him smile.  We talked for a few moments.  He asked the reason for my visit and I told him that I was looking to get a dose of antibiotics against the possibility that I would become ill while traveling.  Given the medical history that he held in his hand, it seemed quite likely that within the next month I would be stricken with bronchitis and spend several days in bed trying to cough my insides out.  He politely asked where we were traveling and I mentioned that we were starting in England.  Dr. Tran informed me that he had served a residency in England.  He followed this up with, “The food is crap.” I mentioned that many English are fond of Chinese and Indian food, and that my experience had been that even in the smallest English hamlet you’re never far from a curry.  Dr. Tran responded with “Even that is crap.  And fish and chips.  I got there and everybody said ‘Fish and chips.’  I said what the f*ck is fish and chips?”  The normally taciturn Dr. Tran was getting quite lively, but that was nothing compared to what happened next.

As we were finishing up he asked where else we would be traveling.  I told him that we would be leaving England after less than a week and going to France, then on to Amsterdam before flying to Ireland…

“Ireland is f*cking awesome!”  shouted Dr. Tran.  “I love Ireland!  We went there for St. Patrick’s Day and I just drank and drank and drank.  They have whiskey!”

This was a side of Dr. Tran I had certainly never seen before.

The smile that had suddenly blossomed on Dr. Tran’s face disappeared in an instant.  He pointed at me and said “You have to go to the cliffs of Moher.”

“Where are the cliffs of Moher?”  I asked.

“I don’t know” he said.  “We were in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day and we drank whiskey for days.  Then we rented a car and we just drove and drove and drove.  I love Ireland.”

“So we don’t know where these cliffs are?”  I asked.

“No, I don’t know.  They are on the sea.  They are like crazy high.  There are these crazy high f*cking cliffs that just drop off into the sea.”

The man was practically jumping up and down.  I assured him that we would try to make it to the cliffs of Moher, took my prescription, shook his hand and said thank you.

“I f*cking love Ireland!”  He said as I left.

This episode leads me directly to our day at the Louvre. I bring it up because I was getting sick. I’d awakened in the middle of the night with a sore throat and knew that I would be very ill very soon. I unlimbered the antibiotics supplied by Dr. Tran and let loose. Julia had also packed Dayquil and Nyquil. I medicated myself within an inch of my life and we hopped on the Metro!

I mentioned earlier I think that we’d purchased the Paris Museum Pass. This was a fantastic idea! We arrived at the Louvre at about 10 AM and made our way toward the security line. We asked the first guard we saw where we were supposed to enter with the passes and he immediately waved us over to the VIP line and directly to the front of the queue. Looked like about a ½ an hour line easily. Once inside we skipped the ticket line altogether. At least another hour saved there! We found the coat check (Free) and handed over our jackets and bags.

I rented an audio guide for €5. Important note; No cash. Credit or debit card only for the audio guide.  You purchase a ticket from an automated kiosk (That fortunately takes non chip & pin cards) and then present the receipt at the rental desk. The audio guide is a Nintendo DS 3D programmed for this specific purpose. While the device was useful to a certain degree, not every single item in the Louvre is in its memory. The map feature came in handy, but I’m not clear on why I need to see a 3D rendering of the room I’m standing in. Maybe give over some of that memory to descriptions of more items. The battery life was good and the device made it the entire day (The iPhone based devices at the d’Orsey the next day didn’t last anywhere near as long).

Original foundations for the Louvre, uncovered in the mid 1980’s!

We started our tour in an orderly fashion, attempting to make it through each gallery at a normal pace. We managed this for a few hours. At about 1PM we determined it was time to seek out our “Must see” pieces and plot a course. To see everything in the Louvre would take days. To absorb everything would take a lifetime.

The Sphinx

The Code of Hammurabi

Some more nuts & bolts observations. There is a handy-dandy free coat check on the bottom level of the atrium. We returned at lunch time to retrieve Julia’s bag. There are a couple of little snack bars in this area and each has a limited amount of seating. This is how we came to be seated on the floor in the atrium having lunch when I knocked over a bottle of red wine. Not everyone can say they’ve poured out nearly a whole bottle of merlot on the floor of the most famous museum in the world… happily I can now number myself among them.

