Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Irish Midlands

Continuing with the regional theme of my Ireland posts, The Irish Midlands comprises Counties Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Offaly, Roscommon, Tipperary, and Westmeath. In this case, we only spent one day & night in Cashel, which is in South Tipperary. As far as I know, we did not even cross the boundaries of the other counties in this region as they pretty much are in the middle of the country and we mostly drove a clockwise circle around the perimeter of the island.
County map of Ireland from Joyce's Walking Tours
After leaving Kilkenny we drove west on the R691 towards Cashel. As we quickly discovered, the R (regional) roads vary greatly in condition and use. Sometimes they are completely unmarked (ie. no lines), are very narrow to the point where you have to pull off on a non-existent shoulder (ie. with shrubbery scraping your doors) to let another vehicle pass you going the opposite direction, have blind curves, and are heavily used by trucks and tractors thus making it slow going. Amazingly, the speed limit on these roads is 80kph/50mph but I often was far more comfortable driving 50kph or about 31mph.
a view of the scaffolding-covered Rock of Cashel as we walked up from our B&B
Upon our arrival in the cozy town of Cashel, we checked into Wattie's B&B where we would be the only guests for the night. As we had just enough time to walk up to the Rock of Cashel before it closed for the day and the weather was pretty clear, we went ahead as you never know when it will be rainy & dreary once again.
Greg reads the Rick Steves guidebook to find out about more about Cormac's Chapel and its Romanesque wall paintings (c1134)
We used our Heritage Cards to gain free entrance to the site, then watched a brief video before using our Rick Steves' guidebook to conduct our own self-guided tour. The "Rock" is currently undergoing some much-needed restoration work as the damp and blustery conditions are taking their toll on the almost 900-year-old buildings. After a thorough exploration of the site, we were the last visitors to leave at closing time.
the Rock of Cashel sits high above the Plains of Tipperary
We walked back downhill and after having a brief look around town, settled in for dinner at Fahy's, recommended by Maria, the owner of our B&B. Wanting to eat some "local" food, I ordered the Tipperary Bacon & Cabbage which turned out to be three huge slices of 1/4' thick ham on top of dark green cabbage, served with carrots, spaghetti squash, mashed potatoes & peas -- more than enough for two people! Ditto for Greg's All Irish Tipperary mixed grill which featured a pork chop, two sausages, two slices of grilled ham, fried eggs, blood sausage and a side of chips (fries). We washed it all down with a pint of Guinness and a pint of Smithwick's for a grand total of 30EUR or about $42. We vowed to start ordering one entree and sharing it after seeing the huge portion sizes!
a Tipperary meal at Fahy's
After returning to the B&B, we did some trip planning in our room and then hiked up to the Rock again once it got dark to take some photos of it illuminated at night. Unfortunately with all the construction scaffolding surrounding the site the pictures aren't perfect, but it was still nice to get some exercise and fresh air after our heavy meal!
Rock of Cashel at night
We got a good night's sleep and Maria fixed us a cooked-to-order breakfast of omelets, toast, cereal, juice, coffee, tea, etc. That is one of the big advantages of staying at B&B's; a full breakfast is included in the nightly rate and it is always filling enough that you can skip lunch and just eat dinner, which also saves money.
I borrowed this photo of the Swiss Cottage from Greg, as I didn't take my camera (you couldn't take photos inside)
After leaving Cashel, we stopped in Caher, also on Maria's recommendation, to tour the Swiss Cottage. Again, this is a place we never would have visited (ie. paid extra to see) but with our Heritage Cards we got in free. It was peaceful and scenic and different, and since it was not out of our way, we were glad we stopped.

The link to all of my photos from Cashel is embedded in this post's title.

Southeast Ireland

Technically the region called Southeast Ireland is comprised of Counties Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny, and Carlow; but as we did not spend any time in Wexford or Waterford and only briefly passed through Carlow but did visit a major sight in County Wicklow when we left Dublin, I will include it in this post.

