In Spring 2009, Kim and I and a whole bunch of other people went to Ireland to join in the celebration of Toni and Patrick's wedding at Narrow Water Castle in County Down, Northern Ireland. In addition to the wedding Kim and I rented a car and drove all over the island. It was great fun and the following is based on my notes that I took during the trip.
Ireland -- April/May 2009
We're in Ireland! More specifically we're at our hotel in Dublin. It's been a long trip and we're just taking a bit of a rest here before heading out to explore Dublin for the afternoon and evening.
We left Toronto around 3pm yesterday, taking the Airport Express bus from downtown to the airport. I tried to schedule us early enough to miss rush hour, but that ended up being a failure and it took forever to get to the airport. When will Toronto get a friggin' rail link set up between Pearson and the downtown core??? We still arrived early enough to take care of all the check in stuff, but if there had been long lines it might have been tight.
We had to change planes at Newark and as expected our plane out of Toronto was super small. It was actually smaller than any other commercial aircraft I've been on before. Less than 20 rows with one aisle of two seats and one aisle with only one seat (so I guess less than 60 seats total). Also the curvature of the fuselage was very noticeable and in general it was super cramped. They wouldn't let Kim bring her carry-on on the plane so it was "gate-checked." This meant that she was able to pick it up right at the gate as we exited the plane which made it much easier to transfer at Newark. Despite the size of the plane, the flight was very comfortable with no major issues other than a large delay at take-off.
We didn't have any problems picking up our connection to Dublin in Newark, although take-off was also delayed again. The flight across the ocean was pretty typical of all such flights in my experience: little turbulence and almost no sleep. Our landing in Dublin was also delayed and we had to circle a bit due to a disabled plane on the runway. Today has been all about the delays. Sigh.
Despite extreme fatigue I managed to complete both tasks I wanted to do in the airport on arrival: get a SIM card for the unlocked cell phone I brought (thanks Rob for the loan!) and pick up our rental car. Getting the SIM card was easy and sooooo cheap. Just €10 for the card and it comes with €11 of credit. They didn't want any ID or credit card or anything. I love cell phones in other countries. Getting the car was also easy, although the guy at the desk was a bit confused about my one-way rental. According to him, Dan Dooley doesn't have an office at the Belfast Airport (where I intend to drop off the car). This was surprising to me since I made my booking with the people at the Belfast Airport. When I told him this he said that he supposed the people in Belfast would know better than him. Strange man. Anyway, a shuttle took us and our bags to the Dan Dooley parking lot and in no time we were all loaded into our little Fiat Punto. Yep, we got an Italian car. Awesome. It's a four door hatchback and a bit bigger than I thought it would be. We shouldn't have a problem getting Rob and Verna into the car after the wedding.
The drive into the city was not as bad as I thought it would be. I had a bit of difficulty with the first roundabout out of the airport as I was trying to avoid getting on the M50 (an automated toll road) and the signage wasn't very clear. After a few trips around the circle I finally found the correct exit and we were able to head into the city. Our hotel was pretty direct once we got on the major road and we didn't have any problems finding it. Driving on the left and driving with a manual transmission both made things more challenging, but not as hard as I expected (demonstrated by my success with very little sleep). The only thing I'm concerned about now is that when we parked in the hotel parking lot I didn't get into my spot quite straight so I tried to back up to fix it. But the car wouldn't stay in reverse! I used to have problems with my old car not wanting to stay in reverse, but it was very old and crusty. This car is brand new. I hope it's not busted or something. I'm going to check out the manual in a bit and see if I can find anything.
Our hotel is nice enough, but we weren't able to check in when we arrived. So we left our bags and then headed out to get some lunch. There was a small cafe down the street where we split a huge sandwich and some juice and stuff. Nothing special but certainly welcome after the flight and the drive. We were rained on a bit while walking, welcome to Ireland! It seems to be getting sunny now though so it will be nice when we head back into the city. After lunch we went to the bus station to get a bus pass for the day so that we can get around a bit easier.
Kim's taking a bit of a nap at the moment, so I'm going to go send a few emails on the hotel computer and see if I can figure out how to make the car go backwards. If not I need to book a few more days here at this hotel since we won't be able to get the car out!
We're back at the hotel now after spending the afternoon and evening exploring Dublin. We had a good time, but my energy is almost gone and I'll need to sleep soon.
I figured out what was wrong with reverse in our car! There is a special release thinger you have to press as you shift into reverse. I guess it is to prevent you from accidentally shifting into reverse when you're moving forward. I suppose this is a good feature, however I would have rather it been more obvious. Sigh.
