Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Road to Ruins


Day 17:  Dingle to Tralee.  This morning we headed northwest on Slea Head Drive, a circular route along R-559 that begins and ends in Dingle town and explores the remote extreme of the Dingle Peninsula.  This finger of unspoiled countryside features mountains, a rugged coastline, quaint villages, several hundred thousand sheep, and numerous early Christian relics.  Traveling counterclockwise on the loop, our first stop was the ruins of the Kilmalkedar Church near Ballydavid.  A monastery was founded at the site before the year 650, and this Irish Romanesque church was built in the 12th century by the English.

Kilmalkedar ruins
The graveyard surrounding the church contains an ancient cross and an ogham stone, which had stood on this spot for centuries before the church was built.  According to legend, the hole drilled in the top of the stone was used in a dealmaking ritual.  Parties entering the agreement would stand on either side of the stone near this place of worship and seal the deal with an oath to God as they touched thumbs through the hole.

Ogham stone at Kilmalkedar Churchyard
Further west, we stopped in Ballyferriter to check out the tiny Gallarus Oratory, a small chapel built about 1,300 years ago.  Resembling an inverted boat, this is one of the best preserved early Christian churches remaining in Ireland.  The chapel has just two openings—a doorway and a single window—and its mortarless walls are still impervious to rain.  The office was closed but the relic was accessible to visitors, and several black and white cats came up to greet us.  After a young couple from Poland scrounged up some treats for them, the cats paid us no further attention.  

Gallarus Oratory
Following R-559 as it wound around the end of the peninsula, we came to Clogher Head beach where the Atlantic crashes into the towering headland.  According to the interpretive signs, this was the filming location for the opening scenes of the 1992 film Far and Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.  After a snack and some photo ops, we meandered on through the wee village of Graigue and around the coast with foggy views of the no-longer-inhabited Blasket Islands.

Clogher Head beach
On around Dingle's promontory we rolled into the little town of Dunquin (Duncan) at the tip, where we hoped to learn more about the Blasket Islands and the forced evacuation in 1953 of island fishermen, subsistence farmers, and even a few literary legends who had inhabited the islands for so long.  Unfortunately, the Blasket Centre museum was closed for the season.

View from Dunmore Head
However, we had a filmy view of the islands from the overlook at Dunmore Head, Ireland's westernmost point.  Despite the mist and fog, the scenery was dramatic with powerful waves battering the massive cliffs, sending up gushers of salty spray.  We extended our enjoyment of the view with a picnic lunch before moving on.

Dunbeg Fort
Continuing along the shore on the loop road, now high above the water, we stopped about 1:00 for a visit to Dunbeg Fort, a remnant of Ireland's Iron Age.  When we parked, we marveled at a stonework building aptly called the Stone House.  Even the roof was made of stone.  It appeared to be a restaurant but was not open today.

Stone structure near Dunbeg Fort
Across the road from the structure, we made our way to a tiny trailside hut where we paid our €3 admission to the fort in exchange for a descriptive handout.  Dunbeg, we learned, is a promontory (sea-facing) fort built on a sheer cliff around 1,300 years ago and excavated in the 1970s.

On the way back to the car, we again stopped at the little hut and asked the gatekeeper about the history of the stone house we had seen across the road.  "Guess how old it is," he suggested.  "Built in the 1600s?" I offered.  He chuckled.  "Fifteen years ago," he laughed.  Somehow I had the feeling he'd had this conversation before.

Colorful Dingle street
Completing the Slea Head Loop, we drove back through Dingle town and headed north toward Connor Pass on R-560.  The lookout at the summit of the pass was completely socked in with fog.  As we left the top and continued down the other side, the road suddenly narrowed to about one and a quarter lanes, a bit nerve-wracking on the steep, winding foggy route.

