Weekend of Sept. 25/26: Blarney Castle and the Wicklow Day Tour
Saturday morning, Vanessa, Betheny and I caught the bus to go to Cork (it's over 4 hours, I'd recommend flying), where we transferred buses to go to Blarney, which is only a short distance away. Cork reminded me a lot of Dublin, inasmuch as it had the canal running through the center with the typical walk bridges across. The aim of this whole trip was to get to kiss the Blarney Stone, which is rumored to give the gift of eloquence. We walked to the castle from the little town of Blarney, which is about the cutest place ever. The castle is simply gorgeous! We had to make our way to the very top to kiss the stone, and there were 100 steps of narrow, steep, winding spiral stairs. There was a rope along the axis of the staircase to hold onto so you wouldn't fall, and the only light (besides the occasional lamps they had on the walls) came from skinny rectangular windows. There were several rooms off the staircase, but eventually we got to the top. The view was amazing! We could see the gardens and Blarney House, which is only open in the spring unfortunately. It was all so gorgeous, and I felt like I was in a fairy tale. We saw a bride getting pictures taken with the wedding party at the base of the castle! How neat would that be!? At the top of the castle, there was a line around the parapet in which people were eager to kiss the stone. You had to lay down on your back, and while the employee was holding your waist/legs, you leaned backwards (holding onto two iron bars) and reached your head out to give it a smooch. We also explored the Rock Close, which is a mystical place on the site of an ancient druidic settlement. There a trail leads you under groves of gnarled oak and yew trees to the Dolmen, Wishing Steps, Witch's Kitchen and other features. A board walk took us through the water garden past two waterfalls. It was all so pleasant and pretty.
Sunday, Betheny and I took a bus tour of Wicklow along the east coast of Ireland. We met some people who went to Trinity College in Dublin and got to hear their stories and how they liked Dublin. We left Dublin at 9am and our first stop was Wicklow's Glencree Valley on the way to our coffee stop at Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Center. I don't like coffee, so I had their hot chocolate. There have been several international meetings and prestigious people who have met there in the main building at the Center. We got to view spectacular scenery as we passed through famous film locations at the Sally Gap and Lough Tay high in the Wicklow Mountains. Some of the films (I wrote them down so I wouldn't forget) included P.S. I Love You, Braveheart, Excalibur, Saving Private Ryan, Leap Year, Camelot, and Harry Potter! I really liked the tour because everything was explained as we drove around (by Terry, our tourgide, who also sang and played us some great Irish music on the bus), so we learned a lot more than we would have just exploring on our own, such as Ireland's "smallest village," and the "driest village." It's hard to imagine a place here without a pub where you can get a pint of Guinness. We learned that Glendalough (Glen-da-lock) is one of the most important sites of monastic ruins in Ireland. There was a cemetery, and nearly every stone had the Celtic Cross on it, which is a combination of two symbols, the cross and a circle. The cross represents a unity of Christianity and Paganism and was introduced by St. Patrick. The two lakes were really pretty, and the scenery along the walk to the lower and upper lakes was very peaceful. Close to here was where they'd built a castle for one of the Harry Potter films, but evidently they tore it down as soon as the filming was finished (according to Terry). One of our last stops was to the Meeting of the Waters in the Vale of Avoca, a pretty little spot made famous by Irish poet Thomas Moore. We stopped for lunch at a traditional Irish pub in the Avoca village, which is actually the location of the famous British tv series, Ballykissangel. From there, we headed back to Dublin and ended the day. It was well worth the cost of 22 euro.
October 1-4: Belgium
We (Vanessa, Betheny, Heather, Nancy, Jessica, and I) arrived at Brussels Charlerois South Airport Friday morning. We caught a taxi into the city along with another couple because it cost the same as the bus shuttle and we avoided waiting in a long line. We got into the city and were pretty surprised when we couldn't figure out exactly where to go, and no one seemed to speak any English! But we eventually got our bearings and found the place where we were supposed to check into our hostel. We started to explore the city, and quickly found that all the things we were told to try- chocolate, waffles, fries (or frites), and beer- were all they were made out to be! YUM! Betheny and I spotted a gentleman in a Purdue hat in one of the chocolate shops, and soon discovered he was Dr. Karl Brandt, who had been in academic administration as associate dean and director of academic programs for Purdue's School of Agriculture for 18 years. He returned to the Department of Biochemistry full time as a faculty member (before moving into admin, his interest was in biochemical research). He and his wife had been on a 16-day European vacation trip (cruising the Rhine and Moselle Rivers from Basel to Amsterdam, followed by 2.5 days in Brussels and Bruges). What a vacation
This is Steve Earle singing "Galway Girl." If you've not heard it, you should really listen to it. It's my favorite Irish song :)
Betheny, Rachel, and I took the train from Dublin to Galway Saturday morning bright and early. It was about a 3 hour ride. When we got there, we found a map in the tourist office and proceeded to our hostel. Galway is a very small town, which as I've said before, I really like. There's something about small towns that's much more inviting than the massive expanse and huge buildings of a city. As we were looking for the hostel we found this really cute little restaurant right by the bay. We thought we might come back for dinner. The hostel was located right in the middle of a lot of shops and pubs, so we had plenty to do. We dropped off our stuff and went to find the farmer's market that Heather, Nancy, and Jessica had recommended for the cinnamon donuts. We found it alright, and they were right; those were the best donuts I've ever had! There were a lot of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, and salads, along with stands selling falafel and other foods. In addition to the normal things expected at a farmers market, there were local artists selling their paintings, jewelry, leather goods and warm wool clothing. We perused through several times to make sure we saw everything. Rachel got a little silver ring and a falafel, and Betheny got some leather keychains. I brought my lunch with me, and after the donuts I was pretty satisfied.