Just before leaving the hotel we got a call from Patrick and Toni! It was great to hear from them and we got some suggestions on what to do in Dublin during our short visit here. They were fairly amused by my reverse problems with the car. :)
Anyway, we took the bus downtown as our hotel is located outside the main core of the city. We started off exploring O'Connell Street and some of the adjacent pedestrian side streets. We mostly just looked around and tried to take it all in. We eventually wandered down to Trinity College and explored the beautiful grounds and took a look at the Book of Kells (an ancient, hand written and illustrated copy of the New Testament). The Book of Kells was pretty cool and it's amazing to think how long it must have taken to create. It was done around 800AD and is full of intricate, complex illustrations and text. It is truly a work of art. However, only two pages of the book are visible and you obviously can't flip through it or anything. So there wasn't really much to see. Both Kim and I felt that the "Long Room" of the adjacent library was much more impressive. It was incredibly tall and absolutely stuffed with old books. You could see that some were falling apart and had been sitting in the same place for decades if not centuries. It was all pretty amazing. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures.
After the College we walked through the Grafton Street shopping area to do a bit of window shopping and eventually we ended up in St. Stephen's Green. It was pretty nice to sit in the park and relax for a bit after all the walking. There were lots of flowers and fountains and a ton of people (both local and tourist) just out enjoying the sun.
For supper we went to a restaurant called "Gruel" on the recommendation of Toni. It was just a normal restaurant with pretty good prices (for Dublin). I had a smoked salmon risotto with asparagus and a very delicious sauce, while Kim had pasta with a light tomato sauce and goat cheese. Both were very good and we were quite happy by the time we left. For dessert we found a gelato place in the Temple Bar area (ie. prime tourist land, I found it to be very similar to Latin Quarter in Paris).
While we were waiting for our bus to take us back to our hotel we noticed something a bit strange. It was a Tim Horton's!! At first we walked right past it and I remember seeing it and thinking, "Oh, a Tim Horton's, whatever, they're everywhere." Then when we got a bit further I remembered that we were in Ireland! So we went back to look and it turned out to be a booth set up inside of a convenience store. It had coffee, hot chocolate, muffins and donuts. We didn't get anything but the donuts and muffins looked a bit wrong. Almost artificial (well more artificial then they already look here).
Tomorrow we intend to drive through the Wicklow Mountains, see the Rock of Cashel and end up in Cork on the southern end of the country. I'm a bit intimidated by the drive, but we're working out the route with maps and the GPS right now so hopefully it will be alright.
We're in Cork now! We did a ton of driving today and other than a couple isolated incidents it was very successful.
This morning we had our first of what I assume will be many "Irish Breakfast" including eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, baked beans, tomato, cereal, fruit, juice and weird black and white puddings. Everything was delicious however it was way too much food. I don't normally eat well between 1am and 5am, and breakfast time in Ireland is right in the middle of that range in Toronto. So after about half the breakfast I started feeling a bit funny and had to stop eating. Hopefully I'll be better tomorrow.
After breakfast we went for a quick walk to settle my stomach and we picked up some fruit at the corner store to have for snacks. We also mailed some postcards that we bought and filled in yesterday.
The drive out of Dublin was pretty easy. Early Sunday morning in any major city is generally quiet and Dublin was no exception. We were able to find an easy route out of the city and arrived at the little town of Enniskerry in about an hour. Enniskerry is home to the lovely Powerscourt Estate, which is an old manor with amazing and huge gardens surrounding it. The only problem we had was on our way into town. I wasn't sure where the estate was or if it had parking so I wanted to find a place to park in the town itself. Well, there was a football tournament going on that day in town so all of the parking was full. We spotted some signs for overflow parking and followed them up a crazy steep narrow dirt road to a muddy farmer's field where a guy was waving cars in to park. I totally didn't want to get stuck so I asked the guy if there was parking at the estate and he said yes and helped me get turned around. I think he thought I was strange (I also stalled the car at him) but whatever. We got the information we needed even if it was done in a roundabout way.
Powerscourt Estate was awesome. We spent a lot of time walking around the grounds through the Japanese gardens, the normal gardens and even through the pet cemetery. There was also a cool fountain at the back and a castle tower off to the one side. Part of the estate is a huge waterfall, but we had a time limit (we needed to make it to Cork before the end of the day) so we didn't have time to go see it. We did however grab a quick lunch in the cafe before heading out to drive through the Wicklow Mountains.
There are two main passes through the Wicklow Mountains, one that goes by Glendalough (a lake that is apparently very nice) and another, still crazy, but less lake-filled road. I had intended to go past Glendalough but we took a wrong turn and ended up on the other road. It wasn't a problem because the other road turned out to be really cool anyway. The only problem was that in the approach to the pass we ended up on a curvy narrow road with huge rock walls on each side. I took a curve a bit too fast and ended up too close to the rock wall on the passenger side. I clipped the passenger side mirror against the wall just hard enough to pop out the glass. The mirror box itself was OK but by the time we were able to stop and get the glass back it had been run over a few times and was completely busted. Hopefully the rental car company won't be too upset.