Single lane track through the mountains in the fog
Down at the bottom, the road expanded back to two lanes, the fog was thinner, and we could see to the north a stretch of barren sandy land.  Continuing on around, we were soon overlooking the long beach of Brandon Bay as we approached Stradbally.  We decided to drive north to the highly praised Castlegregory Beach on Tralee Bay.  Having known the sparkling beaches of the Florida panhandle, we found it rather mundane and moved back to N-86 toward Tralee.

King Puck, a legendary goat who warned Killorgin about the approaching Cromwellian army, is honored at an annual festival.
In Tralee, we jostled our way through a late afternoon traffic snarl to the Ashe Hotel and booked a room upon arrival.  As has been the pattern, we were in one of only five rooms occupied tonight.  After unpacking, we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner and enjoyed chatting with our server, Connor, who attended college on a soccer scholarship in Thomasville, Georgia.

After a satisfying meal, we spent the rest of the evening making plans and hotel reservations for the next couple of weeks as we continue up the Irish coast and enter Northern Ireland.  Due to a variety of circumstances, mostly involving the weather, we're beginning to wonder whether we will make it to Scotland as planned.  Maybe for a week or ten days.

Daily Stats:
  • Started in Dingle, ended in Tralee
  • Mileage - 76   (Trip total: 5,877)
  • Weather - 52° to 57°, cloudy and rainy
  • Sunrise - 8:42, Sunset - 4:26 

More Photos from Today

Cross country trail at Clogher Head 
View at Dunmore Head
View from Dunquin
They may be smokeless but they're not odorless.  The scent of burning peat logs is ubiquitous in Irish villages in winter.
Rocky shore below Dunbeg Fort

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Dingle All the Way


Day 16:  Cahirsiveen to Dingle.  After breakfast at the hotel, we filled up the car at the petrol station conveniently located across the street.  When we asked about a refrigerator at check-in last night, we were given a free upgrade to a suite but its refrigerator was unplugged.  Unfortunately, in his eagerness to offer us food preservation convenience, the innkeeper cranked down the fridge's temperature to its lowest setting.  This morning all our food was frozen solid, so we were happy to see a SuperValu market attached to the gas station.  After replacing enough food for lunch, we headed east toward the mainland and Tralee, our intended destination for yesterday.

As we were about to exit the town of Cahersiveen, we reasoned that Tralee was only 42 miles away and decided to head back west about 15 miles to search for a letterbox at the end of the peninsula.  Why?  It wasn't as if we believed we could actually find the box.  Not the way our luck had been running.  Moreover, our complete befuddlement in the search for another letterbox by this same planter yesterday should have dashed any hope of finding this one.  In fact, we had deliberately avoided driving out of the way for this very box yesterday.

Dingle All the Way
But the morning brought new hope (or delusion), so return we did, all the way to Portmagee at the end of the peninsula, where we found ourselves just as mystified by this clue as we were by the one yesterday.  After mucking about in the rain for 20 minutes without success, we suddenly remembered that we had revised our plans last night.  Our place of rest tonight was not Tralee; it was Dingle—only 18 miles away on the next peninsula north if we had a boat or plane.  But we didn't, so we were looking at four or five hours with sightseeing stops along the way.

Back east we went and re-entered Caherciveen just before 11 a.m.  As we drove through town this time, Ken noticed a dentist office on the main street.  This discovery was very meaningful to him because he developed an abscess on his gum a few days ago.  When he discovered it, we communicated by phone with our dentist at home, who advised Ken to take the round of Amoxicillin which we had in our bag of meds and massage the gum in an effort to dislodge any foreign matter, presumably a particle of food lodged between the gum and the tooth. 

The tooth fairy, Dr. Riordan
Of course, from some four thousand miles away, our dentist was understandably concerned about the likelihood of this home road treatment's success.  So when Ken saw Dr. Riordan's office along our path, we decided to stop and see if he could be examined from a bit closer range.  He couldn't have been treated better or more promptly if we had been home.  Yes, the dentist would work him in and did so in short order.  After taking an x-ray and probing, she arrived at the same conclusion—that foreign matter was the culprit.

