Coasterville Commentary

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Emerald Shores of Ireland - Part 6

The Emerald Shores of Ireland
A trip journal by David Bowers
Part 6

We continued along the lakeside trail to visit, as the sign says the "Newly Restored Gothic Church" This church is just far enough back the trail were you start to doubt yourself. Am I going the right way? Will we be able to get there in time? I pulled out my park guide which had a park map in it, but the map was clearly not drawn to scale. We knew Jerry had mentioned the church as a must see, so we pressed on. We did mention that if you didn't have time constraints that the walk back to the church through the woods and alongside the lake would be a wonderful meditation walk. We then came to a clearing in the woods, and in that clearing was a chapel sized church of gothic architecture. Every time I think the sencery in Ireland can't get better, it does. Here away from any traffic noise, with the trees even cutting off the lake or any view outside the area stands what appears to be a mini Gothic style church complete with church graveyard out front. We take a walk alongside the exterior of the church gazing at the beauty, then go inside. Inside the church gets its beauty not from the works of master artisans of paint and sculpture but rather from the simple architectural beauty. Lots of leaded glass windows make the room light and airy and the decorative use of marble in the columns and the simple furniture in the space give off a simple uncluttered look that is instantly classic and timeless.

Ireland - Kylmore Abbey - Gothic Church

Ireland - Kylmore Abbey - Gothic Church

We left the church, which according to the sign was built in 1877, and its recent restoration paid for out of the European Regional Development Fund, another example of how Ireland is benefiting from joining the European Union is that it seems like there are restoration/preservation projects going on all over of its historical sites. Anyway the sign said the church was built by the Mitchell family, whose mausoleum can be seen just east of the church. We continue alongside the trail, which after the church turns from pavement to gravel and continue back to take a peek at the mausoleum. The mausoleum itself is a rather simple brown brick structure with the entryway sealed shut with bricks. We noted this was the last site noted on the park map, so we started the now very long walk back along the lakeside trail, stopping to get photographs of the sites coming from the other direction. We also noted a very attractive waterfall and some unique looking flowers that were surrounded by a metal guard. We returned to the area where the bus stop to the gardens is located. We had already used up our hour for touring and were heading into the second hour and still needed to get lunch. I pulled out my park guide and noted busses run every 10 minutes and it's a 5 minute ride. I also noted the bus wasn't here, and did a pessimistic calculation, a worst case scenario that if we just missed the bus to the gardens, and then we arrive back at the other bus stop just having missed it again, that's half an hour to be given up just for transportation let alone actually seeing the sights. We decide to pass up on seeing the Victorian gardens. We do seem to run into most of the others at the restroom building located inside the gated area. They were very small restrooms leading to a line, but at least we knew where a good deal of the tour group was. Also in the area back by the restroom was a building labeled Video Cabin. They had a video playing in there and we could hear the sound while waiting our turn and were able to deduce the video wasn't about the abbey itself.

Ireland - Kylmore Abbey - Mausoleum

Ireland Kylemore Abbey

We then headed through the exit turnstiles and headed back out along the lakeside trail till we came back around to the visitors center and followed the signs to the restaurant. There was a short line to get into the restaurant. We thought, "Hey, if it's a buffet, all we have to do is pay, grab a plate and load up" Should be very fast. We would soon learn that when Jerry says buffet, he means cafeteria, albeit one where you may be fixing your own plate, but its still billed cafeteria style. I did to a double take when I saw beer in the beverage case, at a a religious site. I grabbed a Coke from the beverage case and headed to the main line area where we both settled on Chicken Kiev. I ordered Chicken Kiev and wasn't quite prepared for the litany of questions. "What kind of potato do you want?" I opted for the boiled potatoes "What kind of vegetable do you want?" I went with the carrots, "What kind of sauce do you want?" It seems here instead of the sauce being inside the Chicken Kiev along with the vegetables, they sit the vegetable filler on the plate, then a plain breaded chicken breast, then cover it with your choice of sauce. "What kind of bread do you want?" Give me the brown bread. When that was done I had a very appetizing looking lunch. We headed to the cashier station and were taken aback when our meals totaled up in the €13 range, each. We started a new table and soon were joined by others in our tour group. Most of them had gone for lighter fare like soup, salads, or sandwiches, and it was clear we were causing lunch table envy for the rather large generous size meals we were having. Some pleasant lunch table conversation ensued and we were soon down to just about 15 minutes left. While dining I had noticed that they had tray return racks by the exit doors and they were pretty regular with replacing them, even before it was needed. At the conclusion of our meal, which was serve don real plates and had non-plastic silverware, I picked up my tray and carried it to the tray return rack. I was intercepted just before inserting my tray with a very pleasant "Thanks a lot! You weren't expected to do that."

Ireland Kylemore Abbey

Ireland Kylemore Abbey

We took our last few minutes at the site to peruse its rather large and diverse gift shop which contained way more than religious goods or gifts from the abbey. That said, nothing really caught our eye in the gift shop so we got out of that one empty handed. We returned to the bridge that returns to the parking lot and notices the simple rowboats docked alongside the lake which apparently can be rented from a booth near the bus parking area. We also noted that if you look just right you can see both the castle and the church at the same time. We tried to get this view on camera, but I'm afraid we weren't successful. We returned to our bus in time to sort of laugh at the teenagers getting off the bus next to us some dressed in attention getting "Hey, look at me" clothing.

Ireland - countryside

Ireland -

We next had a long drive to our next site. The good news is we had some more of that gorgeous landscape to drive past. We were going through farmland and at times we noted the sheep were not afraid at all of the tour bus driving past. Jerry quipped, "Oh, those sheep know us, they probably know my name, where I am going, and if we are ahead or behind schedule" We came close to some sheep and we could clearly see painted splotches on their sides. We asked about this. Now I must say, my Mom took a similar tour of Ireland about 10 years ago, and she heard an entirely different answer than I did, so I'll give both, you be the judge. Mom was told tht those painted splotches are for health reasons, when a sheep is given particular vaccinations it is painted with a color coded splotch to record what medicines the sheep has received. I was told the painted splotches come from the use of common area grazing where several areas farmers send their sheep to graze in a common area, the splotches identify whose sheep are whose. Father replies back with the verse "I know my sheep, and they know me"

Ireland - From Kylmore to Knock

We also passed some interesting things such as a wind turbine for alternate source energy, as well as farmers bundling up peat as an alternate fuel source. Jerry mentioned that peat is used for heating fuel, and there is a big business in bundling up peat and selling it. Jerry, however looked saddened when we passed what looked like it once was a great field that looks like it had been strip mined. He mentioned this work used to be performed by hand, now they bring in big machines to do it, but what is bad is when they don't make any effort at trying to restore the landscape to the way it used to look.

