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11.25.2012

The Emerald Isle - Part Seven

Even though I felt that we hadn't quite given Dublin it's due the day before, we decided not to give the city another try on our last day, but rather to proceed with a day trip we had planned before we left. En route, we stopped for breakfast with our friends in an attempt to squeeze in one more outing with them before we both left for home. Abel had selected a local branch of Avoca (the same restaurant chain we had dined at on our first day in Ireland, bringing the trip full circle, in a sense) as our venue, since it is apparently one of his favorite restaurants.

We were a bit late getting underway in the morning, and as if that wasn't enough to trigger my anxiety, once we were in the car once more, I discovered that the location Abel had selected wasn't listed under Avoca, or by the address, or by basically any other search term I could conjure up in our GPS. I frantically searched, eventually turning to my Blackberry in desperation, and just as I was about to start crying in frustration, I finally found an alternate name for that particular location, and when we plugged it into our GPS, it finally spit out a route.

Our misadventures en route to Avoca had not ended, however. When we exited the highway, we were reassured that we could see the giant building (which contains a shop where the handweavers who created the chain sell their wares in addition to other gifts, as well as a food hall) just on the opposite side of a traffic roundabout. However, when we followed the GPS' directions, we soon found ourselves back on the highway!

Once we were back on the road, the device promptly notified us that we had arrived, and shut off. I scrambled to reenter the location so we could navigate back from the next exit, at which point the GPS asked us if we wanted to walk, as if we could just abandon our car in the middle of the expressway, hop the fence, and saunter into the restaurant. I managed to get it reprogrammed, and we finally arrived at Avoca, seriously late, but still in time for brunch.

Convening with my friends over breakfast reminded me of all the weekend brunches we shared back at Wohl Center during college, even with all the new faces. The only difference was that the food was significantly better; both Justin and I enjoyed a final full Irish, though this time, the offerings were slightly more upscale -- chive and herb scrambled eggs, bacon, sage pork sausage, a cooked tomato, and exceptionally good brown bread.

Aside from the quality of the food, it was especially nice to have some quality time to catch up with Abel and Sinead without the stress of the wedding looming over them. Humorously, we learned that they had all ordered pizza delivery from Domino's the night before as well. Perhaps my intense pizza craving was the result of some sort of psychic bond with them, or else there was just some sort of pizza zeitgeist moment that night.

Katie and Katherine took their leave the moment they were done eating, and none too soon, really, considering they needed to get to the airport and they hadn't sprung for a GPS for their rental. It was sad to part with our friends, both old and new. Ben and Becky seemed like a nice couple; perhaps we will meet with them again. After all, they only live in Michigan. As for Abel and Sinead, I am infinitely grateful that we were able to be present for their special day, but who knows when fate will conspire for us to see each other again? It's not exactly a happy thought...

Back in our trusty VW Golf, we laid in a route to Newgrange, a neolithic burial site and solar observatory of sorts. It is one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Ireland, the other being the Giant's Causeway to the north, and since we couldn't make it there, I at least wanted to visit Newgrange.

Our GPS troubles, it seemed, were not over for the day. As we neared Newgrange, it seemed to be guiding us away from the direction indicated by all the signs posted along the road. Eventually, as we wound through the increasingly rural countryside, we decided it would be smarter to turn back back and follow the posted signs, so we pulled a U-turn and made our way to the visitors' center without further incident. We eventually deduced that the GPS was trying to take us directly to the site itself, however, access to the site can be only be obtained via the bus that leaves from the visitors' center. It was a good thing we'd followed our instincts.

We made it onto the 2:15 tour, and a short ride deposited us at the site. The burial mound itself was very impressive and much larger than I had realized. I was a bit disappointed, however, to learn that much of what one sees to day is the result of a 20th century restoration by Irish archaeologist Michael O'Kelly. Prior to that, the mound consisted mainly of a pile of dirt surrounded by thousands upon thousands of rocks. O'Kelly reassembled the site according to his best educated guess, and the results are what we see today. Though it took longer than 70 years for neolithic man to build Newgrange without the benefit of wheels or metal tools, it only took O'Kelly and his team 13 years to reconstruct it.


The structure consists of a circle of monumental stones called kerbstones, which form a ring around a circular wall made of white quartz and granite stones that were brought from all over Ireland. The wall contains a tall, earthen mound that consists of an estimated 200,000 tons of dirt and stone. On one side, a highly decorated kerbstone covered in carved spirals, wavy lines, and diamonds marks the entrance. Our tour guide offered us a few explanations for the meaning of the carving, but the one I found to be the most compelling was that it depicted a map of the area.

Though Newgrange is the only reconstructed tomb, the only one that can be entered by tourists today, and the only one with a relationship to the movement of the sun, there are two other large mounds in the vicinity called Knowth and Douth. These three mounds could be represented by the three connected spirals. Two smaller spirals could be two smaller burial locations nearby that are still visible today, the wavy lines could be the nearby River Boyne, and the diamonds could represent fields in the surrounding farmland. It made sense to me.

After the tour guide concluded her main remarks, we were divided into two groups in order to enter the mound. Past the decorated kerbstone, a narrow, low-ceilinged passageway lined in stone led us back and up about 60 feet into the mound, providing a claustrophobic reminder that ancient humans were much smaller than we are today owing to poor nutrition. If it hadn't been for the artificial lights, there would have been complete darkness.

At the end of the passage was a small chamber, constructed in somewhat of a cruciform shape, with each terminal containing a niche with a smoothly carved stone basin. Cremation was the funeral method of choice in those times, and the three basins contained ash, bone fragments, and funerary offerings. The space above them was used for decorative geometric carvings.

The whole chamber was roofed over with a corbelled stone dome, which manages to both support the tremendous weight of the earth above and keep the chamber below completely waterproof through careful angling of the stones and small drainage channels. Considering Newgrange was built some 5200 years ago, 500 years before the time of the pyramids, by a culture with no other surviving buildings, its inhabitants seem to have possessed a fairly sophisticated knowledge of architecture. It's worth noting that the inside of the chamber has not been reconstructed; it has remained in near-perfect condition, save for the graffiti added by 18th and 19th century tourists.


Inside the chamber, the guide had us huddle close together for a light show that would simulate the most important feature of Newgrange. Over the entrance, there is a small aperture called a roof box. On the winter solstice, the sun is at just the right point in the sky that its rays travel through the roof box and into the chamber, illuminating the space within. It is unknown whether the culture who built it were sun worshipers, and if this illumination held some sort of sacred meaning, or if they merely needed information about the movements of the sun and its related seasons because they were farmers. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Today there is such a demand to experience the authentic spectacle that the site's administrators hold a lottery every year in which former visitors to Newgrange can enter for a chance to win one of ten spots (and the privilege to invite a friend) to be inside the chamber for the solstice. Even the fake version had a soothing, spiritual quality to it, so I can see why it is so popular.

By the time we left, it was already starting to get dark, so we headed back to Dublin to ensure that we would be back in plenty of time for the 7:30 dinner reservation we'd booked with the front desk staff earlier that morning. We'd told them we wanted to do something special for our last night in Ireland, and I didn't want to be late.

