Sunday, June 28th, 2009
First of all, I think that is my longest post title ever. This is part two of a three part series on our vacation to Ireland.
Part Two: Castles and Cottages and Cliffs, Oh My!
I neglected to mention in the first installment that the framework of our trip was this: fly into Dublin, rent a car and drive around the southern half of the country, stopping for the night here and there, and loop back to Dublin for a final night before flying out the next morning.
In the middle part of our trip, we stayed two nights in Cork, the second-largest city in Ireland. We didn’t actually spend much time in Cork itself, except to sleep and eat one pizza dinner. Our hotel was a former hospital/nursing home built in the late 1800s, so it had a cool The Shining-esque vibe in the halls (which I loved because The Shining is my favorite scary movie).
This was the cheapest hotel room we stayed in, and yet it was just as nice as the rest and probably my favorite of them all. We walked in expecting something kind of small and dank for the cheap price, and were instead greeted with golden “magic hour” light through enormous arched windows.
By the way, that pre-sunset golden gorgeous time occurred around 9 p.m. in Ireland. We were amazed at how long the daylight lasted – day broke at about 4:30 a.m. and the last light didn’t fade from the sky until after 11 p.m. I think these long days added to the otherworldly quality of our vacation.
Back down in reality, on our main excursion day from Cork, we made a loop up through the towns of Cahir and Cashel in County Tipperary, then across The Vee, a pass through the Knockmealdown Mountains, and through the picturesque town of Lismore on our way back to Cork.
On this one day, we saw four castles, a fabulous restored cottage, a round tower, cathedrals, and more. Is it any wonder my legs were sore the next day?
The first place we stopped was Cahir (pronounced Care, though we jokingly called it Chair), where a castle was built nearly 900 years ago. This was our first up-close look at a real-live Norman castle, and it provided all the fun details – a moat, a working portcullis (the sound of which was recorded for the movie Braveheart), round towers with tiny slit windows and uneven spiral stairs (both for defensive purposes), a great hall with dramatic fossilized giant deer antlers hanging on the wall, and a tunnel you could climb under and up to pop out on the other side of the castle wall to survey one’s queenly domain, including the lovely River Suir (pronounced Shur, though we jokingly called it the River Sewer).
After the castle, we went to see the nearby Swiss Cottage, which members of the Butler family – owners of the castle and lands up through the 1960s – built as a place they could hang out and pretend to be peasants. Building such a cottage ornée was trendy with nobles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Though the idea of pretending to be poor (while keeping your servants nearby) is pretty irritating to think about, the cottage itself is irresistibly charming. Of all the places we saw, I would most want to live in a house like this one. It looks like Papa Smurf’s cottage!
Restored for (I think they said) 5 million pounds in the 1980s after years of neglect (it was even being used as a stable for a local farmer for a while), it has a curving thatched roof, hand-painted wallpaper in the tea room, and a floor inlaid with walnut to look like a spiderweb.
One of the themes of a cottage ornée was to be in tune with nature, so – just as in nature – no two things in the house are alike, and nothing is as it seems. In a room, even if two windows look the same, one opens out and one opens in.
Outside, the house is surrounded by flowers and trees, and it’s only steps away from the River Suir. I hated to leave it. I wanted to move right in.
Alas, we still had places to go and old stuff to see. A short drive away was the town of Cashel, home of the Rock of Cashel, where St. Patrick supposedly converted the king of Munster to Christianity in the 5th century A.D. I was already so worn out I didn’t know if I even cared about touring another castle-type place. I also didn’t know what to expect – was this just a big rock or what?
When the Rock of Cashel came into view, I suddenly felt a second wind. Perched on a hill above the town is a walled site, chock full of amazing stone ruins. A 900-year-old round tower, a chapel of similar age, a cathedral, a castle, and a cemetery full of dramatic high crosses. At one point, you can see the jagged remains of a square tower and on the ground below it, the enormous chunk of stones that was once its top corner.
There’s plenty of fascinating stuff to see within the walls, but – perhaps even better – you can see fabulous views of the green countryside all around. If you have to be buried, is there any more beautiful place to do it?
After we finally left beautiful Cashel – regretfully, slowly, casting lots of glances backward – we headed to the mountain road known as The Vee. There, more beauty awaited us. All over the mountainside were enormous round bushes covered with purple flowers. We stopped at a stone bridge across a stream to take photos, but had to flee quickly because we were attacked by stinging black gnats.
Farther up the mountain, we stopped again. And again. And again. One thing about Ireland, they know how to appreciate a good view. Though the road is narrow and winding, wherever there is a particularly dramatic view, there’s always a broad roadside pull-over spot, some of them marked with convenient signs like “Castle View.”
On the other side of the mountains, we came to the town of Lismore, where there’s an attractive castle overlooking a river. This castle is still inhabited as a summer home by some duke and duchess of somewhere, so it’s not available for tours (you can tour the garden, but we were more in the mood for dinner). We did walk out on the bridge to get a view of the castle … and pretend for a moment that we owned the place.
After that, we retreated to the pub for some “pub grub” – Irish stew for D and fish and chips for me – where we chickened out of mingling with the locals. Then we drove back to Cork, where – after getting lost about 17 times – we finally caught some sunset views of the Blackrock Castle Observatory.
The next day, we left Cork and drove down to the Beara Peninsula. One of “the” things to do in Ireland is drive the Ring of Kerry, but I read in my guidebook (Pauline Frommer’s Ireland: Spend Less, See More, a very useful book) that the locals she’s spoken to prefer the nearby Beara Peninsula because it has similar views, it’s shorter, and you’re almost guaranteed not to see a tour bus.
We spent nearly 5 hours on the Beara Peninsula, so I can’t imagine how long the Ring of Kerry would’ve taken! The long trip was worth it, though. I’ve never seen a more rugged, beautiful, amazing place in all my life. Look to the left, you see blue-water coves and waves crashing against cliffs; look to the right, you see massive gray rocks bursting up from the countryside, and sheep grazing precariously on them. The roads are tiny and insanely curvy as they weave around all the zillion inlets of the peninsula, and we were very grateful for the lack of traffic! By the end, we were stiff-necked from taking in the views and tensely navigating the roads.
The tip of the peninsula was my favorite spot. There, we climbed around on the cliffs – one wrong step away from plummeting to our deaths … well, okay, I stayed pretty far back from the edge. Still, it was amazing to be the only people out there in that incredible place, completely isolated at the edge of the Atlantic. Out there, the wild gusts of wind were chilly and almost strong enough to propel a person backward. The water was midnight blue in the deep places and seafoam green in the shallows.
When D could finally drag me away from that spot, we finished driving the peninsula and back into Killarney National Park in time to catch some of the lush green mountain and valley views before dark. Afterward, we had dinner in Killarney (roasted lamb for D and shepherd’s pie for me) and made it to our hotel in Tralee just in time to go to bed. I was hoping to hang out in the hotel bar that night for a while, but it was already closing by the time we got there. That turned out to be a good thing. The last thing we needed the next morning was a hangover …
See the thrilling conclusion to our Ireland saga in Part Three: Swine Flu?, coming soon.