Jerry mentioned that caution must be taken if you were to visit the wetlands where peat is found as peat tends to suck anything into it pretty quickly, similar to quicksand. He did mention that if you find yourself sinking into the peat, and there is nobody around to rescue you, you could take consolation in the fact you would be very well preserved. Right at at about this time, we pass another bus that has pulled over and its passengers are starting to walk into the wetlands. Jerry asks "Should we stop a bit and see if they sink into the peat?" We continue forwards.

Ireland - countryside - wind turbine

Along our way we would occasionally see cyclist or backpackers walking along the roadside, and Jerry mentioned that those are still very popular ways of seeing the Irish countryside, he also mentioned that it used to be farmers and other property owners were pretty laid back and as long as the backpackers didn't do any harm to their land, they had no problems with them exploring it. That all came to an end when the courts started finding landowners liable if a backpacker comes on to their land, uninvited mind you, and then hurts themselves, even if its purely their own fault. This has caused the landowners to become less welcoming of the hikers, but it has also caused some farmers to make the most of it, and start leading paid farm tours. Jerry told an anecdote of such a group he had once that had scheduled a tour of an Irish farm on their tour. He said it was a very fun tour of the farm, then when the farmer led them out to the middle of a big field, he asked everybody to lie on the ground on their backs. Being good sports, they obliged their host who then said "Now you are seeing my farm the way my sheep do!"

Ireland - mussel farm

We then came through a village whose name I forget, but it was buildtaround a lake and the thing I remember is that Jerry told us an urban legend about a hotel on the main street. It seems that on one floor, in one section, the owner installed crown shaped balcony railings, this soon gave way to the legend that "The Queen has stayed at this hotel, and those crowns mark the room she stayed in!" He said of course this is patently false because in Irish society, important diplomats, even visiting ones stay in castles, as I might have mentioned earlier, but for the right price you too can spend the night in an Irish castle, or at least rent a room in one. Jerry then threwa jab at President Bush by saying that he realizes its common for a diplomat to bring a security team, staff, family and so forth with them, so when you entertain a diplomat you may have a few hundred people to look after, but when Bush came, the number of staff and security team members reach into the thousands.

Ireland- Croagh Patrick

The next site we sawfrom a distance was Coragh Patrick, or "Patrick's Mountain". Church history teaches that this is supposedly where St. Patrick fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and drove all the snakes out of Ireland. As such it has become a popular pilgrimage site, particularly on the last Sunday in July when as many as 30,000 may arrive. Jerry mentioned that the pilgrimage is quite exhausting as it can take 3 hours to climb up the mountain, and its not like there is a trail up to the top, the climb is up bare rock on uneven and steep hillside, which gets steeper as you near the top. Up top there has been a chapel erected for prayers, and then they climb back down which can take another 2 to 3 hours. In short a pilgrimage visit to Croagh Patrick would be an all day commitment, and he noted the local road system doesn't do a very good job of handling it. Jerry said that is the modern way of doing the pilgrimage, then there are those who do it the traditional way, and that is barefoot. Yes jagged rocks, gravel, uneven hillside, all barefooted. Some time it where they start in the middle of the night so that they arrive at the summit at daybreak. Yes, in order to do the pilgrimage right there are a series of prayer stations along the way and a set ritual of prayers and activities that must be performed at each one. Jerry noted you can see how the top of the mountain looks like there is a wide path, but it really doesn't that area has been worn down by the constant chain of pilgrims making the climb. He also noted that, as with many religious traditions this one too, predates Christianity as it was popular in pre-Christian times as a fertility pilgrimage. Jerry did note an anecdote where Ireland has used the snakes out of Ireland story when it comes to land disputes. "Scientist have found no snakes on that island correct? "Correct" "Well since St. Patrick drove the snakes out f Ireland and there are no snakes on that island, it must be part of Ireland!" He also talked briefly about the celtic cross, how we see it with a round circle overlaying the cross. One reason is stated that the structure needed the circular braces for support of the crossbeam. The other states that it is a fusion between pagan and Christian symbols.

Ireland -

After passing Coragh Patrick we came as close to Northern Ireland as we would get on this tour. For the most part Jerry tried to either ignore, change the subject or employ another diversion whenever anybody asked about Northern Ireland. I noted this is what my guidebook says that most polite Irishmen will do if you bring up the subject, followed by the disclaimer that a polite tourist shouldn't even bring it up since opinion varies widely and the wounds are still raw with some. It also notes that when trying to employ humor in Ireland, that Northern Ireland jokes are strictly taboo, particularly if you aren't from Ireland. It liked it to telling Civil War jokes over in the United States. Anyway, see I was also going for a diversion, but sometime later in the trip, when as you may have guessed there were some on the tour that didn't get the hints that it wasn't a topic he wanted to discuss, kept bringing it up, Jerry finally said quite firmly "Ah, so you've heard about our little disagreement have you…" Then after letting that drift off while finding a gentler tact, he simply said it's a sad thing, and that it boils down to basically a minority of the citizens of Ireland who thought "You know, England isn't so bad" so they came up with a compromise of having 6 of Irelands 32 counties stay part of the UK. They have their own parliament, but it does cause problems. Jerry said he will, if asked, include Northern Ireland destinations on tours but it causes a host of problems. Chief amongst them is that they still use the British pound, which means everybody, including him has to do some currency exchange stops on both border crossings, and that they are also on the British phone system, and that he has managed to ring up some pretty frightening long distance bills when he has to stay there overnight on a tour. He also mentioned that their citizens are fiercely patriotic to England, and like to decorate just about anything in the Red, White, and Blue of the Union Jack. So without really saying anything except maybe his own feelings, he got it out, and that was the last we heard on that topic.

Ireland - countryside

Our next destination would be Knock Shrine, and since we were just passing through more countryside, Father decided that since it is a Marian shrine after all it wouldn't be a bad idea to say a rosary as a group as we approached the shrine. Luckily he had warned us of this at the get together party, so I was suitably equipped. After the rosary we were approaching Knock. Jerry mentioned that they laughed when Knock decided it wanted to build its own international airport, then they built it and it sat for a few years being used for non-aviation purposes, but now it has grown to be a popular airport for those coming to Knock from Europe.