The roads on the pass through the mountains were super steep and curvy and extremely narrow. There were wide spots every hundred metres or so to allow room to get two cars through, but often it was hard to see far enough ahead to plan for letting cars pass. Also, a lot of the bridges were almost too small for one car to get over. I can't imagine driving a bus or truck through those roads but I did see a few. The views while we drove were great and we stopped a couple times to look around and take pictures. There were sheep everywhere (including on the road).
After leaving the mountains we were able to get on a major highway and make good time to Cashel, a city about halfway between Cork and Dublin. Cashel is home to the famous "Rock of Cashel," a giant castle built between the 12th and 15th centuries. We made it to the castle just before the final admission time and so we had about an hour to look around. The castle is in the middle of nowhere so all of the stone had to be brought from far away. Also, it's remarkably tall for such an old building. It's crazy to think how they got all that rock up so high. The other neat thing about the castle is that it's surrounded by a cemetery that is actually still in use. Certain families in the area have the right to bury their dead amongst other graves, some over 400 years old.
After seeing the castle we grabbed a quick supper in town at the only restaurant left open at 6:30pm on a Sunday evening. I had a club sandwich (which apparently has a fried egg on it in Ireland) and Kim had the soup and some deep fried mushrooms. We were going to get some dessert as well but they started closing the restaurant as we were eating and took all the dessert away. Oh well.
We continued along the highway out of Cashel and made it to Cork a couple hours later. On our way we passed through a town that had a double roundabout of some sort. I'm not quite sure how it worked because it happened so fast, but basically two roundabouts were right on top of each other. Crazy. Parking was tight at our B&B in Cork, but after Kim moved some garbage bins out of the way we were able to jam the car in. One of the things I had read about this B&B was that the welcome was very warm and friendly. This was true to some extent (the lady running the place couldn't stop telling us how very welcome we were), but it felt a bit forced. However, after dropping our bags in our room we were invited to the lounge for tea with biscuits, scones and fresh bread. It was awesome.
Our room here is much nicer than the one in Dublin and a bit cheaper too. I'm also super excited for the breakfast tomorrow, it's supposed to be legendary. Right now we're just sorting out the itinerary for tomorrow and watching "Gaelic Football" on TV. It's some sort of crazy cross between rugby and football and other random stuff. I have no idea how the scoring works but it looks fun.
We're in Killarney tonight, staying at a beautiful little bed and breakfast named Eloyd House run by a lady named Mary. It's basically just a converted farm house, but it's clean, cozy and the owner is fabulous. We're definitely having good luck with our accommodations on this trip.
Back in Cork this morning we started out with what has to be the largest breakfast I've ever had the opportunity to partake in. I didn't eat too much due to continuing problems with my stomach not wanting food at breakfast time, but the potential for eating was just insane. To start out we were offered home made oatmeal with cream and honey. At the same time we could also enjoy cold cereals, fresh fruit, yogurt, pastries, toast, scones, tea, coffee and several types of fruit juice. Then came the hot portion which was a choice between about a dozen traditional breakfast meals like omelettes, Irish Breakfast or French Toast. The portion size for these was incredibly large; my omelette must have had four eggs in it. Then as we were trying to figure out how to get off our chairs with so much food in our bellies the owner came by, noticed we were done the hot section of our meal and offered us pancakes with either fruit or real Canadian maple syrup. I would have loved to have some of those but we were just too full. While we were eating we had a nice chat with a couple from Belfast about our travels and their travels and just about the world in general. They were super friendly and it was neat to talk with people actually from Ireland rather than other foreigners.
After breakfast we took a short walk around Cork to check out the farmer's market and to get some cough syrup for Kim who seems to be coughing a lot lately. The cough syrup was awesome because it came in a glass bottle. No plastic for these people. The farmer's market was pretty good too. We picked up some bread, meat, cheese and strawberries for lunch later on today.
Cork is a really nice little town, but I hated driving in it. There were one-way roads everywhere and the signs were confusing at best. It was hard and took a long time to get around and due to our itinerary for today we had to pass through the town several times. I think I will try to never drive there again, it was that frustrating.
After our walk we checked out of our B&B and headed out of town to Blarney Castle, home of the Blarney Stone which is said to grant the "Gift of the Gab" to all those who kiss it. The castle and castle grounds were very cool and we spent a long time wandering around and taking pictures. It was a very different experience compared to the Rock of Cashel from yesterday because this castle was in better shape and had more rooms you could access and walk around. The gardens were also very lovely. At the top we both hung ourselves over the ledge and kissed the Blarney Stone. It was pretty fun.
After finishing up at the castle we had our picnic lunch and then drove back through Cork on our way to Kinsale on the south coast of Ireland. The drive down to Kinsale was pretty but uneventful, however driving in the town of Kinsale itself was miserable. The streets were extremely narrow, twisty and hilly and there were cars parked on the sides everywhere so they became even narrower. To make matters worse, we weren't really sure how to get to Charles Fort which was the main reason we had come to Kinsale. We could see the fort in the distance, but each of our attempts to drive to it ended on some dead end road or an impossible hill. Eventually we overcame the lack of street signs and made it to the fort but there was a lot of anger and frustration before that happened.