We walked around the whole town that day, and saw Lynch's Castle, the town hall theater, court house, Cathedral, a river walk, the Spanish Arch, museum, park, and St. Nicholas Cathedral, which is actually where Christopher Columbus stopped to pray before he set sail to the new world. That night we ate at a restaurant promoted by the hostel. We got vouchers for a free drink with meal purchase, and this ended up being cheaper than the cute restaurant we discovered upon our arrival. Rachel and I split a burger and salad, and Betheny got pasta. We were actually both craving a hamburger all day, from the point we got to the train station in Dublin, where there was a fast food place (even though it was 6:30 am!). The burger we had really hit the spot! And I had a pint of Guinness as my free drink, of course :)
Sunday we went on a tour of the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren. We ate the breakfast that was provided at the hostel (toast and jam, coffee, juice) and then checked out. We departed at 10am from the bus station across from the tourist office, and left with a full bus. One of the places we saw was the Aillwee Caves, where we had a 35-minute guided tour in a cave basically in the middle of a mountain. This was probably my second-favorite stop of the day, second only to the cliffs of course. (The last cave I remember being in was in Flatrock when we were little. I've wanted to go to the Mammoth Caves but haven't gotten to yet.) There was a waterfall in this one, and I can't describe the feeling of being in complete darkness in the cave. There were places where they found bear bones from where the bears had hibernated during the winter months. It was really neat! Continuing on our journey, we saw the Burren Paradise, a remarkable bare limestone area with its many combinations of unusual factors such as its unique geology, flora and fauna. Other places include Lisdoonvarna (renowned for the Matchmaking Festival that takes place every September), Doolin, Blackhead, and the Cliffs of Moher. I felt very rushed at the cliffs, as we were only given an hour before we had to be back on the bus. We made the most of our time, and raced up to the top to get as many pictures as we could. There was a small castle on the cliffs called O'Brien's Tower, which I paid 2 euro to go to the top, where I shimmied up and stood on a square platform and had an amazing 360-degree view of the coast of Connemara to the north across Galway Bay and the Clare coastline to Loop Head and beyond in the south to the Kerry Mountains. I took a video if anyone is interested (once again, see facebook). I looked out across the Atlantic Ocean and thought to myself, home is just across there! It was sort of a bittersweet moment for me. It was quite literally the closest I'll be to home until December! I felt so small next to the ocean and the cliffs. It's just indescribable beauty. I read a sign in the tower that said the Cliffs of Moher was an official finalist in the 7 new wonders of nature, and for good reason! The Cliffs of Moher is Ireland's most visited natural attraction with a magical vista that captures the hearts of up to one million visitors each year. The Cliffs rise to 700 ft at the highest point and range for 5 miles over the Atlantic Ocean on the western seaboard of Co. Clare. I must say the weather was definitely in our favor, and the tour guide said it was one of the best days he's seen the entire time he's been giving tours, like 6 years or so. The visibility was amazing, as we were able to see across the Galway Bay that morning to the town from Blackhead and other places along the coast. We saw cows, sheep, geese, alpacas, and donkeys in the rocky landscape as we drove along. It was such beautiful scenery. There were places where the cows were grazing that had more rocks than grass. They seemed very out of place, but I guess it works. I really liked how some of the rocks and boulders were covered in this green moss. It was a nice change from the normal flat pastures I've seen in the countryside of Ireland and elsewhere. The area immediately north of O'Brien's Tower below Aill Na Searrach (Cliff of the Foals) has become a world famous surf spot with the famous Aileen's wave drawing world class surfers. In certain conditions the wave can reach 60 ft and has been compared to giant waves such as "Jaws" in Maui, Hawaii. Aileen's wave has been featured in the movies Sea Fever and Wave Riders.
We finished the tour by stopping at Dunguaire Castle, which was absolutely stunning in the light of the setting sun. We could see its reflection off the water and there were some swans and ducks floating around. It was a nice end to our adventurous day.