Ireland - Knock Shrine - new basilica

We made our way to the turn off the main roadway to the road to Knock Shrine when our progress was halted by a beer truck stopped in our lane, and a solid line of cars coming the other way in the other lane. Jerry got out of the bus and took the situation in his own hands by walking up to the next intersection and diverting that opposing traffic onto a side street so we could get through. Yep, that's why he gets paid the big bucks. On the way out to Knock he gave us the history. The church used to be just a regular church in Knock until one night an apparition appears on the outside of the back wall. The apparition consisted of Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, and occurred back in 1879. Since then Knock has turned into a big Marian Shrine. The old church still stands and is still in use, but has been supplemented by a large basilica. In other developments due to weather and vandalism, the back wall of the church started disappearing as people wanted a souvenir from the site. In order to protect the back wall from the elements and further damage an "Apparition Chapel" was built. It was announced this would also be the day's Mass stop, so we would have about 15 minutes before Mass then about 45 minutes after Mass to look around. We arrived at the gates where I noted a neat double gate arm, it seems the lower one that would stop all traffic is up, so private cars can enter unimpeded, however the upper gate arm was down, blocking tour busses. I also noted their gate arms lower down into big metal V's on each side to make it harder to run them. John started talking to the nice people at Knock Shrine over the intercom and we were close enough to the front to realize the gate people were giving John some lip about "It's almost 4, you realize we close for the day at 6, right?". Well, eventually they get that all sorted out and we pull into the parking lot.

Ireland - Knock Shrine

We start our way up the hillside from the parking area up to the shrine, first stopping off at the comfort facilities then coming up into a big plaza. To our left is the newer basilica, very large modern looking building. Across the front of it was a long row of international flags, but my own flag was not represented. To our right is the older church, and stuck on the back of the church is the apparition chapel. We approached the apparition chapel and built into its side is a large picture window so you can gaze upon the back wall of the church even if the chapel is closed or full. The window also gives a great view of a series of statues that have been erected in the area to give a representation of what the vision looked like. Also in the area on the exterior wall is a large sculpture depicting a rosary.

Ireland - Knock Shrine

Ireland - Knock Shrine

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Emerald Shores of Ireland - Part 5

The Emerald Shores of Ireland
A trip journal by David Bowers
Part 5

Day 3: Thursday September 4, 2008

We awoke and started Day 3, glad that we were staying a second night here so we didn't have to worry about the luggage. We got dressed and headed down to the restaurant for breakfast. Breakfast would be served buffet style, and the line started with trays. At least someone has come to their senses, back in the United States they are trying to take trays out of dining halls. Okay, grab tray, silverware, then the bread display with rolls, croissants and different kinds of bread, complete with bread plates, then the glasses and the juice machine with orange and apple juices as well as water. The glasses were tiny, so I did the usual college dining hall strategy of taking two. Those items were along one side wall, then we started down the buffet. It started off with the jellies, and then the cold cereal. Instead of dispensers, the cold cereal was sitting out in various large bowls. On the other side of the bowls was the cold bar, which held the carafes of milk for the cereal (or for drinking), cream cheeses, butter as well as the fruit bar. Fruit salad, melons, grapefruit sections, and oddly enough prunes were on offer. Next up was the hot bar, it started out pretty standard with scrambled eggs, bacon that looked as if it was hardly cooked, and sausage links, then came the more interesting stuff, like breakfast pudding, available in both black and white varieties, fried tomatoes (which I skipped), porridge (which I took a bowl of) and of all things baked beans. Now I like baked beans as much as the next guy, but I couldn't get used to the idea of having them for breakfast. On the other side wall were the plain breads and toaster as well as the coffee and tea service with saucers available for the mugs.

Ireland Galway Cathedral

Okay so I loaded up a tray full of food, and took it over to a table. On the table I found the sugar and cream. So let's see how the Irish breakfast tastes. The eggs were a bit runny but acceptable, just be careful with that pepper shaker, if you even look at it wrong you have a good pile of pepper on your food. The sausage was not the type of sausage we generally have with breakfast but it was pretty good. Which brings us to the puddings, according to Wiki, "White" breakfast pudding contains: pork meat and fat, suet, bread, and oatmeal formed into the shape of a large sausage, in other words similar to what we would call goetta, although Bob tells me in his opinion it tasted nothing like goetta. Black pudding is similar except it adds blood to it. I'm mostly glad I didn't find out what was in it until I got home as I took a liking to the different puddings. I left the beans and tomatoes alone, but I did try a bowl of porridge, which Wiki confirms my suspicions is what we call oatmeal. Moving on to the cold food, I liked the fruit salad and the melons, but two grapefruit sections were enough to convince me I had no real interest in that. I thought the orange juice tasted a bit watered down, but the coffee more than made up for it. They don't play around with their coffee. I was surprised that in a land that seems to serve potatoes with everything, they had no equivilant to our hash brows or home fries, in fact nothing really potato-ish at all for breakfast, also they didn't have the deli trays out for breakfast like Italy did.

Ireland Galway

Having finished breakfast we returned to our rooms, and grabbed our carry on bags. I knew we were coming back here, but I don't like to leave anything in the room I would be heart sick if it vanished. We had heard the night before that there would be a seat rotation scheme implemented, the idea is to give everybody a chance to be at the front and back of the bus. The idea sounded pretty simple, each day you rotated two rows clockwise, so if you were on one side of the bus you moved up two rows, the other side moves back two rows, hopping over the center aisle in the front or back as needed. We heard that we would rotate once each day, at the beginning of the day. I can report the seat rotation scheme didn't work out well on its first morning, and never really did get better. That isn't to say that no effort was put into it, in fact I'd say most people did try to abide by it, but it just didn't pan out.

Ireland - sculpture in Galway square

We started our morning with another driving tour through Galway, where it was pointed out to us that several streets in the city center (their term for downtown) are pedestrian only at night, but are open during the day. We took a drive around Eyre Square, sometimes called "Kennedy Memorial Park", yes after JFK. Its an inner city park with a nice fountain flanked by a row of flags of the founding families, as well as the Browne Doorway which was once the doorway to the Browne family home before being moved to the park as a historical item. The Browne Doorway was partially concealed by construction walls at it is being rehabbed, but the walls are designed with an image of the doorway so you can get a hint of what it looks like.

Ireland - Spanish door in Galway square

From there we drove closer to but still not to Galway Cathedral before heading out of the city. We did get in one traffic jam caused by getting tuck in a narrow street and being blocked in by school busses dropping off their students at school. Yes, the image you may have gotten from watching the Harry Potter movies of students in dress clothes and matching ties to go to school is absolutely correct. Jerry mentioned that in their schools students are expected to learn both English and Gaelic. (It's interesting the tour books I have suggest I call it Irish and not Gaelic, but our guide, as well as the signage in Ireland refer to it as Gaelic). Jerry also pointed out that for most people once you get out of school, you never really need Gaelic again, so everybody becomes rather proficient at it in school, then you graduate and since you don't use it in your daily life you forget most of it until, of course, you have children of your own whom you are trying to help them get through school. Jerry also confirmed to us that, yes, Irish children are provided with free schooling, at the school of their choice, all the way through college. That part we kind of knew, but the part that blew most people's minds was when he said "school of choice" includes either a secular or religious based school, since we come from the land where we take "Separation of church and state" to mean no public dollars can be spent on parochial schools. One upside though is that since almost everybody goes to a parochial school, or a school setup by a private concern, that there are very few state run "public schools", just no need for them as the private sector has provided more than ample facilities, for which they get all their funding right from the government. Just past Galway Cathedral is the University. Once interesting fact about the University in Galway is that the official working language of the school is Gaelic, and Jerry quipped "And what do you do with an extensive knowledge of Gaelic?, Well since Gaelic is an official language of Ireland, all public documents must be published in both English and Irish translations, and furthermore anything the European Union releases to all of its member states, or to Ireland must be translated into Gaelic. As you can imagine with the amount of paper a government can produce, that can keep quite a lot of Gaelic scholars busy.