I should have known something was amiss when I had asked the lady for something nice, and she recommended the hotel restaurant. When I declined her initial suggestion, she recommended a dinner show at another hotel, complete with live Irish music and dancing. Though Irish dancing has never appealed to me (not even during the height of Riverdance's popularity back in the 90s, she assured us that it would be very nice and that the food would be excellent, so we took her up on her suggestion.

Back at the hotel, we changed into some nicer clothes (though we would soon discover that there had been no need for that), and started on our way. It had started raining in earnest while we were driving back from Newgrange, so we were glad that we were able to reach the restaurant via the Luas, Dublin's streetcar system, and avoid another long slog on foot into the city.

The restaurant wasn't hard to find, but the moment we walked inside, I knew we hadn't gotten what we'd asked for. I had envisioned an elegant, romantic dinner with memorable food. What we got was a glorified pub, packed wall-to-wall with casually dressed tourists -- not a local in sight save for the waitstaff. The only thing that kept me from turning around and leaving was the fact that we didn't know where to find a nicer place, I didn't want to have to locate one in the downpour outside, and probably wouldn't have been able to get seated without a reservation anyway. I was crestfallen.

Even with a pint of Guiness in hand, you can see the misery in Justin's eyes.
The menu consisted of a three course fixed-proce selection, and when our food arrived not a minute after we'd ordered, I quickly surmised that everything was already made up in the back, catering style. While acceptable, the food was far from memorable, but as for ambiance, there was none. We were crammed into a table between a large group of raucous, drunken Brits from Lancashire, and a group of Scottish grannies celebrating one of their birthdays.

Once the entertainment started, we couldn't even hear ourselves think, much less engage in conversation. The band, while not untalented, was singing from a playlist specifically tailored to tourists, with such selections as "Kiss Me, I'm Irish," a song that they admitted to learning from an American band they saw on Youtube. As soon as they went on break and they started setting up the stage for the dancers, we paid our check and got out of there as fast as we could.

As we stood in the pouring rain, waiting for the Luas, the mood was dour, and hardly what I had hoped for on the last evening of an otherwise outstanding voyage. We had learned our lesson; next time we're on vacation and we want to go somewhere quiet and romantic to serve as a capstone to our experience, not a tourist trap, we're going to tell the concierge that we're celebrating our anniversary.

Once we settled into our room for the evening, we started the packing process and tried to focus on the positive, in spite of our experience at dinner. Our first international vacation had been, by and large, a success. We not only survived, but we managed to get along the vast majority of the time, and we saw some incredible sights. We spent quality time with each other, and with great friends. We celebrated the love of Abel and Sinead as well as our own.

I will always remember and treasure this incredible time in our lives, and will remain grateful that the circumstances of our lives made this journey possible. We are so very, very lucky. I can't wait to see what adventure life has in store for us next...

11.24.2012

The Emerald Isle - Part Six

When we had finally made it to bed in the wee hours of the morning, it had seemed like a good idea at the time to not set an alarm. However, when the gloomy day sent no sunshine through the cracks in our curtains, there was nothing to rouse me from my slumber until after 10:30 in the morning. By the time we were both showered and ready to go, it was almost noon and we had wasted half of our only day in Dublin.

According to Google Maps, it was only supposed to be a 25 minute walk into the city center from our hotel, and the map we secured from the front desk quoted 15 minutes, so we made the decision to walk along the Liffey River to the lively Temple Bar neighborhood in search of food. Temple Bar is a restaurant and nightlife hub not far from Trinity College and the other sites we were hoping to see, so it seemed like a safe bet to us.

However, as we walked and walked along the relatively un-scenic quay with no sign of anything promising on the horizon. I started to get nervous. A look at the hotel map, which provided historic buildings as landmarks, appeared to indicate that somehow, we had overshot our target, so we headed further south to see if we could run into Temple Bar. The area we encountered, unfortunately, didn't seem thriving with eateries so much as locals shopping at street markets. It was clear that we were totally lost. The lack of street signs or street numbers wasn't helping our cause, and we hit upon a perfect storm of my stressors -- being lost and being hungry -- that conspired to put me in a foul mood.

Eventually, our study of the map caused us to guess that despite the considerable distance we had traversed, we might  not have walked far enough. We headed west, praying we were on the right track, and finally, I saw a steeple in the distance that I surmised to be that of Christchurch Cathedral, so we headed toward it. As it turned out, I was mistaken, as a reading of the sign on the building revealed, but by the time we had walked to it, I saw the unmistakable tower of an even bigger church even further down the street that just had to be it.

At last, I was correct, and from Christchurch Cathedral, we were finally to navigate to Temple Bar. By the time got there, I was extremely grumpy and Justin was so hungry that he was shutting down. As a result, we wandered the neighborhood without anything standing out to us, and unable to make a decision. Down a side street, a sign for an Indonesian restaurant called Chameleon caught my eye. For one, I'd never eaten that particular cuisine before, which piqued my foodie curiosity. Secondly, I'd seen Anthony Bourdain eat it on an episode of No Reservations, and it isn't often that I get the chance to do anything that Bourdain has done, even if we weren't in the right country. Lastly, I was getting sick of fish and chips, and their menu would offer something different.

Normally, when I travel, I observe a strict rule that I only eat the foods of the nation I'm in and exclude ethnic foods, i.e. French food in France, Italian food in Italy, and Spanish food in Spain, not Italian food in Germany, or Chinese food pretty much anywhere besides at home. I try to strive for authenticity in my dining experiences, but in that moment, I was ready for an adventure within our larger Irish adventure. After all, Dublin is a cosmopolitan city where the ethnic eateries seemingly outnumber the non-pub restaurants.

Chameleon offers a rijsttafel, a style of dining invented by the Dutch when they controlled Indonesia as a colonial power. It consists of numerous small dishes, served with rice and meant to be shared. We ordered an enormous seven-course feast that included beef rendang, one of the most traditional Indonesian dishes which was essentially a spicy beef coconut curry. It reminded me too much of Indian food, which I can't stand, and I much preferred the stir-fried noodles in a ginger-soy sauce.

There were delicious skewers of chicken satay and crispy pork wontons, a heaping plate of chicken wings in a spicy-sweet glaze, and a refreshing salad of mango, pineapple, and greens in a sesame dressing that was a perfect palate cleanser, as were the assorted pickled vegetables that graced the table as one of the many condiments that came with the meal. Perhaps the greatest surprise to me was the excellent wok-seared cabbage, even though I don't normally care for the vegetable.

Yes, it was an expensive meal at 65€, the priciest of the trip so far, but the food was both bountiful and delicious, the experience was unique, and the surroundings were quite romantic. They say that the dopamine rush generated by trying something new is comparable to the feeling of first falling in love, and that sharing novel experiences together is one of the best ways for couples to strengthen their bond. I'm glad that our relationship-building exercise turned out to be so delicious; my only regret was that it was almost 2:00pm by the time we finished it, leaving us a scarce three hours to see the sights on our list before the sun went down and everything started to close.