After picking up our rental car on the outskirts of Dublin, it was a fairly easy drive out of the city to connect to the R755 then R756 to Glendalough.. We had purchased an Ordnance Survey Complete Road Atlas of Ireland for 9.99EUR at one of the tourist offices in town to better navigate our way around the country. We also brought our Rick Steves' Ireland 2011 guidebook to help us focus on the "best" sights and regions.
St Kevin's Church at Glendalough
 As it was raining off & on all day, we had to don our full waterproof gear for our sightseeing stop at Glendalough, an early Christian ecclesiastical settlement founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. We probably wouldn't have driven this way if it wasn't for our Heritage Card, which gave us free admission to this site. The visitor center was very well designed and had nice, interactive exhibits on the history of the area. We also enjoyed watching a short video about the settlement before taking a guided tour (in the rain).
a model of Glendalough in its prime
We then crossed the scenic, sheep-covered Wicklow Mountains and headed south to Kilkenny. Although we planned to stay in B&B's for most of the trip, I had booked us a room at the Aspect Hotel Kilkenny, primarily because of a great deal I discovered on their website. For a total of 77EUR, we got a standard room with full Irish hot & cold buffet breakfast, a 3-course dinner for 2 people in the hotel's restaurant and 2 complimentary beverages (alcoholic or non). Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at the hotel, I had a migraine which I think was caused by the changes in altitude and weather we encountered throughout the day as well as the stress of driving. But I still managed to eat my delicious dinner and drink a glass of wine before taking a Zomig (prescription migraine medicine) and calling it a night!
sheep grazing at Glendalough
Thankfully I woke up headache-free the next morning and after eating our heavy Irish breakfast we checked out of the hotel and drove into town. Based on advice in our guidebook, we parked in a centrally located lot then walked from one end of town to the other to see the sights. There isn't really much to see or do in Kilkenny but it is a cute place for a quick look around.
13th century St Canice's Cathedral
St Canice's Cathedral was first on our list, but the primary reason we wanted to visit it was to climb the round tower and as it was closed due to an electrical outage, we decided to skip paying 4EUR each to go into the cathedral itself (which is not included on the Heritage Card). We walked across town and after a brief stop at the Smithwick's Brewery where it is free to look at exhibits narrating the history of the brewery but a tour costs 10EUR per person (which is a bit steep in our opinion), we continued on to Kilkenny Castle to which we gained free admission with our Heritage Cards. We took the self-guided tour and listened to a 20 minute talk in the famous Portrait Hall then walked back to our car, conveniently parked near a Dunnes Store, where we bought a bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey for the long road ahead. :)
Kilkenny Castle
The link to all of my photos for Glendalough & Kilkenny is embedded in this post's title.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Highlights of Dublin

We always intended to start our tour of Ireland in Dublin, as it would give us an opportunity to recover from any jet-lag before negotiating a left-handed manual transmission vehicle on the left side of the road. Also, Greg & I have both visited Dublin previously; him with his brothers in December, 2007, and me on layovers as a Delta flight attendant. We originally planned to spend 3-4 nights in the city but when our trip was delayed by Hurricane Irene, we modified that to only 2 nights.
a double-decker bus on busy O'Connell Street
Always mindful of our budget, we opted to take the local double-decker bus (2.30EUR) from the airport to the city center as opposed to paying 6EUR each for the more direct airport shuttles. We also stayed in a hostel (private room, shared bath) for 55EUR per night versus 70-80EUR for a hotel.
our hostel, Litton Lane is in this alley on the left
Since our flight landed at 6:30AM, we were at the hostel by 9:30 but then had to wait in the lounge until our room was clean. Of course, we were exhausted by this point, so took a much-needed 3 hour nap. We hit the streets in the rain and walked all the way to Kilmanhaim Gaol where we just got in on the last tour of the day. We purchased a Heritage Card for 21EUR each which grants us free admission to all of the fee-paying State managed OPW Heritage Sites located throughout the country for one year. I will elaborate more on how much money this saved us over the course of our trip in a later blog post.
"East Wing" of Kilmanhaim Gaol
One of the most enjoyable things to do in Dublin is sit in a pub and watch the world go by. Of course, this is never a problem for us and on the first evening we managed to hit a couple of good ones: The Brazen Head and The Porterhouse (which brews their own beers). As it was already 10PM, we then headed back to the hostel, enjoying the sounds of live music as we walked through the Temple Bar neighborhood.
After a good night's rest we focused on more sightseeing and beer drinking the following day. Dressed in full rain gear to combat the off-again, on-again showers, we strolled the grounds at Trinity College before visiting the excellent, FREE National Museum of Ireland. We passed through St. Stephen's Green, then walked by but opted not to pay to enter St. Patrick's and Christ Church Cathedrals since we had both seen them before. We did use our Heritage Cards to enter St. Audoens and then to tour Dublin Castle. We also visited the wonderful, FREE Chester Beatty Library before cooling our heels at The Long Hall, an authentic Victorian heritage pub. After eating a budget Indian dinner near Grafton Street, we settled into Mssrs Maguire which has an in-house craft brewery.
The Long Hall
That was about all that we managed to squeeze into our short 48 hours in Dublin. Of course, there are enough sights (and bars!) in the city to warrant a longer stay, but we wanted to get out into the country to visit places neither of us had ever been before. More on those in my upcoming posts...

The link to all of my Dublin photos is embedded in this post's title.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sun, wind, rain -- that's Ireland!