Ireland - Galway narrow tight streets

Jerry said that yes, as we may have noticed by now English is commonly spoken in Ireland, and is an official language, in fact it is the language spoken by the vast majority of the citizens. However, there is a small, but rather vocal minority who is always pushing to keep Gaelic official and preserve its use. They commonly state reasons such as national identity, national pride, patriotism, cultural identity, preserving history, etc as reasons they want to keep Gaelic alive, and there are cities and regions of Ireland that have bonded to become so fanatical about it, that they want to make Gaelic the exclusive language in their areas, referred to as Gaeltacht areas, but we'll talk more about that and the problems it presents later on in the trip.

Ireland - example of Irish /Gaelic road sign

Jerry mentioned we were about to have our first visit where he would hand us off to a local guide, and yes even though we all speak English to be mindful that the accent will be different. Stuff like they stress there R's more than we do so "three" comes out sounding like "tree", or "tu" is pronounced like "choo", so a tuba is pronounced chooba, which means a ballet dancer performs in a "choo-choo". We may hear somebody say "That's grand" which means "That's fine" , and that some people don't use "yes" or "no", so if you ask them a yes or no question like "Did you have lunch" they will respond by saying "I ate" or "I didn't eat" He also said they tend to let a response drift off to make it seem like they know more about something than they are letting on, like if you ask "Is that Blarney Castle?" They might respond "That would be…" and just let it hang there.

Ireland Connemara Marble company

Now that we have had our language lesson, its time for our next stop, which in Connemara and the Connemara Marble company. Jerry said he had called them to make special arrangements to open early to accommodate our touring schedule. It seems they open at 10am, and Jerry asked "Can you open earlier?" and they responded "How about 5 till 10?" Anyway he talked them into 9am, so we pulled up at the marble works and went inside. We entered the company store and after everybody was gathered inside, we were ushered into the back room. At one end of the back rrom was a large area for people to gather and in one corner stands a little marble moutain and what looks like a drill press or other large tool. Our guide goes over to this mountain like area which forms its own stage like area. Our guide flips a switch and we learn he has a wireless microphone on, a rather neat idea. Our guide welcomes us and proceeds to talk a bit about Connemara Marble and how it is dug out of quarries located around the area and then fashioned into all sorts of items large (like interior walls and floors of buildings) and small (like trinkets and jewelry). He talks about how the various colors generally come from different quarries although there can be exceptions as he holds up a block of marble with both light and dark green. He shows up some samples of blocks of marble to show us the different colors, commenting on how they can work with thick blocks or wafer thin pieces as a well timed spotlight can shine right through such a small piece. He goes on to tell us about the uniqueness of marble to fossils that wind up in the pieces, some of which stay there, and some of which fall out leaving little holes. Also as a samples of their work he pointed out to look at the floors of Galway Cathedral and then showed around a necklace which had beads of all the various marble colors. He did tell us that marble, while quite abundant at one time, is not a limitless resource, and that some colors like the dark green are about to run out. Dark green is now so scarce they will no longer use it in large building projects, only trinkets and jewelry.

Ireland - Connemara Marble crafter tour

After the presentation which covered more the history and information about the product and less on how it's made we are led through the workshop where the workers hare just starting to arrive for the day and then back out into the store by means of another door. Some time is given here for shopping, and Bob and I each buy a small celtic cross statue, with me choosing the dark green. Those went for €20 each and we were given a brochure about the company. Back on the bus we noted another group unloading and another group just pulling up. I wonder if the early open thing was just the framework for some light morning humour.

Ireland - Connemara country side

From the marble company we take a drive through the Connemara countryside and are rewarded with breathtaking views, especially went we weent past some lakes and the bright sun in the sky casted the most beautiful reflections off the lakes, creating mirror images of the terrain above water. You just couldn't ask for a more picturesque view.

Ireland - Kylmore Abbey

Our next touring stop was Kylemore Abbey, which is an active Benedictine Abbey built on the site of the former Kylemore Castle. Remember what I said about castle owners wanting a natural attraction to draw influencial friends to their castle, well Kylemore Castle looked as if it were built right in to the hillside and was fronted by a nice size lake, yet another picture perfect spot. We pull into the bus parking area which is on the opposite side of the lake from the castle itself. Jerry points out things to see, such as the castle itself which is open for self guided tours through about 5 rooms, then further along the path is the gothic style church, and then you end up at the Mausoleum to the original family of Kylemore Castle. He also mentioned there is a formal Victorian garden we can go see, but it does involve taking a bus ride to get to. It was also decided that we would use this as our lunch stop and that there is an extensive visitors center in the white building on the other side of the bridge that has what Jerry said was a buffet style restaurant. A return time of 2 hours was set, and as we exited the bus Jerry and Fr. Barry stood at the bus doors passing out admission tickets to the site.

Ireland Kylemore Abbey - visitor center

In order to get anywhere, you had to cross a bridge from the bus parking area over to the visitors center. So we did that as a group and then people split up based on their priorities so we took the walkway further alongside the lake around to the castle. Just before he got to the first attraction we came to another white building which serves as the gatehouse. We noted exit turnstiles in the fence alongside the building, and a sign directing people inside the building to enter. The building was like a reception area with murals and signs about the Abbey and other displays. Along one wall was the ticket sales counter and some gift items. I noted a line at the admission gate nearest the counter and two entrance turnstiles that weren't getting any use. I had noted the tickets had a bar code on them, and instructions to scan this barcode at the ticket barrier. I walk up to a turnstile, and put my ticket under the barcode scanner, the scanner emits a red bar of light like it is reading the barcode, but I get neither confirmation that the ticket has been accepted nor notice the ticket has been rejected. After a few tries to scan I walk forward into a still locked turnstile. The ticket taker for the manned admission gate indicates that we should come to him with a tone that all but says "I can't remember the last time those things worked" We go to him and trade in our tickets for park guides and then exit the door onto the grounds to continue our way around the lake.