Quickly, we hustled over to Trinity College, noting a large presence of Garda, or Irish police. At first, I thought it was because we were standing in front of the Bank of Ireland building, but when I noticed chanting in the distance, I knew something was up. I remembered from listening to the radio in the car that there were anti-austerity marches planned for Dublin, so we concluded that that's what we had stumbled upon. Being tourists, we decided it was best to steer clear, so we pressed on to the university campus.


The 18th and 19th century buildings and courtyards of Trinity College constituted a lovely and stately campus. A graceful campanile stood at the center of the main quad, attracting numerous people in search of a photo op, including a wedding party. We, however, had honed in on the Old Library building with laser-like focus. Being a librarian, Justin has the same zeal for visiting libraries on vacation as I do for visiting cathedrals , and Trinity's library had been his top Dublin destination.


The structure is one of the oldest on campus, built in 1732, and notable both for housing the Book of Kells, Ireland's most notable illuminated manuscript, and the Long Room, a 210 foot-long space that is home to over 200,000 antique and rare books as well as busts of a great number of classical scholars. The room was once only a single story, but when they ran out of space for books the first time, they raised the roof and added a second-story arcade. After that, they presumably built another library.

 We were profoundly disappointed by their no-photography policy, but nonetheless forked over our admission fee for the privilege of seeing the space. We were first led through an exhibition that told the story of the Book of Kells, which contains the four gospels, written in Latin by only four different scribes. They were carefully written on vellum, and richly decorated with animals, scrolls, geometric motifs, and images of Christ and the four evangelists. It was decorated by a number of different artists in addition to the four scribes, using pigments and inks that were imported from all over Europe -- no small feat in the 9th century.

After the highly informative exhibit, seeing the actual pages from the Book of Kells felt like sort of a let-down. The artwork is so intricate that it is hard to appreciate in its normal size, and the lighting in the room was so understandably dim that it was difficult to see much.

From there, we walked up into the Long Room, and marveled at the sheer volume of books and their extreme age. While I wondered if anyone actually uses any of those books for research purposes any more, Justin, ever the librarian, tried to figure out what kind of organizational system they were using to shelve them. Satisfied with our tour, we made a brief stop in the gist shop before pushing on with our abbreviated tour of Dublin.

First, we backtracked to Christchurch Cathedral, which was high on my must-see list as the grandest church in Dublin. Though most Irish people are Catholic, Christchurch is an Anglican, or Church of England establishment, owing to the years Ireland spent under English rule. It was originally built in 1186, though much of its present interior dates back to an 1870 renovation.


I'm not sure that the interior was worth the price of admission, as it was woefully dim inside, and there was little of interest in either the stained glass or carved stone departments. The most interesting feature of the structure proved to be the crypt, where they had built a small museum of the church's treasures, and where they were staging a small exhibit of costumes from Showtime's The Tudors. I loved that show while it was on the air, so it was fun to see the amazingly detailed costumes close-up, and to learn that the majority of the show was filmed in Ireland, with the church scenes taking place at Christchurch itself.


There was also a famous, but unusual set of relics stored in the basement -- the mummified corpses of a cat and a mouse who were found in one of the pipes of the church's organ. Apparently, the cat chased the mouse into the pipe, they both got stuck, and they died there, forever locked into a tableau of predator and prey. Dublin's native son, James Joyce, mentioned the animal remains in one of his novels and now they are apparently somewhat of a local tourist attraction.

By the time we finished at Christchurch, we were rapidly running out of daylight, and it was close to 4:30. We wondered if it was worthwhile to try to see anything else at that point, but I hated the idea of only seeing two places in all of Dublin, so we rushed down the street to make it to St. Patrick's Cathedral, just barely in time for the last admission of the day.


Though again, it was too dark inside to make out any stained glass, the interior of St. Patrick's was far more impressive to me than that of Christchurch. The building is home to scores of memorials and monuments ranging from a simple plaque commemorating members of the Irish Guard who fought in World War I and World War II, to a grandiose marble relief dedicated to a single colonial campaign in Burma, or modern-day Myanmar, to splendidly carved wooden tombs dating back to the 17th century.

St. Patrick's was founded on the site where the eponymous saint was said to have conducted baptisms in a holy well, and a Celtic stone slab that once covered the well is preserved in the nave of the cathedral. Jonathan Swift, the author and political commentator who penned Gulliver's Travels acted as Dean of St. Patrick's from 1713-1745, and he is buried there, along with several plaques dedicated to his memory. Considering how much more I enjoyed St. Patrick's than Christchurch, I was glad we squeezed it in under the wire.


Since we were both still stuffed from our enormous lunch, we decided not to seek out another meal before heading back to the hotel. We had hoped to encounter some kind of bakery, confectionery, or appealing take-out establishment on our way back to the hotel, but the entire, bleak slog along the Liffey revealed absolutely nothing of interest.

Back in the room, I was dutifully attending to our travel journal, when I was possessed by a sudden and voracious craving for pizza. Justin looked online for a place nearby where w could procure one, but it became gradually evident that our best option would be Domino's delivery -- that's right, the same chain from back home.

Now, I had already broken one travel rule for the day with our Indonesian food adventure; could I be so bold as to break my cardinal rule of travel eating: no US-based chains? It turned out, the answer was yes. Not only did I really want pizza, I really didn't want to have to make the long trudge back into town to find somewhere to eat. Plus, we could order the pizza online without having to deal with anyone on the phone. It may have been the most shameful meal I've ever eaten while out of the country, but it was also oddly satisfying, as it sated a craving and provided a welcome taste of home after six days away.

It may have been a strange way to end our day, but all in all, I really didn't feel like we did Dublin justice anyway. I wasn't as aggressive with planning this leg of our trip, perhaps because part of me is harboring hope that we'll be back someday to visit Abel and Sinead. The driving portions of our journey seemed like a bigger priority, because I didn't think we'd be likely to go through the effort of renting a car if we ever did return. There were pros and cons to that strategy, and one of the cons was that I ended up not enjoying my time in Dublin (the wedding excluded) as much as I probably could have otherwise.

11.23.2012

The Emerald Isle - Day Five

The day of the wedding, I made an executive decision to lay low, relax, and not try to engage in any pre-festivity tourism. I didn't want to be stuck somewhere in Dublin when we were supposed to be at the ceremony, so we stayed close to the hotel for the morning, caught up on our sleep, and took our time getting ready. There was no easy way to get to the venue via public transportation from our hotel, so we opted to drive, meaning that poor Justin would have to act as a designated driver, even though I'm the only who typically refrains from alcohol.


I wasn't sure what to expect from the venue, given that it was a seafood-themed restaurant, but it was actually rather charming, in a quirky, shabby-chic kind of way. The evening started off with cocktails in the downstairs bar, which had been temporarily closed for our event, where we hung out with our American friends and took copious photos together in our finery, before being led up a flight of stairs to a white-washed attic space, filled with natural light from the setting sun. The room was intimate in size, but even so, Abel shepherded us to the front of it, instructing us to sit just behind his parents, since we would be standing in for his extended family.