Charles Fort is a huge, 17th century, star-shaped military fort that was in continuous use up until 1922. It was very cool to walk around inside and see all the old buildings and walls and also to be able to look out over the ocean. It's set right on the coast and has some amazing views. Unfortunately our time there was marked by furious periodic rain showers. Every fifteen minutes it would pour rain for a little while and then the sun would come out and shine for a little while. It soon became clear that we had to plan our walk around the fort so that there would always be a place to get shelter from the rain until the sun returned.
We found a MUCH better way to leave the fort and get back on main roads and so our drive out was very easy. We quickly joined the highway and began our journey to Killarney. The drive was nice except for major construction delays in the town of Macroom. As we approached Killarney we passed through some very beautiful mountains just as the sun was going down. It was really quite stunning and distracting for me as a driver.
For supper tonight we had our first Irish pub food at a great little place in downtown Killarney. Kim had fish and chips and I had a burger with fries. Both were totally delicious and we were able to eat them while sitting by a roaring fire that totally eliminated the chill from getting rained on (again).
After taking my notes last night for the blog Patrick called and we chatted a bunch about where Kim and I are planning on going next. He gave me a lot of useful information about how long it would take to do certain things and as a result we've changed our plans a bit. We're going to skip the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula in favour of getting to Galway earlier so we can definitely go to the Aran Islands.
So, with that in mind, we headed to Muckross Estate after breakfast this morning and then straight up the western coast towards Galway. But first was breakfast. Everything was delicious and made by Mary herself who was even more friendly this morning than yesterday. We actually had a good long chat with her before leaving about our trip and the wedding and Canada and a whole bunch of other stuff. This was definitely our favourite B&B yet. Next time we're in Ireland we want to see the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula and we'll definitely be staying at Eloyd House while we do it.
It was an easy drive to Muckross Estate although we had trouble finding the entrance. We ended up parking with all the jaunting cars (horse and buggy) although we did not accept a ride in one and instead walked the 2km through the grounds up to Muckross House itself. When we arrived we discovered that there was actually a parking lot right by the house but we weren't too upset because it was a really nice walk. While we were walking I got a text message from Rob indicating that he would be in Galway this evening and that we should meet up. More on that later.
Muckross House is a 19th century mansion located on a big lake and surrounded by gardens and forests right on the edge of Killarney National Park. It was a really beautiful place and felt very apart from the rest of the world. We spent most of our time walking the grounds and enjoying being outside among mountains and lakes and so much green. Everything was green there. We were originally going to do a tour of the house as well but we ran out of time and so we just grabbed lunch and then headed out towards Galway.
The next point of interest was the ferry across the river Shannon at Tarbert. We really wanted to drive up the coast and see the Cliffs of Moher but the river Shannon is pretty big and splits the coast line all the way inland to Limerick. We had no desire to drive an extra 175km or to visit Limerick so the ferry was the perfect choice even if it was €18. The docks were deserted when we arrived and although there were lots of signs indicating that we were in the right place we weren't exactly reassured. Eventually we found three gruff old Irish men working away at something in a shed at the back. They had the thickest accents I have ever heard but eventually I was able to confirm that we were in the right place and that the next ferry was in 30 minutes. So we parked the car and had a snack and just relaxed until it came.
The ferry itself was great. Very easy to get on and off (nothing like some other ferries I've been on here in Canada). It only took 15 minutes or so to make the crossing and on the other side we were just minutes away from the coastal road to the Cliffs of Moher. Of course the road ended up being narrow and twisty but I'm more or less used to that now so it wasn't a big deal. Plus the scenery was absolutely amazing. It was very clear that we were in a new and different part of Ireland.
Eventually we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher and parked our car. We were making our way to the visitor's centre (in the rain of course) when my cell phone started ringing. I was just able to get the phone out of my pocket and see that it was Rob before Kim started screaming (in a good way) and she ran off and attacked some guy (with hugs). It was Rob!! He was calling to tell us he was at the Cliffs of Moher and to find out where we were. We were at the Cliffs of Moher too!!! I still can't believe he called us just as we were walking past each other. I think we might not have noticed if he hadn't.
Anyway, he had just finished up with the Cliffs but he came back up with us anyway to get some pictures and chat quickly about the rest of the evening (meeting up in Galway for supper and such). It was clear he was pretty tired (he had driven from Dublin down to Cashel and back up to the Cliffs today after flying overnight from North America), but his adrenaline was holding and we were all excited to meet up for supper later.
We waved goodbye to Rob and then set about seeing the rest of the cliffs. They were pretty spectacular and definitely worth tramping around in the rain. I don't have many words to describe them except that they were very tall and the ocean seemed very powerful as it broke against them. Check out the pictures for more details.