Ireland Kylemore Abbey

At this point one could go left to get to the bus stop to ride the bus to the gardens, or to the right to continue around to the buildings. There was a path straight ahead towards the still active and operating school which was clearly signposted as being off limits to tours. Not just "Private area" but "Strictly Private Area". We continued around the lake to the castle and headed in the front door. From the front door we proceeded to take the tourist trail through the castle, the hall to the left was marked off limits, leaving the hall to the right. Passing through the entryway which was not very remarkable except maybe for its architecture. The stairs were roped off, so the path goes straight through to the next room. The next room was the library or parlor type room and was decorated with period details such as a chess set, and a very early model record player. One wall had a high cabinet, which contained a bookcase with shelves so high it had a ladder. Taking a turn to the left we entered a room that was being used as a museum of sorts with various religious artifacts such as a tabernacle and the display panels that would have been behind an altar were on display as well as vestments and other religious items. Continuing straight through this room it was up a flight of stairs to the formal dining room, with the table set for a very formal banquet with the fancy silverware, china and stemware. To be clear you weren't allowed to walk about the parlor or dining room, just around the edges. From the dining room, it was back down the stairs in a hallway that had some signage about the castle and that led into a sitting room. The sitting room had a large fireplace at one end and was quite tall as it had a balcony ringing it from the floor above. In the center of the room is what I call a round chair, it was like a sofa for four people, in individual sections with armrests, but it was round. This room looked just like a formal sitting room, except maybe for the statue of Mary in one corner with a rack of votive candles underneath. The sitting room leads back into the entry hall and we exited the house the way we came.

Castle Tour Photos:

Ireland Kylemore Abbey - stairway

Ireland - Kylmore Abbey

Ireland - Kylmore Abbey

Ireland - Kylmore Abbey

Ireland Kylemore Abbey - dining room

Ireland Kylemore Abbey - balcony around center hall

Ireland Kylemore Abbey sitting room

Ireland Kylemore Abbey fireplace

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Emerald Shores of Ireland - Part 4

"The Emerald Shores of Ireland"
A trip journal by David Bowers
Part 4

After driving around the Burren for a while, then returning to drive along the coast line. We did take a rest stop at a place called the Burren House. Jerry told us about some former uses for the Burren House, but now it serves as a tourist rest stop, as it has a gift shop, restaurant and restrooms. I also note it seems to have picnic facilities as well as an ocean overview. The building itself has at least an outer skin of a stone wall, and might even be a stone building to blend into the area. We had a short stop here where we looked about the gift shop but did not buy anything, recall that my DVD says it also covers the Burren. I also invoked the rule of tour groups which is: when offered a rest stop, at least make an attempt as you don't know when the next one will come around. In this case, there wasn't much interest in this gift shop with most people milling about the outside of the locked bus with about 10 minutes left.

Ireland burren house

We continued along the Irish countryside until we pulled into the town of Oranmore. We had been spending the day enjoying nature's beauty, but I had mentioned this trip is a pilgrimage, and part of that is visiting religious sites as well as a Mass sometime every day. This would be our first Mass stop. Jerry mentioned we were going to Immaculate Conception Church which is a fairly modern building even though our eyes were focused on a traditional looking church ahead of us. Someone quipped I guess compared to 1,000 year old buildings, that is modern. We then turned off and headed to a real modern looking church. Instead of the transept and nave design, it s a more square-ish building with the altar in a corner and the rows of pews set out in a fan like configuration. Jerry didn't give us a return time, just that we would return to the bus shortly after Mass. We entered the church and I noted the donation box in the lobby is actually a hefty looking safe with a slot built into the top of it. We then headed into the main sanctuary. As is usual in these designs the stations are on the back two walls, and the front two walls have big stained glass windows. Of interest is an area in the front that might be the baptistry that had a huge floor to ceiling poster that stood out because it looks like it was lit with a black light effect. We took some time to explore the church while Fr. Barry met with the sacristan and prepared for Mass. Father then mentioned the way the masses would work is that we could see him to volunteer to read or distribute at the appropriate times, and that after each service there would be a collection taken up for the local parish in thanks for letting us use their church.

Ireland - immaculate conception church

Ireland - immaculate conception church

Ireland - immaculate conception church

We took our seats and noted that while the kneelers do fold up, the legs that support the kneelers stay on the ground forming tripping hazards. Most decided it was best to just leave them down. I won't go into Mass details except that Father is known for saying a fast Mass, and on this trip was no exception with 20 minutes being the norm, including a homily, general intercessions and an introduction about the saint or other figure of the day. Not having music, and a real short communion procession does help keep the time down. After the service the collection was taken up and a few more minute given to explore the church before we regrouped on the bus.

Ireland Galway

It was time to head into Galway, which would be our home away from home for the next two nights. On our way to Galway, Jerry talked a little bit about hotels, and more about procedural issues. He started off by saying the rooms are probably smaller than we are used to, not cramped just smaller. He also pointed out the rooms will have a coffee/tea service in them, and feel free to use it as it is included. If we would like to make any incidental charges, to leave a credit card imprint with the desk, and not to wait until right before departure time to settle up. On all nights except one, the drop off at the hotel is the end of the days touring, except for perhaps the group dinner. This means as we approached the hotel each night, Jerry would share with us the next days agenda for our planning purposes, then announce the dinner time, the breakfast time, and if we were checking out the time the porters will expect our bags to be out in the hallway. Its all standard tour stuff, including the presumption that a half hour wake up call is sufficient, I prefer the hour wake up myself. A reminder was also given that only one bag per person will be handled by the hotel porters. The other thing he mentioned was about phones. Of course hotels will surcharge you so you may want to use a pay phone. Some of those take coins, and most of them take cards, which can be purchased and recharged in stores where you see a Top Off sign out front. He mentioned that he repeatedly hears people say that they don't have to worry, they have 1-800 numbers to call home. That's all well and good, except you aren't in the United States anymore, so you will need to first call the international operator, at which point you are paying for an international call anyway, which means if the number even works, you would be paying for the call twice.

Ireland - Galway

We then approached Galway and took a driving tour of the city. Galway seems to be the cultural capital, given they are a big university town and all. Narrow streets are still the rule in his fairly major town. We drove around the town, past the Galway Cathedral which we will see later, past some tourist areas, and found our hotel right alongside a fairly fast moving river, right near he Spanish Arch. It is the Jury's Inn Galway. Jerry went in ahead of us to announce our arrival, and make sure everything was in order. He then returned to the bus and I think he channeled Phil from the Amazing Race when he said "You'll find the keys to your rooms on the table in the lobby". We entered the hotel lobby and Jerry helped distribute keys as well as free Galway city guides. We turned around and joined the queue for the elevators, which were on the small side like we expected, but very modern and fully automatic. We rode up two floors to the second floor, recall that European buildings start with a ground floor, then the 1st floor and so on. Some buildings even appeal to my inner computer geek by starting with a 0 floor.

Ireland -Galway - Spanish Arch

On the second floor I see a laundry room, some vending machines near the elevator lobby. We head down the hall to our room. We insert our keycard, open the door and take a look at an Irish hotel room. I actually like the design, it's a fairly modern room . The big difference in European hotels is that instead of putting two double beds in a standard hotel room to sleep 4, they put two twin beds in a hotel room to sleep 2. There was a nice closet by the door, then along the side wall was the coffee service, a luggage rack, then a long desk that can also double as a luggage rack, but has the internet hookup and a lamp for those interested. There was one chair under the desk and one next to the desk. At the other end between the desk and the window was the TV on a wall mount TV stand. On the other side of the room were the two twin beds each with a night stand and a phone in the middle. There was no small round table as is common in American hotel rooms, and when I went to adjust the air conditioner, I learned their was no air conditioner just a radiator, but the windows do open, and can be tilted in to allow for ventilation without letting any rain in. One thing I think is really neat is when you enter the room you have a switch for the main bedroom light, then above each bed you have two switches, one for each persons reading light, and the other is a remote for the main bedroom light. That's nice as you can leave the light on till you get into bed instead of stumbling around a dark strange room. Same thing for when you get up in the middle of the night. I noted this electrical feature to be fairly standard in Ireland. To finish up the tour I looked in the bathroom. Okay, pedestal sink on the left wall with a tiny shelf above it, barely big enough to hold the two provided drinking glasses, on the right wall is the toilet, and straight ahead is the tub. I noticed that the free toiletries we are used to having in hotel rooms were not there, instead there was a liquid soap dispenser next to the pedestal sink, just like a public restroom. A similar looking dispenser held body wash in the tub area. There will be more about this shower later. Oh, and there are also no washcloths in the room, hand towels, bath towels and bath mat, yes, but no washcloths. Hand towels will have to fill in for those.

Ireland - Jurys Inn Galway

So we freshened up as we waited for our bags to be brought up, I also tucked my DVD into my carry on bag. I did go to check out the vending machines. Lets see I can get a canned Coke (330mL can) for €1, or from the next machine a selection of snacks and candy bars, also mostly €1. Since anything under €5 is coinage, their vending machines don't have paper bill acceptors. Their Coke machines must be having problems with the Euros though, as the machine is encouraging people to pay with small value coins as the machine will refuse 1 and 2 Euro coins if the Exact Change light is lit. Okay that was good for about 2 or 3 minutes. I also looked at the traditional notices on the inside of the hotel room door. The maximum rate card was particularly confusing with its array of options, most of which were blanked off anyway. The options start with differing rates depending on if you want to rent (let) a room, or share a room with another guest, then for each of those options broken further by if the room has a private bath or not. The rate card looks to be a standardized card used all over Ireland, so of course has options that may not even apply. Under that it has the rate to add on breakfast. Soon the bags arrived, and we finished freshening up and then headed to the lobby for dinner. We got back to lobby a bit early but noted the hotel offered a restaurant, a pub, a broken internet terminal (seems to be a recurring problem we would experience), restrooms, phones, a cigarette machine. At €7.60 for a pack of cigarettes, that would seem to be a strong encouragement to quit smoking. I noted their method of keeping minors from sneaking a pack out of the vending machine, it does not operate on Euros, rather you need to buy tokens from the hotel staff. I noted the front desk offers post and foreign exchange services. We moved closer to the restaurant where I noted the hotel has a large courtyard with lots of tables. The hotel forms two sides of the courtyard and the river forms the third, which makes it a really attractive setting. Our room has a nice view into the yard. The wall across from the restaurant is glass from floor to ceiling which lets in a lot of natural light and some heat via the greenhouse effect.

Ireland - river alongside Jurys Inn Galway

The restaurant servers directed us to the back half of the room, sit anywhere we see menus sitting out. I noted the table was set for a fancy dinner with 2 sets of silverware plus a set of desert silverware, bread plates, water goblets and pitchers of water. They had a roll at each place, it must be the standard Irish dinner roll as we saw them just about everywhere, and both butter and margarine were on the table, as well as a rare sighting of artificial sweetener with the sugar. I looked over the banquet service style menu. It was of the select one appetizer and one main course type menu. I was happy to see that we would have choices. I looked at my options and saw I could choose between Ceasar salad, soup of the day (later reveled to be cream of vegetable), or hot wings. I went with the Ceasar salad, then looked at the next listing, between three entrees, one of which would always be vegetarian, I went with the Salmon dinner, and noticed that all dinners would come with boiled potatoes and mixed vegetables. Everybody would receive carrot cake and coffee for desert. The first server came around and took orders for the bar, I ordered a Harp (a lager type beer from Guinness) and the server seemed concerned. "Have you ever had a Harp?, I responded that I had and I got a look like "If you really want Harp, I'll get it for you" A second server came around and took the food orders. From there we just had to relax and let the food come to us. Relax being the key word here, as we still needed to adjust to a dinner taking 2 hours. I must say I liked it, the bacon in the Ceasar Salad was a bit strange, but it was good. The main course came with the meat and potatoes but no vegetables. Some time later they brought out family size dishes with carrots, cauliflower and brocolli to be shared. I must say it was a nice size piece of salmon, and since I hadn't had it in awhile it was a really nice meal. Later the carrot cake came out. Ah, no cute carrot icing decoration, and we thought it had more of a spice cake flavor. The coffee came in large mugs, and was nice and strong no nonsense coffee. I did add some sweetener and milk into it, and it was a nice way to finish the meal. I was expecting a server to come around to collect for the beer, and finally asked to be told to pay up at the restaurant cashier where she had all our checks sitting on the counter. €4.40 for an imperial pint of Harp. For the record, Bob also had the salmon, but he did opt for the "Cream of Vegetable" soup which he reported back looked and tasted more like Split Pea soup that had been pureed to the point where there were no solid vegetables left. During our meal one gentlemen had to excuse himself for the restroom and then come running quickly back to get the combination for the door from the server.