On my “Must See” list:

The remnants of the 12th Century Louvre in the crypt.

Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory)

The Raft of Medusa

The Code of Hammurabi

The Venus di Milo

La belle Ferronnière

Just about every Roman sculpture

The Mona Lisa

The Winged Victory

And of course, the museum itself. Everywhere you turn there are stunning architectural devices. If you can allow more than a day for this I strongly advise you to do so.

Ceiling detail at the Louvre. They are roughly life-sized.

We left the Louvre at about 5PM and it began to rain. We made our way on the Metro the short distance to the Place de l’Hotel de Ville and stopped to sit for a few moments before crossing to the Île de la Cité. If I’ve not mentioned it before I’ll say it now; Wear the most comfortable walking shoes you can find. I don’t care what they look like and you shouldn’t either. The floors of the Louvre are marble. Spending 7 or 8 hours on your feet on marble floors will take a toll my friend.

We continued down Pont d’Arcole and took a slight detour to have a look at Au Vieux Paris de Arcole at 24 Rue Chanoinesse. This is an old and famous restaurant with a glorious purple Wisteria growing across the front of the building. We didn’t look into eating there as we already had plans. The reviews of the food and the service I’ve found online are wildly mixed. You pays yer money, you takes yer chances I suppose, but I think much of it might have to do with cultural misunderstandings.

It continued to rain and the wind picked up as we made our way to Notre Dame Cathedral, the stunningly beautiful spiritual centerpiece of Paris.

Rose Window

I have always loved Notre Dame. I studied its architecture in high school in a Humanities class and I’ve long stood in awe of its grace and delicacy. I can only imagine what it must have been like to stand inside a space so vast, described by soaring walls of stone in a time when most buildings were wooden, and no more than 2 or 3 stories high. Next year will mark the 850th anniversary of the start of construction. it took 182 years to complete. My favorite place to stand to look at Notre Dame is from across the river. Viewed from the South Bank the seemingly gossamer flying buttresses leap across to the walls. The place simply must be seen to be believed.

We made our way around the outer walls and stood enraptured by the rose windows. They began to glow brighter as we moved back toward the western front, telling me that the rain had stopped. We went outside and were greeted by a glistening Paris just after the rain.

Just in front of the cathedral we found the Point Zero de Routes de France. This is a bronze 8-point star set into the cobbles. All map distances to and through the city of Paris are measured from this point. Local tradition holds that stepping on the Zero Point during your visit will ensure a return.

We crossed the river to the south to take in my favorite view of Notre Dame. From this angle I’ve always thought it looks like a great steamboat making its way west along the Seine (An observation that I can tell you didn’t much impress my Humanities teacher).  We crossed back on the Pont de l’Archevêché and were treated to an unusual sight. From end to end and on both sides of the bridge every inch was covered in padlocks. They were of every conceivable design and size. Some had initials on them. Some bore messages or names written in marker while some were engraved. There were shining brass, silver, and gold locks. There were tiny luggage locks and massive antiques. There were also ribbons and even rubber bands. A number of the locks had inscriptions making it obvious that they marked wedding dates. As this was obviously a lover’s ritual of some kind we made a point to participate as best we could, taking the band from Julia’s hair and fastening it to the bridge.

Fastening her hairband to the Pont de l’Archevêché

We learned later that the Pont de l’Archevêché has now become known as “The Love Bridge” or “The Lock Bridge.” Apparently in imitation of a character from a novel published in the mid 1990’s, one takes a lock to the bridge, marks the lock with your loved one’s initials, fastens the lock to the bridge and then throws the key into the Seine. We noted locks on other bridges later in our stay, but nothing like on the Pont de l’Archevêché. It may be the romantic view.

It was time for dinner. Again I owe an undying debt of gratitude to The Man in Seat 61, in this particular instance for his recommendation of Le Train Bleu inside the Gare de Lyon. I told Julia I’d found a little place online that I hoped was still there. She was completely surprised (A rare thing I can assure you) and even I was hardly prepared for the experience.