The fee was a fraction of what we would have paid in the U.S.—$45 for the examination and x-ray and a prescription grade mouthwash.  Our peace of mind greatly improved, we returned to the car and continued on our way back east.  Within a couple of hours, what we assume was the offending particle made its way out of Ken's gum.  Hooray for Dr. Riordan!

Killorglin students walk and talk... and eat
Back on the Ring of Kerry, we drove east to Killorglin, where we saw dozens of secondary school students on lunch break.  Since most Irish schools do not have a cafeteria, or canteen as they are known locally, students either bring lunch from home or walk to a nearby eating establishment for their mid-day meal.  Based on the number of students who were eating as they walked, we assume that the lunch break does not allow for a leisurely meal.

Leprechaun's treasure ahead
From Killorglin, we left the Ring of Kerry and the Iveragh Peninsula, heading to another of Ireland's "Five Fingers," rugged peninsulas carved out of the coastline by the Atlantic.  As we left town, we were treated to the sight of a faint rainbow emerging from the low gray clouds.  Being in Ireland, we were sure there was a pot of gold at its end but the arc faded too quickly for us to have a chance of finding the treasure.

The sandy, shell-covered Inch Beach
As we began our drive out the Dingle Peninsula, we were traversing the northernmost of the "fingers."  The sandy expanse of Inch Beach lured us into a stop, and the car-friendly beach reminded us of St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.  There were no other cars on the beach today, but we could imagine it looking like a crowded parking lot in the summer.  Beachside snack shacks were shuttered for the season, as were the restrooms with sand piled up against the doors.  Only a few feral cats ventured forth to greet us, but they quickly changed their minds when we approached.

On the way to Dingle, the road hung over the water along the hillsides in the style of California's Big Sur and the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia.  Even under the overcast skies, the scenery was pretty spectacular.

Dingle's beautiful coastal highway
Along the way we drove past miles and miles of the patchwork quilt of small Irish fields along the roadside.  Hedgerows in Ireland define property boundaries and mark town and parish borders.  In addition, they offer critical ecological and biodiversity benefits.   Their most obvious use is providing barriers and shelters for sheep and other livestock, but hedgerows serve many other purposes as well.

Even though it is home to one of the least forested landscapes in Europe, Ireland is able to host woodland species of birds, insects and even mammals in mature hedgerows.  Hedgerows also provide wildlife corridors, linking woodland habitats and allowing species to travel from one to another.

Irish patchwork
As wind breaks, hedgerows can lower wind speeds in fields by 30 to 50%.   This shelter benefits both livestock and their pasture land as well as crops.  Seeds germinate faster and thrive because of higher air and soil temperatures.   Hedgerows can also help prevent the spread of airborne diseases, and their root systems regulate water movement and help prevent flooding while filtering the groundwater and improving its quality.   But what's most obvious to visitors is that hedgerows give Ireland a very distinctive landscape character,

Near Dingle, we stopped at Lispole on the shore of Dingle Bay to check out the ruins of Minard Castle, a 16th century Fitzgerald tower house dominating a small hillock over a rocky storm beach piled with rounded sandstone boulders.  Attacked by Cromwell's army in 1650, the four-story castle was reduced to three precarious levels, now closed to visitors due to widening fissures in its walls.

Minard Castle
We rolled into the little town of Dingle (pop. 1,920) just before 4 p.m. and found a cozy room at the Dingle Benners Hotel. Typically for winter, the hotel was mostly empty, but Mrs. Benners Bar was busy serving up a creative dishes made with locally sourced ingredients to a room full of townspeople.  Happy with the convenience and the menu, we enjoyed a relaxing dinner while laying out plans to finally make it to Tralee tomorrow.

Daily Stats:
  • Started in Caherciveen, ended in Dingle
  • Mileage -  94  (Trip total: 5,801)
  • Weather - 53° to 57°, cloudy, rain
  • Sunrise - 8:42, Sunset - 4:26 

More Photos from Today

Inch Beach 
Inch Beach ambassador
Storm beach near Minard Castle
Minard Castle
Lispole cottage

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