Ireland - room at Jurys Inn Galway

After dinner we thought about taking a walk, but considering we had just pulled an all nighter and had a double length day, we and most of the group decided to get a well deserved rest. Before getting that rest, however, I took a shower. Now, I have had some pretty bad hotel showers but I have a new candidate for Worst Shower Ever. The tub was fine, even if it was a shallow bottom water saving tub. (Lets see, water saving sink, water saving tub, and a commode that must take 10-20 gallons per flush). I was planning on taking a standing shower anyway, and I knew I was in for a special treat when a big topic of discussion over dinner was how to use the shower. There are two standard faucets at the bottom of the wall near the tub. Leave those alone, those are only for if you want to draw a bath, for a shower use the one single plastic faucet halfway up the wall. Okay, I turn the knob one way no water, I turn it the other way, no water, I pull it out, and it comes off in my hand, I put it back on. I then notice what looked to be a decorative border turns, and that controls the water flow, and the inner knob controls the temperature. The temerature was reasonable, but I never could get the pressure I wanted. Worse, that sorry body wash dispenser dispenses one stingy drop at a time. I had almost packed a bar of soap with me, now why didn't I?

Ireland - room at Jurys Inn Galway

I got out of the shower and broke the bad news to Bob while I sat and watched some TV, finding the UK version of Big Brother, cool. When Bob came out of the shower he wholeheartedly agreed with my scathing assessment. From that point we didn't stay up to long before experiencing that first night in a strange land, I'm glad I had the double day as it meant I had some shot at getting sleep. Hey though, I did remember the travel alarm clock. I set the alarm clock for 6:30, a time it would seem to grow to like most of the tour, and went to sleep.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Emerald Shores of Ireland - Part 3

The Emerald Shores of Ieland
A trip journal by David Bowers
Part 3

Soon thereafter, John boards the bus and we are on our way out of the airport. We are welcomed with the traditional "Cead Mile Failte" greeting (a 100,000 welcomes), and we take the time while we are exiting the airport's car park ("What's he doing in the car park? Parking cars, what else do you do in a car park?") .Jerry took the time to go over the tour housekeeping details, and really airport parking lots really aren't that interesting. He mentioned their scheme to handle our checked luggage, he then mentioned that we are expected to handle all carry on bags ourselves throughout the tour, although there may be some room under the bus for those wishing to put their carry on bags there in the morning, then claim them when we get to the hotel. We are also welcome to leave our personal belongings up in the passenger compartment in the bus, and there are overhead bins to assist in this. He then mentioned that he is required to inform us that items that are left on the bus not in the cargo holds are left there at our own responsibility, but he quickly countered that by saying that he has been conducting bus tours in Ireland for 20 years now, and only once has he had anybody claim their bag was taken, so it's a mostly safe environment. Speaking of legal requirements, Jerry then mentioned that Irish law requires all passengers to wear seatbelts while on busses. At this point most if not all of the 56 people in our group reach down for the seatbelts, as we had ignored them as we would on busses in the United States, if they were even installed. Okay, we have been dutifully informed of the law, can we lose the "Fasten Seatbelt" decals pasted to the big large touring windows above every row of seats. They really got in the way of my photography. As a side effect of this, it also means you can't stand or move about a bus while it is in motion. They also mentioned that yes, we are in a restroom equipped bus, but just like almost every other tour leader I have had, he discouraged its use for, shall we say environmental comfort issues, but besides since it is illegal to be out of your seat while a bus is in transit, it also means you can't get up to go to the on board restroom even if you needed to, He countered that by saying that they have planned suitable rest stops into any drives longer than an hour. He also stressed the importance of punctuality and minding the return times given at any stops, and that the bus is equipped with a rear door, its use will be at the sole discretion of the driver. Interestingly enough while the main door is on the right hand side of the bus when looking at It from the front, the back door is on the left hand side. Which brings up an important point, Ireland is one of those nations where people drive on the left side of the street, which means that in traffic the back door would open directly into traffic.

After our briefing at the start of the trip is over, we started the touring, first up was the Shannon Airport which we just left. Jerry mentioned that in the early days of aviation, Shannon Airport was the chief refueling stop. In those days, Shannon Airport was just about the range of the aircraft of the day, meaning that almost everybody stopped off at Shannon before heading to their real destination. These days, that need has been mostly abated as aircraft now have the range to go all the way to their European destinations without the refueling stop, but that doesn't mean its not a popular airport both for civilians, but also military flights, including, he said our own United States military. I recall reading that Ireland has tried to artificially keep Shannon integral by saying that if a North American airline wants to go to any other Irish airport, they had to either stop at Shannon on the way into Ireland, or the way out of Ireland, this was later changed to say they had to offer an equal number of flights to Shannon than they do to other Irish airports. According to Wiki, this arrangement is either going to end or has ended. Jerry also mentioned that one legend says that Irish Coffee was invented at the Shannon airport bar by travelers waiting to change planes in the morning. He also mentioned that some local attractions, such as Bunratty Folk Park which I will visit later in the week were built to give airport customers things to do while they wait. We soon were out on the road, and you know that saying about "The grass is always greener on the other side?" Well, it most definitely is over in Ireland, vivid green grass. A lot of the countryside is taken up with fields seemingly divided into smaller fields. Jerry mentioned that either heather or stone are used to divide fields. Different fields do not necessarily mean different owners, instead a farmer may own multiple fields, and then they don't have to be continuous. Every now and then we would spot a house, almost all in very good condition. Sometimes we'd spot a stone outbuilding, and Jerry mentioned that those were probably houses at one time.

I really liked Jerry's style, which was to engage in sort of a two day dialogue at times, where he would describe some facet of Irish life, and then solicit from us how things are back in the United States. I'm sure he's heard about the USA numerous times from leading various groups, but I think that format helps put people at ease, as it helps break up the long stretches of lecture style presentation common on group tours. We started out discussing that perennial topic, the weather and how it compares, then he asked where we are from. Jerry noted we are on a modern highway, and commented that those of us who were expecting to spend some quality time on Ireland's quaint country roads, to not fear, as we will be spending quite some time on them later. He had mentioned that the road system was an area that Ireland really benefited by joining the European Union. It seems that when Ireland going the EU in 1973 it was one of the poorest, if not the poorest nation in the Union. One of the things the EU said, was that Ireland's road system needs to be brought up to European standards, which has greatly benefited Ireland. Jerry confirmed the common belief that not too long ago there was a rush to emigrate from Ireland "Will the last person out of the country, turn off the lights!", but in the last ten years or so a lot of technology firms and other high tech industries have moved into Ireland, which has caused a tidal wave of economic prosperity to flow through Ireland, and now people are seeking to immigrate. He quipped that they don't have the illegal immigrant problem we do, as Ireland is an island, which means everybody has to arrive by boat or plane, and they think they have a pretty firm grasp on those ports.

Our first touring destination was the Cliffs of Moher but on the way we passed the Lenisch Golf Club. This particular golf course is famous for a links style course that is particularly interesting due to its dunes style landscape that puts you in positions where you can't see the flag you are aiming at. Jerry mentioned this course cost about three times as much as the average course in Ireland. Across the street from the Old Course, is the Castle Course. No, this is not a miniature golf course, but when they built their newer more traditional style course there happened to be a castle ruin on the property. They decided to keep the castle and built the course around it. The same complex does offer the short game in a format called Pitch N Putt, which is somewhere between Par 3 Golf and Minigolf. We then passed by another castle ruin. Jerry mentioned that Ireland is dotted by such castle ruins because even though they don't get too involved in international conflict, they have had a history at going at each other. When one group would capture another's castle, it was common to reduce it be tearing down half of it, and leave the one half standing as a warning to what happens to those who dare fight them.