As of today we have been in Ireland for 12 full days. Greg & I have both been writing about our daily activities each evening before we go to bed, but we are usually too tired to truly write an effective blog post. Thus I have not posted since we were in Charlotte airport ready to depart to Dublin!
the first pub we visited in Dublin
The trip is going well overall. The scenery is breathtaking and it's great to spend some time in the small towns versus big cities. However, you cannot underestimate how tiring it can be to move from place to place every day, especially when that involves driving for a few hours on narrow, windy roads. I've already driven over 1200 kms (left-hand manual transmission) and we're only about halfway around the country!
driving the Ring of Kerry
I think we have been very lucky with the weather. While it did rain part of the time we were in Dublin, most of the day we passed through Glendalough and the Wicklow Mountains, the day we stopped in Cobh/the night we arrived in Kinsale, and it absolutely poured at Staigue Fort and our first night in Dingle and has been raining pretty steadily for the past 24 hours; otherwise, despite Hurricane Katia's visit bringing with it 120kph winds, it has been beautiful! Temps average 14C/57F during the day and just a bit cooler at night.
view from the Rock of Cashel over the Plains of Tipperary
We always carry our full (jackets & pants) Goretex rain gear as well as beanies, gloves, waterproof pack covers, etc. and are usually wearing our fleece jackets. The only clothes we brought are long-sleeve pullover polyester shirts and the same travel pants we took on our RTW trip (virtually everything purchased from REI, our favorite outfitter). All of our clothes are lightweight, breathable, quick-drying, etc. -- perfect when you sometimes have to do laundry in the bathroom sink!
brace yourself - at Dun Aenghus on Inis Mor, Aran Islands
I have written most of this post while on the Aran Island of Inis Mor (Inishmore). We traveled here by ferry on the 15th (leaving the car behind in Rossaveal) and rented bikes to tour the 9 mile long by 2 mile wide island. Of course, we did not cover the whole island, but did ride about 10 miles round trip to visit Dun Aenghus, a dramatically-located prehistoric fortress which is now slowly crumbling into the ocean far below. This is a great place to "escape" for a few days!
making friends on Inis Mor
Well, it is time to pack up and drive from Westport to Donegal. I will try to post more about the places we've visited asap.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Another attempt at our honeymoon

As most of you probably know by now, Greg & I tried to fly standby on Delta to get to Ireland last Sunday (one week ago today). Due to the predicted effects of Hurricane Irene, all New York City airports were closed so our only option was to fly from Nashville to Atlanta and then try to get on any available flight to Europe. I say Europe, not Ireland, because Delta only operates one daily flight to Dublin (departing after 9pm) and it was looking quite full in the reservations system. Since we arrived in Atlanta around 11am, there was no reason not to start trying to get on any earlier international flights that might have seats available.

With the help of an extremely nice International Ticketing Agent in the E-concourse, we changed our one-way tickets to Dusseldorf, Germany. When all revenue passengers had boarded the plane, there were only a few seats left so only a couple of standby passengers got on. We then went through the same process at the ticket counter and had the destination changed to Brussels, Belgium. This time we actually got cleared at the last minute and even boarded the plane, but then due to a miscalculation of available seats by the gate agent, had to get back off! Our third attempt was to Manchester, UK, which required crossing the entire airport from the E concourse to the T concourse. This was also a close call, as it appeared we would get the last available seats, but then at the absolute last minute some revenue passengers showed up and claimed them!
Greg drinking a vodka martini in the Delta Sky Club in ATL. Thanks to my mom for the passes as they really made our long day more bearable!
After returning to the E concourse I was going to have the tickets reissued to Dublin, but by that point the flight was clearly overbooked and we had no hope of getting on. Instead of taking our chances and then possibly have to overnight at an airport hotel, and considering that all flights to Europe looked just as full all week long, we decided to cut our losses and catch the last flight back to Nashville. We landed around 11pm.

That was our first attempt(s) at departing for our honeymoon. We got some sleep and reconsidered our options and ultimately decided to use my Continental OnePass miles to purchase two one-way tickets from Nashville to Dublin (via Charlotte) for travel today. Of course we would have preferred to leave sooner, but all flights on all airlines were pretty full thus ticket prices were no less than $700 per person the entire week. I was able to use 30,000 miles per person plus $75 per ticket in fees and another $70 to purchase the balance of miles I needed so we now have confirmed coach seats for a total of 60,000 miles and $230.

I am writing this post from Charlotte International Airport. We landed around 10am and then my aunt & uncle picked us up and took us to brunch at Rock Bottom Brewery in downtown Charlotte. Yes, we were both quite tempted to drink beer, but knew we had a long day ahead of us so decided to wait. When we returned to the airport around 2pm, we killed the first hour at Carolina Beer Company. But then we found out our beers cost $7.50 so we only had one each!

In less than an hour we will board our flight to Dublin. We are excited to finally be on our way and looking forward to a change of scenery and climate plus just relaxing and drinking good beer!

One final note; in today's Tennessean (newspaper), the winners of the 2011 Vacation Photo Contest were publicly announced. I won 4th place (Judges' Choice) and a trip to Tunica, Mississippi! My winning entry is pictured below and the link to all the winners is embedded in this post's title. What's funny is that the editor who called to "interview" me for the article did not ask me about Greg's last name (nor did I know he would even be mentioned). Thus, he is listed as Greg SMARTT instead of Greg LaRowe!!!