The Blue Train opened with the station in 1900 and has been in operation ever since. It is a Gilded Age restaurant that time appears not to have laid a finger on. The furnishings, paintings, and fixtures are just as they were in the decade before the Great War (Excepting of course the addition of electricity).

Le Train Bleu

I did have a bad moment as we entered and was asked if we’d a reservation. Months of planning and I didn’t think to reserve a table for dinner. Fortunately we were seated immediately with great courtesy in any case.  Our waiter and garçon were professional, friendly, and efficient. The garçon spoke better English than our waiter and helped us through the only one or two rough spots that came up during the meal (Although the last one was a doozy).

We started with cocktails. Julia had a Golden Champagne Martini and I tried the Blue Train. Both were quite good. I may not be the best judge since I most often stick to straight whiskey but I enjoyed it and at the end of the day that’s all that really matters. After our drinks we moved on to mineral water and foie gras with an orange sauce.

After much deliberation and some translated questions of our waiter Julia ordered heart of beef with potatoes and Hollandaise. I had lobster and macaroni with bisque and it was amazing! Julia looked up at me at one point and said “When we get home, I wouldn’t try to make a steak for me for a good long while if I was you.” Point taken. She had a strawberry tart with lime whipped cream for dessert while I had coffee.

This is the part of the meal where some Americans seem to get derailed. Several of the complaints I read regarding Au Vieux Paris de Arcole had to do with the waiter leaving them alone at the end of the meal.  We were thrilled to have time to finish our dessert and talk to each other without someone hovering over us wanting to turn over the table or saying “Take as long as you want, I’ll just leave this here,” as they drop off the check.

We’d been left to our own devices for a good 45 minutes when we decided we should begin making our way to our hotel.  I caught our waiter’s eye and he provided me with the check. I was again faced with a bewildering array of separate charges at the bottom of the slip and tried to ask our waiter about a tip. Was it included? What is traditional? We encountered here a language problem, and the waiter called over the garçon. We asked about the charge for “Service” and he very concisely explained that this was an included gratuity split among the waitstaff. Ok. Now we know. We decided we’d like to leave an additional “American” tip since we’d enjoyed ourselves so very much. I asked the garçon what was traditional and got a blank look.

At this point an American couple at the next table intervened. They explained they’d been in Paris for a number of weeks and had finally sorted out that yes, the gratuity was included and that tipping in the sense we were used to just wasn’t that big a deal. Leave an additional tip if you like, or leave nothing above the included “Service” and nobody would be offended.

Right.

We talked it over and chose to include an “American” tip on a €144 bill. The garçon brought the card reader to the table and we settled the bill. We had a brief chat with the couple from the next table and I bought a cigar ashtray Julia had noted in a glass case near the bar. I was waiting for the hostess to wrap it and bring it to the table when we heard raised voices near the service area in the center of the restaurant. Our waiter was having a very heated discussion with the garçon while gesturing to a card slip and pointing at our table.  As we were getting ourselves sorted out to head back to the hotel our waiter approached the couple at the next table and began a very rushed conversation in which the word “Traditional” featured prominently. Finally he came back to us with the garçon in tow and made clear that he thought there had been a mistake, and could I please clarify the meaning (In this context) of the word “Traditional?”

We finally sorted out that our waiter thought we’d misunderstood the bill and grossly overpaid (And was implying through dirty looks in his direction that he thought the garçon had knowingly let us make the error). He was trying to get us to take the tip back for fear we’d realize our “Mistake” later and be angry.  We did all that we could to make him understand that this was the best meal and the best service we’d enjoyed in many and many a year and that we wanted to express our appreciation.

So our second dining out experience in Paris was the polar opposite of the first. There’s your stereotypical snooty French waiter… mortified that some tourists had seemingly accidentally overpaid and trying desperately to give the money back.

Ahhhhhh Paris!

We went back to our hotel and stopped at a Carrefour (A small grocery chain) and picked up some wine, fruit, cheese, and bread for the next day’s outing to the Muse d’Orsey and the Impressionists!

I promise the next post will come sooner!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator