Sunday, December 20, 2015

Slán Go Fóill, Ireland


Days 18, 19 & 20:  Tralee to Limerick to Dublin.  When we awoke to rain Friday morning, we decided to wait it out.  We had only about 65 miles to go for the day, and we were in no hurry.  By the time we left around 10, the sun was trying to peek out, but dark gray clouds lingered overhead.

The night before we had booked reservations for the next two weeks through January 2 in Belfast.  As we looked at the dates, we realized that we would need to do something about our rental car.  Though rental companies always offer an optional collision damage waiver (CDW) for an extra fee, most credit card companies provide this coverage if the rental is paid with their credit card.  In certain countries—namely Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, and New Zealand—many cards do not offer coverage, and the consumer is left to pay the rental company’s pricey CDW fee, which can increase the rental cost by 30% or more.

Because we are aware of this exemption (and readily understand the reason for it since we’ve snapped off wing mirrors on rental cars in both Ireland and Italy), we are studious about the coverage our Visa Sapphire card offers.  Yes, it does cover rentals in these countries but only for a rental lasting no more than 30 days.  Since we picked up our car on December 1, we will exceed the 30 days before leaving Ireland.  Though we are in our third car, we’re still on the original contract.

As Ken was driving us toward Limerick, I was searching for a good rate for our new rental.  Since we’d be dropping off the car in Dublin, we had to be careful to pick it up in the Republic of Ireland.  We couldn’t start the new rental in Northern Ireland (another country—the UK) or we’d be hit with a massive international drop-off fee in Dublin.

For some reason, the rates I was finding were triple (or more) the rate on our current rental.  Finally, we just decided this was a sign.  Maybe Ireland was becoming Tireland and it was time to move on to Scotland.

By the time we reached Limerick, I had cancelled all our reservations beyond there.  The same bookings we had spent two and a half hours planning the night before.  Most of these cancellations required a phone call, and for once our cell signal was strong the entire trip.  Another sign.

We arrived at the Absolute Hotel in Limerick in time for lunch at the Absolute Bar and Grill.  The food was absolutely delicious, and by the time we were finished, our room was ready.  With the assistance of the cordial Katie at the front desk, we upgraded for a bargain price to a two-room suite so we would have a bathtub in addition to the walk-in shower.  She assigned us to a corner suite on the top floor with a little balcony overlooking the River Shannon.  Very spacious and clean, it was missing only a refrigerator, but the air temp was cool enough to store our refrigerated goods on the balcony.

Absolute Bar and Grill
Once we were settled in the room, we began making reservations for Scotland—flying to Edinburgh on December 21, as originally planned, and spending five nights in an apartment in Old Town.  After a salad in our room, we called it a night.

King John's Castle
On Saturday we relaxed a bit, worked on the blog, reorganized our plans, and took a walk on King's Island in the heart of Limerick.  The island sits in the River Shannon and takes its name from King John's Castle, built on the island by the English in the year 1200.  It remains one of the best preserved Norman fortifications in Europe.

Curraghgower Singers
Usually open to the general public, the castle was hosting a medieval Christmas festival.  Admission was only for ticket holders of that event.  As part of the day's festival performances, the Curraghgower Singers were dressed in period costume and performing traditional Christmas carols in front of the castle.  Formed in 2011, the Singers combined two local choirs to perform secular and religious music both locally and abroad.

St. Mary's Cathedral
Near the castle we saw St. Mary's Cathedral, which has stood in the center of the city for nine centuries. Commissioned by Domhnall Mor O'Brien around 1168, it is located on the site of a one-time Viking Parliament and later a royal palace of the Kings of Munster.

Canada Geese--they're everywhere!
On the riverfront, we came across yet another example of proof that you cannot escape the pests that Canada Geese have become no matter where you go.  We have seen them before in the Netherlands and in France.  And today, in Ireland.  Fortunately this time they were in the form of an 8-foot sculpture called "Wild Geese" created by father and son sculptors from Virginia, David and William Turner.  In Irish history, the term Wild Geese refers to Irish soldiers who served in the armies of other European countries after being exiled from Ireland, often for their support of the Irish independence movement.  Today Irish people living in various countries sometimes form a local Wild Geese Society to promote social and cultural connections with fellow Irish ex-pats.

Plans complete, all we needed to do on Sunday was drive most of the way across the country to reach Dublin.  Fortunately it was only 120 miles, all of it on the M7, the longest motorway in Ireland.  Exits, or junctions as they are called here, are numbered sequentially rather than by mileage as on US interstates.  A little past halfway we stopped at Junction 14 Mayfield, a rest area and so much more.  Independently owned, the service area aims to give motorists a place to "relax, recharge, and refuel."  To accomplish those goals, the complex includes a grocery convenience store, a coffee shop, several fast food outlets, a restaurant, and restroom areas all under one roof.  Outside there is a petrol station.  Though it was quite busy, we found the concept very appealing.  

Junction 14 Mayfield near Kildare, Ireland
By the time we reached the Doubletree Hotel in Dublin, we were very glad we were traveling through the city center on Sunday.  Traffic was bumper to bumper, and like our first day here, it took almost an hour to drive through commercial areas.

As we prepare to fly to Edinburgh tomorrow morning, we marveled at the weather on our last full day in Ireland.  As often as we have seen rain and wind and storm clouds in the past 20 days, today, when we had no sightseeing plans, the sun was beaming overhead in a blue sky.  Go figure.

Sunny skies over the M7
Chapter Stats:  (3 days)
  • Started in Tralee, ended in Dublin
  • Mileage - 198 mi.   (Trip total:  6,142)
  • Weather - 43° to 59°, cloudy, windy, rainy 

More Photos

Thomond Bridge near the castle, built in 1840
Former toll house for the Thomond Bridge, now available as a vacation rental 
The imposing King John's Castle
Sun setting in Limerick

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

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