Most of the rest of our drive to Galway was through a section of Ireland called the Burren. This is a very rocky area of Ireland with more crazy roads and wonderful views. There was a lot to see in the area, but once again we only had time for so many things and we had to make it to Galway for supper. Thus most of what we saw was from the car as we drove. One section of the road was a series of tight hairpin turns which were quite fun to drive on.
In Galway we weren't able to find our B&B because it wasn't on the main road like we thought it would be but was in fact just off the main road on a side street. We ended up calling the owner and she met us out on the street and helped us get to the house. She is yet another super-friendly and super-helpful B&B owner. In fact, before heading out to meet Rob we chatted with her a bunch about our trip and what Rob was doing too. She was powerfully unimpressed with Rob's "reckless and irresponsible" quantity of driving and she basically insisted that he come have breakfast with us (for free) tomorrow morning. I think Rob may get more than just a meal.
Galway is a very nice looking place. Once again we won't be spending much time exploring the city, preferring to see stuff outside the city instead. We met Rob downtown and then after some difficulty finding a pub that was still serving food at 8pm we eventually settled on a proper restaurant. All of us had the Shepherd's Pie. It was far far too much food, but it was also pretty delicious and warming after a long day in the rain. We were originally going to get some Guinness as well but Rob started crashing (finally) and so we walked him back to his hostel and then returned to our B&B.
Tomorrow we're taking the boat to Inismor, the largest of the Aran Islands and we will be spending the day there. We'll be staying here at the same B&B again tomorrow night and I think it will be very nice to spend two nights in the same place. No need to pack up and get out, we can be a bit slower and more relaxed.
After a long and rain filled (but still awesome) day we're back at our B&B in Galway and are finally warm and dry. Inismor, the largest of the Aran Islands was very cool, but we sure did get rained on a lot.
This morning started out with a delicious breakfast shared with Rob. The lady running our B&B was only too happy to feed him as well as us. However she did give Rob quite a scolding for his irresponsible driving the day before. And when she heard that he intended to drive to the north coast of Ireland (Donegal) today she made him agree to stop halfway and rest and then do more the next day. It was only a 350km drive on proper highways which is nothing when your perspective is Canada, but the lady would not listen. So Rob agreed to stop halfway, but I just got a text from him saying that he of course went the whole way and it wasn't a problem at all. What she doesn't know won't hurt her.
After breakfast we drove about an hour along the coast to the town where the ferry makes berth. The ferry took about 40 minutes to get to the island and it was a smooth and easy ride. It dropped us off in the main town where we promptly ignored all the tour operators and bike rental people. Instead we went straight to the grocery store to get some bread and cheese for a lunch. We ate it on some picnic tables outside the store while a weird crusty old cat slept on a table near us. It was pretty cool sitting at the grocery store because most of the people coming and going were people who lived on the island and they all seemed to know each other.
Next we went back down to the docks and decided to get bikes rather than use a tour bus. With bikes we figured we'd be able to cover a large distance quickly (and thus see lots of the major sights) but also we'd still be free to stop wherever we wanted. The island is extremely scenic so we didn't want to be tied to some itinerary.
This plan worked out really well for the first half of our trip. We biked along the coastal road and saw all of the crazy rock walls and we saw seals and birds and a lot of cows. We were almost to the major prehistoric ring fort on the island when it started to rain. At first it was just a light rain and so we kept biking. Then it got heavier and of course biking into the rain gets you really wet really fast. So we stopped and huddled against a tall rock wall under our umbrellas hoping that the rain would stop. But the clouds just got thicker and darker so we eventually gave up and just kept biking towards the fort. We knew there was another small town near the fort so we figured that we could find a cafe or something to warm up in when we arrived.
Well, there was a cafe, but unfortunately there was also a film crew in the town shooting a movie. Thus the cafe and all other restaurants in town were closed to the public so that the film crew could use them. It was really annoying but we were able to dry off a little bit in the visitor centre for Dun Aonghas (the proper name of the fort).
Dun Aonghasa is a large ring fort that is thought to date from the Iron Age and is built on a cliff edge 100m above the ocean. To get to it we had to bike about six kilometres from the ferry, and then walk another kilometre and a half from the visitor centre up a steep, rocky, muddy hill in the rain. By the time we got to the top we were both soaked and tired and of course it was still raining. The views and the fort were both really cool, but it was hard to enjoy them in the state we were in. Something I found neat was that there were no fences or anything. The fort is right on the cliff edge and you can walk up and look down 100m to the crashing ocean if you like (I chose not to, given the intense wind and rain). Anyway, after spending a short time up there we headed back to the visitor centre where we attempted to dry off a bit before biking back to the main town. We biked along a different road on the way back and it was a lot hillier. Most of it uphill of course. The exertion kept us warm though.