The bride walked down the aisle to music provided by a small, three-piece band playing traditional Irish music. Her unusual gown combined Eastern and Western influences, since the two of them met and fell in love in Japan, and had their initial, legally binding marriage ceremony there. Sinead had brought back with her a mauve silk kimono with orange flowers, which she had cut up to create a waistband for a standard-issue white dress, as well as an appliqued train and a shrug to go on top. She looked stunning, and radiantly happy.


Katherine acted as a sort of "best-man" for Abel, and gave an unconventional speech during the ceremony in which she compared their relationship to moldy cheese, wishing for them that their perceived flaws and imperfections would actually add character to their union, and improve upon it. I'm not sure I would have put that sentiment in quite the same terms, but it was certainly a memorable analogy, and a moment from their wedding that I'm sure Abel and Sinead will always remember.


After the ceremony, everyone was herded back downstairs for a receiving line and champagne in the same bar area. The American contingent nursed our drinks gradually, waiting for a toast that never materialized. At least in the US, champagne at weddings is often associated with toasts and speeches, but apparently that isn't necessarily the case across the pond. Still, the presence of such good friends made it one of the better cocktail hours I can remember in my years of wedding attendance.

Taken during the cocktail hour, I think this image of Abel is probably my favorite of the whole day.

Much to the relief of Katie, who hadn't eaten since early that morning, we were then directed through the restaurant and upstairs into a separate attic space for dinner. This one was surprisingly glamorous in comparison to the restaurant and bar area, full of crystal accents, mirrors, chandeliers, and touches of gold and silver. Six tables were set up for the sixty odd guests, and we found ourselves seated together with all of Abel's American friends, along with an Italian couple who had their adorable infant daughter in tow, and who were responsible for taking the photos for the day.


Wedding food may have a reputation for being terrible, but Abel and Sinead did an excellent job of avoiding that particular pitfall when selecting their venue. We were given our choice of appetizers and entrees, all of which were well above par. Dessert arrived in the form of an apple crumble housed in a mason jar, sort of the foodie equivalent of "putting a bird on it" for hipsters -- any food product that can be squeezed in a mason jar has been. Apparently that trend is happening across the pond as well.

The cake was made by one of Sinead's friend, and was decorated in fondant accented in sakura, or cherry blossoms, in keeping with the Japanese influences throughout the evening. The pieces we got to sample were chocolate and lemon flavored, though the third layer was supposedly constructed out of cookies, or biscuits as they call them in Ireland.

The dancing did not start until late in the evening, which I appreciated, honestly, because it gave me more time to chat with my table-mates in peace, without having to yell over loud music. Abel and Sinead had their first dance to the iconic, "At Last" by Etta James, and then continued to thoroughly get down on the dance floor. I've never seen Abel dance like that before -- in fact, I was unaware up until that moment that he knew how to dance at all, so his skills and enthusiasm came as somewhat of a surprise for me.


Both Justin and I had a great time hanging out and talking with my pals, indulging in the occasional chair dance, and/or sing-along whenever a particularly great song came on. The kitchen even brought out a snack of perfectly crisp and flaky panko-crusted fish and chips to fortify us for the long night ahead of us.

Unfortunately for me, near the end of the evening, Sinead would no longer take "No" for an answer when it came to joining them on the dance floor, and used all of her charm and persistence to drag us onto the floor, where we joined her and Abel for a dance to "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. It turned into as much of a sing-along as a group dance, mostly because the song just isn't that danceable, helping me have a decent time in spite of my hatred for dancing in public.

Eventually, however, it was time for us to say our goodbyes to the happy couple and our other friends. We made some tentative plans to see them one last time on Sunday, before calling it a night. Things didn't quite end there though, as we arrived back at the Ashling to discover that the car park had been closed and locked for the evening, as had the front door to the building. I had to knock on the lobby door, wait for the night desk clerk to let me in, give my name, go back to the car, and wait for someone to come let us in for the night. Apparently, for all their reputation of raucous partying, the Irish must not stay out very late.

Once we got out of the car, I made the unfortunate discovery that at some point, somehow the right front fender of our car had been crumpled in. I don't know if it was the ludicrously narrow opening in a fence we had to drive through in the Burren, some other unnoticed accident, or if someone hit our parked car through no fault of our own, but I was instantly glad that we'd allowed the car rental company to talk us into buying extra insurance coverage, even if it was pricey.

While our day ended on a slightly sour note, the rest of it was perfect. It was a gorgeous day, spent with great friends and delicious food, all in the name of celebrating two wonderful people and their new life together. I will always remember this day as one of the better weddings I've ever attended, and it gives me hope that our own special day will be just as full of joy whenever it comes to pass.

11.22.2012

The Emerald Isle - Day Four

After the previous day's lunchtime mishap, we thoroughly gorged ourselves at breakfast, ordering the full Irish breakfast in addition to helping ourselves to the complimentary continental breakfast buffet. This proved to be a grievous error in judgement, as I found myself so full that I required a return to the room so that I could lie on the bed in the fetal position, willing my stomach ache to go away, thereby wasting the time we had gained by rousing ourselves from our slumber earlier than usual, in order to see Galway to the fullest. By the time I felt comfortable leaving the hotel, it was nearly 11:00, and the day was nearly half over.

The guidebooks both had little to say on the topic of Galway, so we set forth on a modest walking tour cobbled together from what little insight we could glean. Sadly, we found ourselves to be the recipients of more of the rain from the previous evening, and that had initially been forecast for the entirety of our trip. Though we'd been blessed with relatively decent, if windy, weather so far, that didn't make it any less of a bummer to face the prospect of touring Galway under the shelter of our umbrellas.

We made a few stops in the historic district of Galway, including Lynch's Castle, a 16th century home once owned by the Lynch family, one of the fourteen tribes that lorded over the city's commerce during medieval times. Though the structure is now home to a bank, its history is quite literally written on its walls in the form of carved faces, heralds, and other crests which tell the tale of marriages, deaths, and power shifts within the family, as well as other real estate transactions that affected the ownership of the building.

Next, we ducked into St. Nicholas' Collegiate Church to escape an especially intense downpour, and though it is touted as Galway's finest surviving medieval edifice, I found the church to be somewhat lacking from an aesthetic perspective. More notable was its history: during the British conquest, the invading Brits sacked the church and turned it into a temporary stable for their horses. Considering the circumstances, it's somewhat of a miracle that the building is even still standing today.

From there, we headed northwest across the Corrib River, which has its delta in Galway Bay, making the city an important transportation hub up until the 1650s, when the east side of the country rose in prominence. We crossed at the Salmon Weir Bridge, so named because it is an important pathway for salmon swimming upstream to spawn. Our target was the Cathedral of St. Nicholas, Galway's most prestigious church, since I am hard-pressed to miss out on seeing a cathedral when there is one to be seen.


Though it was built in a style that suggested it had been built in the 1800s, the cathedral was actually constructed in 1965, using funds that had been collected from the fervently Catholic locals. The only true indicator of the building's age was the style of its stained glass windows, which were distinctly modern in style. Clearly the work of many different artists, the windows offer abstract images of stories from Genesis, the Old Testament, the miracles performed by Christ, and the story of his death and resurrection.


The colors were incredibly vivid, and though they might not have been the oldest stained glass windows I've had the privilege of seeing, they might just have been some of the finest. I'm not sure if it's because they were designed by modern artists for a modern audience, but I found them much easier to decipher than some of the oldest windows I've seen, which tend to rely on iconography that has been lost to the ages.


The cathedral is located on an island between two branches of the Corrib, so we took a different bridge back into the city's historic district, where we headed up Quay Street, the most commercially dense strip of restaurants, pubs, and shops in the city, and scouted out the location of our lunch venue, McDonogh's Seafood Bar. Allegedly home to some of the finest fish and chips in Galway, McDonogh's has been a local institution for a hundred years and running.


We weren't quite hungry yet, given our over-indulgence at breakfast, so we opted to finish our walk down to the Spanish Arch, a portal in the city's old defensive fortifications where Spanish traders would moor their boats and conduct business. The archway conveyed us to the docks, where a number of fine townhouses and office building have been erected in recent years to capitalize on the water views. The ever-present wind was blowing in full force, which made it a rather harrowing and unpleasant stroll, and I was soon glad to be away from the water's edge and contemplating the efficiency of the many emergency life preservers located along the pier.

Back at McDonogh's, we sampled the fried fillet of cod and a large order of chips to share. Though I was still perturbed by the tendency of Irish "chippers" (as purveyors of fried foodstuffs are known in these parts) to not salt their food and leave the seasoning up to the customer, I had to concede that these were the most perfectly-fried fish-and-chips I've had. The fried catfish at the Kampsville Inn will always be #1 in my fried-fish-loving-heart, and the seafood at the Fish Keg back home may be better seasoned, but for beer battered fish, I have never had any specimen quite so shatteringly crisp and devoid of any trace of soggy breading.

After we'd had our fill of fried delights, we slowly made our way back to the car park, pausing to peruse some of the charming little shops in search of souvenirs. At a woolen goods store, I jokingly suggested that Justin try on a tweed flat cap (I like to call them "old man hats"). To our mutual surprise, we discovered that the flat cap is actually the type of hat that suits Justin's head and face shape the best, so we picked up a model in blue (they also had a wider selection of men's hat sizes than I've ever seen before, so we were able to find one that properly fit Justin's large noggin.)

We had some difficulty navigating our way out of Galway, after a wrong turn out of a traffic circle caused us to get stuck in an immense parking lot for a while, but soon we found ourselves on the blissfully wide, modern expressway that connects Galway and Dublin. The driving was so easy, in fact, that, to borrow Justin's "Irish-driving-as-a-video-game" analogy, this leg of our journey was almost like a bonus stage.

Our good fortune, however, was not to last once we made it to Dublin. We were scheduled to make a stop at Abel and Sinead's apartment, where Katie and Katherine (who were staying with them) were planning to host an expat Thanksgiving dinner on the eve of the wedding. Though I questioned the wisdom of making a big meal and having people over when Abel and Sinead had so much to do, it wasn't my decision to make, and I was happy to have any opportunity to hang out with our friends.

Although we had plugged the appropriate address into our GPS, once we turned off the expressway it became painfully obvious that the Irish do not believe in numbering their houses. The GPS led us to an imposing gated community that didn't seem like the right place to us, so we attempted to give Abel a call. Given our limited ability to describe our surroundings ("We're in front of a giant gate that says 'No Tresspassing' and we're between a preschool and a bus stop"), Abel was unable to assist us.

In fact, he wasn't even at home, it turned out, as he had to go emergency shopping for a new shirt to wear to his wedding, having had his previous choice vetoed by Sinead at the last minute. He directed us back onto the main road, and told us to drive until we passed a sign for a solicitor's office, at which point he informed us that we had gone too far, and needed to turn around and go back. From there, he was at least able to direct us to his building, but nobody was there to let us in. Katie, Katherine, and Abel's other American houseguests Ben and Becky had gone grocery shopping, for the dinner. We were left with no choice but to sit in the cold car and wait.

At last, our friends finally showed up to let us in, and the cooking commenced. It was great to be back in the kitchen with my pals, even if Katherine was happier to do everything herself rather than enlist my aid. The meal consisted of Stovetop stuffing, turkey breast, broccoli, garlic mashed potatoes, gravy, and a pumpkin chocolate chip dessert. While she worked, we became acquainted with Ben and Becky, who were friends of Abel's from his time spent in Japan doing the JET program, where he met Sinead.


Eventually, Abel and Sinead made it home, looking beyond exhausted, where they were obliged to open some wedding gifts that were time sensitive, as they were needed to prepare and serve the Thanksgiving dinner. I was mortified, because Abel had told us that we didn't need to bring gifts, considering the expense we had incurred in coming to the wedding in the first place, and we only had a card to offer them. Still, hopefully they appreciated our presence, even if we didn't arrive bearing gifts.


Sadly, Abel and Sinead had to dash out to run more last-minute errands before the food was served, but we still managed to enjoy our modest expat gathering despite their absence. I did miss all the trappings and conviviality of my usual big Italian Thanksgiving spent with Dad's family, but if I had to spend the holiday away from home, I wouldn't have changed a thing. I got to be with the man I love, old friends and new friends, and there was still turkey. In the end, that's all that really matters.

Since the cooking had started so late, Justin and I had to duck out before dessert was served because it was after 10:00 and we still hadn't checked into our hotel. The Ashling Hotel, which would provide our base of operations for the rest of our stay in Ireland, was only about 20 minutes from Abel and Sinead's apartment, and we were pleased to find it the most posh and modern of all the places we'd stayed so far. Despite the late hour, we both called home to wish our families a happy holiday, before turning in for the night after a long day of sightseeing and socializing.

11.21.2012

The Emerald Isle - Day Three

Between the rock hard mattress, a noisy radiator, and two wrong-number phone calls from the US on my cell phone at nearly 4:00 am, Justin and I started off our third day in Ireland on the wrong food, with very little sleep. At the appointed time of 8:30, Ester had prepared for us a prodigious feast consisting of fried eggs, bacon, sausages, white and black puddings (which I've actually been developing somewhat of a fondness for, despite their ingredients), tomato, mushrooms, white toast, Irish soda bread, yogurt, cereal, jam, juice, tea, and a selection of Irish cheeses. Seeing as how we were the only people there to eat it, I felt bad that she had gone through such an effort, even if we were paying her.

She did, however, more or less kick us out at 9:10, telling us that we had to leave right away if we wanted to catch the ferry out of the neighboring village with departed every hour on the half-hour. Her husband had alerted us to its existence the night before, and we all agreed that it would be a huge time and fuel-saver for our itinerary. Luckily, we were already packed, so all we had to do was settle the bill and leave. I would have appreciated more time to digest my food, but as it was, we endured a white-knuckle drive to the ferry launch in Tarbert, where we embarked the boat with nary a moment to spare.

The Shannon ferry had been sold to us as being popular with tourists for its views of the coastline, however, being November, it seemed to be largely populated with commuters, despite the €18 fee. One can only assume there is a monthly pass that is more affordable. We left our car and headed for the upper deck, where we found ourselves less than impressed with the view, which was punctuated by a power plant and several grimy industrial facilities. Still, we were glad to have discovered this means of conveyance, as we probably saved at least an equivalent amount of money in gas, not to mention several additional hours in the car.

On the other side of the ferry ride, we found ourselves in County Clare, driving along the stunningly beautiful Atlantic coast. Dramatic waves broke against the shore,  while quaint homes dotted the landscape, and we made a few stops at abandoned seaside picnic grounds to hop out of the car and capture the sights on film.

Our first official destination of the day was the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland's most-visited natural wonder. We were obligated to pay €12 for the privilege of parking our car (I reckon they have to pay for their fancy new visitor's center somehow), but the presence of a penny press near the gift shop softened the blow of the steep parking rates. It was the only one I've ever seen outside of the US.


Out at the cliffs, the sun, though shining, was in the wrong place in the sky for us to get decent photos of the 690 feet tall rock face. Instead, for us, the majority of the cliffs were shrouded in atmospheric mist.


We climbed to a higher vantage point facing the south, where the light was more favorable, and we were able to take several stunning snaps that included the Victorian-era O'Brien's Tower, which created a charming visual focal point. The only problem was the wind, which was so intense that it actually made being at the edge of the precipice fairly intimidating, despite the presence of a stone wall. It also made human photography difficult, as Justin had to make over a dozen attempts before he was able to get a photo of me where my blowing hair wasn't obscuring my face.


We then retraced our steps and scaled a seemingly endless set of stairs up to O'Brien's Tower to see what we could see, though we ultimately opted not to pay an additional entrance fee for the tower itself. The view from ground level was more than sufficient. Besides, we were still high enough above the water that signs were posted everywhere touting access to a suicide prevention hotline -- apparently, the spot is popular with unfortunate souls seeking a watery end to their suffering.

Back in the car, we consulted about what to do for lunch, and narrowed down the choices to a seafood restaurant in nearby Doolin and a well-reviewed pub in Ballyvaughan, which was much further away, but closer to our next destination of the Burren. Fatefully, we decided to try the place in Ballyvaughan, and we set about our way. After a good amount of driving, we found ourselves in an ominously quiet fishing village, and were directed to Monk's, the pub, by numerous signs throughout the town. When we got there, however, we were dismayed to find it closed for the off season. And not only was it closed, just about everything else in town was closed for the season as well.

We parked right next to this sign in Ballyvaughan. It turned out to be an omen for how the rest of our day would go.
With everything shuttered, we had no choice but to press on without food and to power through our tour of the Burren. The word "burren" derives from the Gaelic term for "rocky land" or boireann. Its proximity to the word "barren" is evocative, however, as the land consists primarily of exposed tracts and layers of limestone. British conquerors described it as "a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury."


In our state of hunger, we could offer little protest to that assessment, as we could find neither food to eat, nor bathroom to use. We stopped first at the site of Poulnabrone Dolmen, a neolithic burial site in the portal tomb style. A massive stone was perched on top of two supporting rocks, tilted upward to the heavens. The remains of nearly three dozen individuals were discovered beneath the overhang, and though it was smaller than I expected, it was still worth seeing, as it is supposedly the best-preserved specimen of this type of tomb in Ireland.


Next, we attempted to see the Cathermore Stone Fort, a stone circle also dating from the Neolithic era, where there was supposed to be a visitors' center, and hence, a restroom. However, we discovered the entire site to be closed for maintenance during the winter months. Desperate for a chance to relieve ourselves at this point, we made a beeline for the Burren Center, the principle visitors' center for the region. Unfortunately, every other attraction we passed on the way was similarly closed, so the best we could do was take in the rugged landscape, take a few photo ops at scenic overlooks, and do our darndest to ignore our bladders.


Maddeningly, when we finally arrived at the Burren Center, we found it locked as well, with a small sign indicating that it would reopen in mid-March. Scrambling for an alternative, we ordered the GPS to take us to the nearest gas station, which turned out to be little more than an antiquated gas pump located outside a filthy service station. I told Justin he could try it if he wanted, but there was no way in hell I'd be using any toilet there.

As it turned out, the service station didn't have a toilet on premises, but the owner lived across the street and offered to let us use the bathroom in his home. Irish generosity prevailed and kept us from peeing in the bushes, though we felt obligated to buy €27 worth of diesel in exchange. After that, we concluded that it was time to put an end to our ill-fated journey through the Burren, by far the worst disaster in my history of off-season travel. Usually, travelling in the off-season offers a respite from the crowds in exchange for sub-optimal weather, but never have I experienced so many closures and lack of amenities as I did in the Burren.

We made our way to our hotel for the evening in Galway, our empty stomachs grumbling mightily, and making us grumpy beyond recognition. Being a larger population center, we were guaranteed to find sustenance at long last, but it had started to rain as we pulled into town, and despite receiving a map from the concierge annotated with restaurant recommendations, we managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost. Wet, crabby, and frustrated with a day that had gone rather less well than planned, I was about at the end of my rope by the time we finally located two of the suggested restaurants. Both were more expensive than I was hoping for, but at that point, I didn't care, I just wanted to eat.

The place we selected ended up being the most expensive meal of our trip so far, but it was comforting, and more importantly, it put us in a much better frame of mind. Justin wanted to walk around after dinner and see more of the city, but given that it was dark, still raining, and nothing was open but pubs and restaurants, I lobbied successfully for a return to the hotel, where we could put our day behind us and start fresh in the morning.

11.20.2012

The Emerald Isle - Day Two

Perhaps love has made me soft, but after establishing such an ambitious itinerary the day before, I allowed us to sleep in until the nearly unprecedented hour of 8:00 in Kilkenny. By the time we'd gotten ready and feasted on the included hotel breakfast, it was nearly ten o'clock, and we decided to leave Kilkenny without seeing any of the sights in order to move on with our grand adventure.

Before we had left for Ireland, the forecast had called for rain every single day we'd be there, but we found ourselves to be blessed with a gloriously sunny, if windy day. Our first stop was the nearby Jerpoint Abbey, a somewhat lesser-known attraction that I had spotted in a close reading of our guidebook. It turned out to be so obscure that it wasn't listed in the GPS database, so we had to navigate instead to the nearest town, where we were lucky to find a series of road signs that guided us there instead. It turned out to be a true hidden gem, and I rather appreciated the fact that it wasn't teeming with other tourists.

Jerpoint was built in the 12th century by a  group of Cistercian monks, who are typically known for the austerity of their buildings and architecture. They believed that any type of ornamentation distracted the mind from worshipful thought, but at their Jerpoint settlement, they seemed to completely throw that belief out the window. Due to its prominence (Jerpoint was the major rival of the most prestigious abbey in Ireland, Duiske Abbey) and the patronage of the wealthy knights of Butler, the monks at Jerpoint came to indulge a more lavish sense of design than their bretheren.


Though much of the buildings have not been well-preserved, Jerpoint is brimming over with fantastic specimens of medieval carving. Many people deride medieval art for being less accurate and life-like than either Classical works or those from the Renaissance and later, but I rather admire the rustic naïveté of their forms. What they lack in technique, they make up for in whimsy and expressiveness.


My favorite pieces from Jerpoint came in the form of two elaborately carved tombs, decorated with images of local clergy, angels, and saints. I loved the way the artists attempted to capture the folds of the figures' robes, which I found to be very charming, even if they defied the laws of gravity. I was also taken with the care and attention given to crafting unique facial hair and coiffure for each figure.

The remnants of the walls enclosing the cloister proved to be the richest source of artwork, owing to their later date of construction, when the Cistercians had somewhat relaxed their views on ornamentation. Each column supporting the cloister ceiling was covered in carvings ranging from stylized animal motifs, to figures of the Butler knights who patronized the monks, to images of the local bishops, to magical dragons.


After wrapping up our tour of the relatively unknown Jerpoint Abbey, we headed to the Rock of Cashel, which is widely considered to be one of the top sites in Ireland. In fact, everyone who weighed in on our trip planning (including an episode of Rick Steves' Europe that we caught on PBS the day before we left), recommended that we include Cashel on our itinerary.

We rolled into town around 1:30 and were lucky enough to find a large parking lot adjacent to the rock itself, where we could leave our car until 6:30 for a mere €4.50. Since we had plenty of time on our hands, we decided to have lunch before we commenced with the sightseeing, and we opted to try the nearby Cafe Hans. Cashel is known for being home to Chez Hans, one of the finest restaurants in Ireland, which was decidedly out of our budget, even if we had been in town for dinner, which is the only time it is open for business. However, the owners have opened a more modest cafe next door, which is open for lunch, and is still recognized with a Bib Gourmand accolade from Michelin, so we decided to give it a try. 

Though it was still a bit pricey for us, we had a great meal, and it was worth every penny. It was easily the most delicious meal we'd had since we'd been in Ireland, even though we were only on the second day of our travels. It would definitely be the meal to beat for the rest of our trip. 


Despite its name, the Rock of Cashel is more than just a rocky outcropping. In fact, it is more notable for the remains of a medieval cathedral and Catholic settlement that can be found there. The rock itself is more of a plateau -- a flattish area with steep sides, and tremendous defensive potential. This defensibility was important to the Knights of Munster, who originally built a castle on the site before vacating the premises in the 12th century and leaving their land to the Catholic Church. The Church was similarly in need of a defensive stronghold to ward off the British and their violent imposition of the Protestant Reformation.


At Cashel, the Catholic Church was able to defend itself against the British until 1647, when a siege ended with a complete massacre of Cashel's three thousand inhabitants. The Brits sacked the place, but it remains in fairy decent repair today, though the cathedral itself was under restoration and covered with scaffolding, which remains the scourge of my traveling career. We were left, then, to wander the ruins, the atmospheric cemetery surrounding the complex, and a small museum about the history of the religious fortification.


Though not quite as vast in quantity as those at Jerpoint, Cashel was also home to some fine medieval carvings, including this especially fine rendering of the Crucifixion. Depictions of the Crucifixion dating from the heyday of Cashel tend to depict only the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist in addition to Christ, and we see them here flanking the cross. I particularly enjoy the depiction of Mary as being older and chubbier here, as she is so frequently seen as perpetually young and lovely. To me, the realism makes a nice change of pace.


In light of the restoration work, the best part of the Rock of Cashel was probably the surrounding cemetery, which provided sweeping vistas out over the lush, green countryside. Justin took several panoramic photos of the area, while I was more taken with the picturesque, moss-covered high crosses punctuating the cemetery.


Though it was still relatively early by the time we finished at Cashel, the dramatic winds were putting a bit of a damper on things, and we decided to forgo any further tourism efforts in favor of making as much of our journey to the west coast (home to our bed and breakfast for the evening) as possible during daylight hours.

The crazy wind might have damaged the aesthetic value of this photo, but I really love how happy we look.
During the drive, we were treated to a truly spectacular sunset, given the clear conditions, but our route was plagued by lots of construction. Justin made the observation that driving in this country feels a bit like playing a video game that increases in difficulty as you master new skills. Just when you think you have achieved a certain degree of mastery, a new challenge comes your way.

People had warned us that driving in Ireland would be terrifying, but we hadn't really experienced that terror in full force until we hit the coast, where the winding road clung to the cliff at the edge of the water, and the speed limit was inexplicably posted at 100 km/hour. A particularly aggressive driver was angrily tailgating us, so Justin felt compelled to drive faster than we were both comfortable with (about half of the posted limit), so several long, frightening minutes passed until the road straightened out and our tailgater was able to pass us, much to our relief. If it had been daylight, and we hadn't been fearing for our lives, it probably would have been a very nice drive, as we passed several sign-posted scenic overlooks.

As with our adventure in finding Jerpoint earlier in the day, we were left to find our B&B in the hamlet of Glin without the benefit of our GPS as well. Instead, we were conveyed only as far as the edge of the town, which was thankfully so small that we were able to find our lodgings without too much difficulty.

Bed and breakfasts are something of an institution in Ireland, and we were told that staying in one was an experience not to be missed. The proprietor, Ester, greeted us at the door with an offer of tea, which we accepted, and she showed us to our room, which inexplicably had two beds, a twin and a double, but at least it had its own en-suite bathroom. Tea was served in the downstairs dining room, and happy to be provided with a flat writing surface, I happily lingered over my travel journal, an international travel tradition that I have adopted from my years of traveling with my father.

Fearful that businesses in the small town would close up shop early, we decided to take a break to forage for dinner. However, we quickly discovered that Glin is more of a seasonal destination, popular among tourists during the warm, beach-going months, and discovered that there were only two dining options open during the off-season -- a take-out Chinese restaurant, and a take-out fish and chip shop, none-too-promisingly named "Glin Grub." We opted for the fish and chips, and our hosts were so kind as to provide us with plates and napkins, but the food proved to be incredibly disappointing. It may have been the cheapest meal of the trip so far, but as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.

We lingered again at the table so I could continue with my writing, but eventually, it became clear that our hosts were waiting for us to go to bed so they could retire, even though they were making themselves scarce in another room. We were clearly their only guests, and we felt a bit like we were intruding, so we took the hint and retired for the evening.

11.19.2012

The Emerald Isle - Day One

Ireland might not have been at the top of my international travel destination list, but when I received an invitation to the nuptials of my friend Abel and his wife Sinead, there was suddenly no place else I'd rather go. Since the wedding was to occur the day after Thanksgiving, I quickly set about the task of renegotiating my holiday agreement with Justin. Originally, we had planned to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family and Christmas with mine, but in order to make Ireland work, we capitalized on the mid-week occurrence of Christmas in order to split the holiday between both families. We were all set to cross the pond in order to celebrate our friends.

Our journey, though stereotypically exhausting for international air travel, was notable for two reasons: we had purchased a Groupon for a fancy chauffeured car to deliver us to O'Hare, and we were on the same flight as Abel's parents, so we got to visit with them while we waited for our flight.

Sleep was elusive on the plane, and we arrived in Dublin tired, but determined to make the most of our day regardless. In order to see as much of the country as possible, we had made the decision to rent a car, which was a somewhat terrifying prospect, to be honest. Though I have traveled extensively abroad, I've always relied on cabs and public transportation to get around, but Justin is a braver, and more experienced driver than me, and I was ready to put my life in his capable hands.

We soon found ourselves responsible for a gunmetal VW Golf, which we made sure to equip with a GPS device. Though it added to the expense of the entire enterprise, we both felt that driving on the left in a foreign country with different rules of the road was enough to worry about without the additional stress of trying to navigate for ourselves. As it turned out, maneuvering our new vehicle proved to be a challenge from the start -- the car rental agents had parked the vehicles so impossibly close together that exiting the lot was an exercise akin to the infamous scene in Austin Powers where the eponymous character manages to get a car stuck between two walls.

Despite the rocky start, Justin quickly got a hang of driving on the left, and our GPS quickly conveyed us to our first stop of the day, the gardens at Powerscourt, a palatial residence built in the 18th century by the viscounts of Powerscourt. Though there is no longer much to see at the residence, which holds a branch of Avoca, an Irish retailer/restaurant chain, a museum dedicated to childhood, and a Ritz-Carlton hotel, the gardens are said to be the finest in Ireland.


Though it was drizzling and overcast, once we stepped out into the gardens, we found ourselves in no position to argue with that assessment. The grounds at Powerscourt are divided into several sub-gardens, each laid out in a different style. Those that directly abutted the house were done in a baroque Italianate style, with carefully-manicured terraces leading down to an artificial lake, and sweeping views of a nearby mountain. As we started down the grand stairs, it finally hit me -- I was in Ireland, a foreign country, with the man I love. It was unexpectedly emotional and exhilarating all at the same time.


Though I have seen plenty of Japanese gardens in my life, we strolled through the Japanese gardens at Powerscourt largely because they were there, and we wanted to make the most of our admission fee. It turned out to be the single most romantic place we've ever been together, full of labyrinthine hideaways and idyllic waterfalls. Plus, there was virtually no one else there, leaving us to explore all the nooks and crannies of the garden by ourselves. 


Next, we hiked over to a quaint, medieval-looking tower that was actually a much later, strictly ornamental lawn decoration known as the Pepperpot Tower, as it is said to have been fashioned in the shape of one of the 19th century family members' favorite pepperpot, or pepper shaker. Magically, just as we started to take photos of the idyllic scene, the gloomy haze lifted and the sun came out, giving us exquisite lighting conditions. It was as if Mother Nature suddenly realized we were outdoors trying to take photos and decided to give us an assist.


In spite of being in a state of starvation and dehydration from our flight, we decided to cross the grounds and see the other half of the estate, though it looked significantly less interesting on the map. We did find a lovely English-style garden which had some late-blooming roses to see, and there was another small artificial lake with a fountain. The highlight, however, was a modest pet cemetery, filled with loving odes to the many dogs, horses, and even Shetland ponies that had kept the family company over the centuries. Even if this half of the grounds wasn't quite as impressive as the first portion, I was glad that we got our money's worth, plus, the view of the house that we were afforded on the way back was absolutely exquisite in the sunlight.


Since we were so hungry, we decided to go ahead and have lunch at the Powerscourt Avoca franchise, where we discovered that despite being a chain, their food was surprisingly good, especially their light but flavorful salads. Duly fortified, it was time to brave driving on the left once more to move on to our next destination for the day, Glendalough.


Glendalough, which is something of a national park, consists of an early medieval monastic site nestled in a glacial valley with two lakes and a wealth of hiking trails. Knowing that Justin loves a good nature walk, I had selected Glendalough to appeal mostly to him, plus it was loosely on the way to Kilkenny, which was our final destination for the day. Through Justin's driving skills, we made it there in one piece, but we were so exhausted from our travels that we made the somewhat unusual decision to take a quick nap in our car in the parking lot, otherwise we would have had no energy to undertake even a modest hike. I set an alarm on my phone so we wouldn't waste too much time, and even though it was an extremely unorthodox strategy for me, the person who likes to wring every possible iota out of my vacation time, it was definitely the right decision.


Somewhat refreshed, we set out to tour Glendalough, starting with the monastic settlement, which was built by the followers of the hermetic St. Kevin, who supposedly lived until the age of 120 during the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries (a claim I find decidedly dubious, given the average life expectancy back then). Glendalough achieved the zenith of its influence as a religious center during the 1100s, and was partially destroyed by the British in the late 14th century, leaving the ruins that are visible today.


A quirk that seems unique to the Irish religious architectural vernacular is the round tower. Due to the constant fighting between rival tribes and rival towns, the round bell-tower grew to prominence because it was more difficult to scale. Typically, the actual entrance was located a few yards off the ground, accessible only by a ladder that could be pulled up in times of strife to protect the monks or other inhabitants.


The ruins were also surrounded by an atmospheric old cemetery, full of crumbling, moldy tombstones. I love to incorporate historic cemeteries into my travels (my soft spot for them is comparable, though not quite as intense as that for churches and cathedrals), and though I did not know that Glendalough boasted a cemetery when I selected it for our itinerary, it turned out to be an unexpected bonus. 


After thoroughly inspecting the first set of sites pertaining to the monastic settlement, we embarked on a hike through the glacial valley, hoping to make it to a second set of ruins at the juncture where the higher of the two lakes drains into the lower one. The hike wasn't quite as scenic as I was hoping, given that the leaves were somewhat lacking in fall foliage in late November, though I was surprised there was still as much green as there was. 

Unfortunately, we were quickly running out of daylight, and faced with the choice of continuing our hike and having to return in the dark and complete our drive to Kilkenny in the dark, or turning around and driving in what little daylight was left, we decided to turn back.

Given how exhausted we were, it is a credit to Justin's driving ability that we made it to Kilkenny in one piece. The roads were narrow, winding, and fenced in with stone walls for long stretches at a time, and I quickly passed out, leaving him no company to help him stay awake himself. While the GPS did manage to navigate us to the correct town, it was of little use in helping us locate our hotel. We ultimately drove past it several times before finally parking illegally, albeit temporarily, so we could call and ask them where the entrance to their parking lot was. We finally found it, and checked into the Langton House Hotel for the evening.

We found our room to be modern, but very cramped, though at that point, we were mostly just happy to find a bed. Though our guidebooks offered several suggestions in town for dining options, we were too worn out to venture forth and locate any of them. Instead, we took the path of least resistance and ate an acceptable, if somewhat overpriced dinner in the hotel pub, before finally hitting the sheets for some much deserved slumber.