The initial plan was to bike all over the island and see lots of other things too, but the rain slowed us down and stole our energy so we just went to some shops and had some hot chocolate instead. I'm still happy we rented the bikes because the time before the rain was really good. But we probably would have seen more with the tour buses. I think the bikes only make sense when it's not raining.
So after waiting for the ferry, then riding the ferry, then driving back to Galway we were finally able to get dry and warm at our B&B. We both took a hot shower and subsequently felt a lot better. After relaxing a bit we went into Galway and had supper at a fish and chips place. The place had about a dozen different types of fish available and the one I chose meant that I got more than twice as much as Kim did. It was really good, but far too much food.
We were going to walk around Galway tonight, but after leaving the restaurant we realized that the day had taken more out of us than we originally thought. So we went straight back to the B&B and now we are going to go to sleep.
We're in Slane tonight, a small town on the east side of the country, about an hour north of Dublin. We took it pretty easy today after our cold wet day yesterday and I think that was a good idea. The wedding is tomorrow and we want to be fresh for it.
We slept in a bit this morning, but not too long. After checking out of the B&B we went to a grocery store to get some snacks for our drive and then we headed inland from Galway. Our first destination of the day was the town of Birr. Birr isn't a particularly special place in Ireland, but it does have the same name as the town Matt used to live in, which was also the closest town to Ilderton where I used to live. Also it was mostly on the way to Slane and it has a castle so it seemed like a good place to go.
Anyway, we made it to Birr by noon and we walked to the castle and ate lunch in the courtyard. For once it wasn't raining so we were able to eat outside in the sun. It was so nice to be able to do that after everything from yesterday.
After lunch we went through the visitor centre at the castle and went on a nice walk through the castle gardens. The castle itself is still a private residence and so is closed to the public. But the grounds were very nice and the visitor centre included a ton of information about the history of the family that has lived in the castle for over 400 years. Many of them were scientists, and the most notable of them were astronomers. One of the main features of the gardens is a recreation of a giant telescope that the family built in 1845 which was used for many years and helped advance astronomy worldwide.
After finishing up in Birr, we drove on to our hostel in Slane. We had booked a double room and weren't expecting anything special. However when we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to find out that for €50 we had booked a full self-catering cottage including living room and kitchen. The place is at least twice as big as our apartment in Toronto, it's crazy. The other cool thing about this hostel is that Rob is staying here tonight too. He's in the 9-bed dormitories though which are fine, but not quite as glorious as our suite.
Rob arrived at the hostel much earlier than we did and so he went out to visit Newgrange, a neolithic passage tomb that is older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. We will be seeing that tomorrow before we head up to the wedding. Once Rob got back to the hostel we went with him and another guy from the hostel (named Alex) to get some supper. We went to a nice restaurant with standard western food and then we headed to the local pub to enjoy some Guinness.
The pub was great! It had a bunch of drunk locals who made a bit of a scene before staggering out into the night. Also, the Guinness was freaking delicious. I've had it in Canada once or twice and found it to be tolerable, but in Ireland it was actually super tasty. I'm going to have to try it again in Canada to confirm that it really is better in Ireland. The pub also had a live band that night, but most of the locals left pretty early (likely because they have work tomorrow, suckers). Eventually we left too and went back to the hostel to chat for a bit and use the Internet. Now it's off to bed, tomorrow is a big day!
This morning we got up early so that we could have lots of time at Newgrange before driving to the wedding. As nice as our hostel was, it didn't have breakfast so we had to stop at a grocery store in Slane to grab some bread and fruit. We also got a few more Euros from an ATM to tide us over until we got to Northern Ireland (where they use the the pound).
Newgrange is just a short drive from Slane and is part of the massive prehistoric site called Bru na Boinne, which contains tombs, standing stones and many other remains from neolithic communities in Ireland. Newgrange itself is a large passage tomb. It consists of a long passage lined with huge stones and covered with an arched roof. The whole thing is buried under a mound of earth. At the winter solstice, the sun shines in through a window at the entrance and illuminates the inside of the tomb. In addition to the massive construction effort in evidence at the site, there is also a significant amount of art work carved into the stones. It was a very awe-inspiring place to see. The other thing that was neat about it was that there was graffiti inside from the early 1800s. It sucks that such an important site was defaced, but graffiti from the 1800s is still pretty cool. Finally, and possibly most cool, is the fact that the tomb was so well built that it has remained essentially waterproof for the last 5000 years. Despite the pouring rain that is so frequent in Ireland it was perfectly dry inside.
We weren't allowed to take any pictures inside the tomb, and it was raining outside so I don't have a lot of pictures overall, but it was a super cool experience that I'll definitely remember for a long time.
After seeing the tomb we grabbed a quick lunch at the visitor centre and then jumped on the highway to Newry for the wedding. It took about an hour to get there and find our hotel. We're at the fancy-pants hotel here which is an interesting change from our accommodations so far. It's very nice, but so impersonal after all the B&Bs. The drive took us over the border between the south and the north, however the only evidence of that was that the colour of the paint on the road changed from yellow to white and the speed limits changed from kilometres to miles.
We're just finishing up getting ready for the wedding and have to go catch the shuttle in 15 minutes. It's super exciting and we can't wait for everything to get started. It will be great to meet up with everyone else and hear how everyone else's travels have been. And most importantly it will be awesome to see Patrick and Toni.
It's now the morning after the wedding and we've just finished up breakfast. We're about to head north with Rob and Verna but I have a bit of time to make a few notes before we go.
The wedding was fabulous and I really appreciated the planning and effort Toni and Patrick put into everything to make sure that everyone had a good time and that no one had to worry about anything for the whole evening. In particular the shuttles between the venue and the hotels were a great idea.
Before leaving the hotel yesterday we were able to spend some time chatting with Matt and Adrienne and Chris and John, all of whom were also staying in the same hotel as us. Everyone had lots of stories and we only had a chance to scratch the surface before piling onto the bus and heading over to Narrow Water Castle.
The castle itself is more of a 19th century mansion but it still has a good castle-like vibe. The exterior and the grounds were beautiful and inside a lot of original decorations and style has been maintained. We spent the first hour mingling in one of the front rooms, getting a chance to catch up with lots of people about their travels. It was so cool to have so many friends all traveling to different places and then to be able to all meet up in the same place for a great party and celebration.
Just before 3pm, the toastmaster (an awesome guy in a cool red uniform who carried around a gavel and shouted loudly) called us together to go down to the vaulted cellars for the wedding ceremony. He banged the gavel to get everyone's attention and then authoritatively instructed us on where to go. I've never seen someone so good at making a disorganized group of people get moving in the right direction.
The music for the ceremony was provided by a harpist who also sang at some points. Sue and Patrick's sister Louise both did readings and both of them ended up in tears before the end. I think everyone was very moved by the whole thing. Toni was lovely in her dress and you could tell that Patrick was overcome when he first saw her. Everyone held together though and the ceremony went on without a hitch. I have no pictures from the ceremony, as Patrick and Toni requested that only the photographer take pictures so that it didn't turn into a paparazzi event.
After the ceremony we all moved back to the main room for little appetizers and lots of champagne. The couple made a spectacular entrance by coming down the castle's grand staircase and they were officially presented to us by the toastmaster. After a few words with everyone they went outside to do wedding photos in the castle grounds. We stayed inside and enjoyed smoked salmon, duck, asparagus stuff and the most fabulous scones ever. They were covered with a half centimetre of butter, a pile of strawberry jam, and a huge dollop of whipped cream. Not the healthiest but definitely the most delicious. Of course we also enjoyed many glasses of champagne.
At one point I went outside to help Adrienne with her new (my old) DSLR and to talk about photography and our trips and stuff. Eventually we were joined by Matt and Kim and Chris and John and Rob and we all took photos and wandered around and chatted and stuff. We saw Patrick and Toni getting some photos taken but they were pretty busy and didn't have time to stop and talk at that moment. Eventually we went back inside to prepare for dinner.
Of course with any large event something is bound to go wrong. With the wedding the problem was the photographer. Their photographer had a death in the family the day before the wedding and so he had to cancel. Toni and Patrick were able to find a last minute replacement, but he wasn't as good and couldn't stay for the reception or anything. So I was asked to help out a bit and take some photos of the tables at the reception and of the food and stuff. I'm not sure how well I did, but it was fun running around and getting everyone to smile and stuff. I was also able to get a few good shots of Toni and Patrick with their cake before dinner when everything got crazy.
Eventually the toastmaster called us in for dinner and we began feasting and drinking and listening to speeches. Our table included Verna, Craig (one of Patrick's university friends), cousins from England and some friends from New Zealand. Everyone was really nice and it was fun to get to know some new people.
I failed to save the menu card from the reception, but I took pictures of most of the food so I can remember what it all was. The first course was roasted quail over mushrooms with a few greens on the side. I'm not a fan of mushrooms but the meat was delicious. For mains we had Irish salmon, rack of lamb, beans and snow peas, potatoes and salad. All of it was great and I really enjoyed the family style service (plates brought to the table and passed around like at family dinner). Dessert was a plate with several yummy sweet things on it, but unfortunately I forgot to take pictures so I don't remember exactly what was included. I do remember it being awesome though. I blame the wine and champagne for camera failure.
After supper we headed back down to the vaulted cellars for the rest of the night. There was a live band that did a very good job (in my opinion) and there was a full bar and lots of space to either dance or chat (both of which Kim and I did lots of). Later in the evening there was more food including fish and chips and bacon sandwiches. There was also cake at some point although we didn't get a lot of it. Eventually the band wrapped up a DJ took over. Patrick and Toni had a second "first dance" to their favourite song and then everyone danced for about another hour. Around 1am the shuttle bus came and drove us all back to our hotels in Newry, leaving Toni and Patrick to spend the night in the gigantic bridal suite on the upper floor of the castle.
This morning breakfast was organized for everyone in the dining hall of our hotel. It was another amazing Irish breakfast with cold cereal, fruit, yogurt, eggs, sausage, bacon, potato bread, tomatoes, beans, toast, juice and tea and coffee. Lots of people showed up so we had a good chance to talk some more with varioius people. Tonight, Patrick's parent's are hosting a BBQ at their house in Belfast but not everyone can make it so it was cool to see those people again this morning.
It's time to head out now, we're driving to the north coast to see the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge and the Giant's Causeway before heading back to the BBQ in Belfast. Rob and Verna are coming with us which should be good times and will give Kim a break from navigation.
After leaving the hotel this morning we (Kim, myself, Rob and Verna) were able to take some major highways and were able to make really good time to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. The drive wasn't all that interesting until we got to the north coast. Then it became really nice all at once. The north coastal road is amazing!
There have been rope bridges over to the Carrick island for hundreds of years, generally used by salmon fishermen who found good fishing on the island. Now the bridge is mostly just a tourist thing and it has been made extremely safe and secure. If you're afraid of heights or something then it might be a bit scary, but honestly it was super safe. Despite the lack of danger it was still fun to go across because of the awesome ocean views. It was sunny for once so it was a great day to be walking around outside. We were even able to see Scotland in the distance.
After finishing up at the bridge we were walking back to the car and Rob noticed that the visitor centre sold ice cream. He had been talking about Cornettos (drumstick-like ice cream treats) all day and as we came up the the visitor centre he wondered loudly (as Rob is wont to do) whether or not the store had Cornettos. A small boy heard him and shouted loudly, "YES, THEY DO!!" The kid's mom burst out laughing and all of us were quite amused. So we went inside to get some Cornettos and found that they only had one boring flavour (vanilla). Rob had been spoiled by blueberry cheesecake Cornettos in southeast Asia so he reject the plain one. We all got Magnums (Haagen-Dazs-like ice cream treats) instead.
Next we drove to the Giant's Causeway further along the coastal road. There was a bit of a problem getting into the parking lot due to a huge line up a huge hill. We had to keep starting and stopping which was a bit tricky on such an incline. I only stalled once in our fifteen minute wait though so that was pretty good.
The Giant's Causeway was definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip for me. I loved the rocks and the ocean and how wild and crazy it all was. The Giant's Causeway is a large area of tightly packed hexagonal rock columns formed from an ancient volcanic eruption. They gradually sink into the ocean and the waves crash over them at the end. You can climb and walk all over the columns and it was really cool to spend some time out there. I think I could have watched the ocean for hours right there (even with the rain that started halfway through our visit). Unfortunately we had limited time (as always) so we left after an hour and headed back to Belfast for the BBQ at Patrick's parent's house.
It was pretty cool to see where Patrick grew up and the BBQ was amazing. We had tons of meat and salads and lots of beer and other drinks. We also got to eat a whole bunch of the yummy wedding cake for dessert. Plus we got to chat more with some of Patrick and Toni's families which was fun and interesting.
After saying our final, saddened goodbyes to everyone we drove Verna to her hotel and Rob to the bus station so that he could catch his bus to Dublin. He's flying to Poland tomorrow morning and instead of getting a hostel or something he's going to sleep in the airport. Umm...should be fun?? Anyway, we made it to our hotel and it is super nice. It's right downtown, it's brand new and best of all we got a really good deal. It's such a shame that we have to go home tomorrow because Belfast looks pretty interesting.
We're back at home now after several delays but for the most part the trip back to Canada was pretty easy. Dan Dooley (the rental car company) didn't have any problems with the busted side mirror. Our flight over the Atlantic was slow and long but it had a seat-back entertainment system so it wasn't really boring. Kim slept most of the time but I wasn't really tired. The entertainment system had to be reset at one point in the trip and I was amused to see that it ran on Linux. Pretty cool. Due to the slow flight we didn't get off our plane in New York until around 3pm, which was when our flight to Toronto was supposed to leave. Fortunately the Toronto flight (and almost every other plane in Newark) was delayed by two hours so we didn't have any problems making the connection. Something I noticed in the airport and on the bus was a lot of masks. We've been hearing a ton about swine flu but we both figure it's probably a bit overblown.
This trip to Ireland was awesome. We saw so many things, had an amazing time at the wedding and I learned a new skill (driving stick on the other side of the road). Traveling in an English speaking country is pretty easy because you can always ask for help. However having a car made things harder and I although I'd be comfortable doing it again, I think I would have been more relaxed without a vehicle. Anyway, it was a good trip and I would definitely go back to Ireland and I recommend it for anyone else as well.