Ireland - castle ruin on hillside

Castles were an important part of early Irish life, as we would learn progressively more about as the tour went on. It was a feudal society with large land owners, called land lords, who would then rent out small parcels of their land to numerous small families, and that for those land owners life was quite good. But, in Irish society it wasn't enough to be rich, you also had to have influence and connections. Castles were built not only for defense, not only for a place for the landlords to live, but also a place to entertain. The Cliffs of Moher happened to be on the OBriens land, and the Obriens used then as an attraction to bring Irelands most influential people to their property, "Come here and check out our amazing view" They even build an observation tower which still stands, Obriens Tower. We were soon pulling into the Cliff's parking lot.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher visitors center

Jerry gave us a brief orientation after we were parked at a bus drop off area. Direcly ahead of us is the visitors center. I had a feeling I had just arrived at the Shire, as the visitor center is literally built into the hillside with doors and windows literally built into the hillside. There is a trail leading up the hill to the left, the trail splits into two. Jerry advised us that the left path goes to a higher but more popular area, the right trail is shorter and offers a very similar view. Jerry didn't mention the row of storekeeper's who had shops along the path to the right. Past those shops I noted what looks like a little gatehouse, and as I noted as I was leaving that's exactly what it is, so it looks like the bus parking area drops you off inside the paid admission zone. Orientation over, it was announced that we would have time to enjoy the Cliffs and grab lunch, there are some restaurants in the visitors center. He also pointed out the Irish flag on the pole just to our left, which was proudly flying briskly in the strong wind, as a way of indicating the wind is strong right now, and to watch ourselves at the top of the Cliffs. A return time was set and we were headed to the Cliffs. We did find it humorous when a bright green fun looking tour bus pulled up alongside of us, the name of the bus company - "The Paddywagon" That, of course, has a totally different meeting back in the states.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - Flagpole at visitor center

We left the bus, and indeed the wind is strong. We decide to go and see the view at the top of the Cliffs first. I was going to toss my empty drink bottle into a garbage can until I spotted a conveniently located recycling center at the base of the trail. We started up the first section of trail, up to the fork Jerry had mentioned. At the fork of the trail is a multi-lingual safety sign. I noted that Gaelic took the spot of honor as the first language with English a close second. The sign gave the basic don't climb on the safety wall lest you fall off the cliffs warning, but also gave a reason. The reason is the Cliff face is still eroding, and if you walk on what you think is solid ground it could erode away under you. I admit I didn't read the sign until I was looking at the photo of it on my computer, but the signs along the cliff edge that read simply "DANGER CLIFF EDGE" looked to be more effective.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - safety warnings

We decided to take the shorter trail to the right and headed up the stairs. The stairs were wide with no railings. I noted that there is accommodation provided by a long zig-zag path that gradually makes its way up the hillside. The safety wall is made to look as natural as possible, its made with several stone like slabs that form a waist high safety wall. At the top of the stairs we came to an overlook area. If we looked straight out, we got a nice view of the Atlantic Ocean from the other side, if we looked to the left we saw a series of jagged cliffs which made for really nice photos, if we looked to the right, we saw aclearing further along the trail containing Obriens Tower. We took some photos and some time to enjoy the awe inspiring view. A rain had started to fall, but it was a real light annoyance rain and had ended by the time we had walked back down the trail to the visitor center.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - View from Top

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - O'Briens Tower

We entered the visitor center built into the side of the hill, and the theme continues on the inside with a cave like interior. On the entry level we spotted a coffee house like restaurant on one side, and the tourist information desk and gift shop on the other side. Straight ahead was a multimedia presentation that is at extra cost and not included in our tour, so we skipped it. We did take the long curving staircase up to the upper level of the visitor center. Those stairs could stand to have more lighting, at the top of the stairs are the restrooms and the cafeteria.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - looking out hillside window from restauraunt

We headed into the cafeteria, took trays and started down the line. The station we went to specialized in deli type sandwiches, so we each got a sandwich, bottled soft drink and I went for some sort of peanut butter and chocolate pastry. The seating was at long cafeteria type tables, so we joined up with others from our tour for lunch. To one side we could see out onto the park through the big windows in the hillside. We were enjoying our sandwiches when others came back with Irish Stew, we then discovered the hot food stations were at the far end of the room., Moral of story: look before you leap. I did notice on the Coca Cola bottle that the beverage contains actual sugar, and not high fructose corn syrup, that it was apparently bottled in Northern Ireland (gee, that could get nasty if the two sides started hating each other again), and that it is best served ice cold. Recall that cold drinks and ice are not common in Europe.

It was a pleasant lunch, and we got to meet up with some of our fellow tourists. After lunch, we did head to the restrooms. Now I promise not to make restroom mentions unless there is something extra special about it, and this counts. We pretty much excused ourselves to the restroom one at a time, and when I got there, I walked into a very modern looking facility with a real unique sculpted sink that I will get to in a few moments. The stall doors were of a frosted plexiglass with a floral pattern painted on them. Wait, this is too pretty for a men's room, I was reassured to see the row of urinals along the back wall. So back to that sink, it was one of those curvy low depth models were there are water taps built into it at several points mounted by sensors. I spotted the sensor and saw a metal plate mounted above the sensor, looking like a little shelf. I figured the sensor hides the water tap and thrust my hands under the metal plate at the sensor. Well, I was right about the sensor, but was surprised when the water came out not under the metal plate, but actually came out on top of the metal plate, and then poured off over the front edge like a waterfall. Unique, but I was glad I wore short sleeves. I returned to the table and noticed that while people had damp arms or sleeves, people were not warning anybody.

Ireland - Cliffs of Moher - display in visitors center

After lunch, we decided to not chance the dark stairwell and instead used the elevator. We next headed to the gift shop. I decided to only get site specific souvenirs during the trip, knowing that almost any good tour will include a lengthy stop at a mega gift shop where I could get the general Irish souvenirs. We did take time to look around the store to get an idea of what is available, then I wound up buying a DVD that covers the Cliffs of Moher as well as the Burren. As a clever touch, I noted they claim the DVD is double sided with NTSC and PAL on opposing sides of the disc. €15 later I had the DVD and we headed back out to the bus, making sure there were people behind us, its like the Amazing Race, its not important to be first back to the bus, but you don't want to be last, there is a bad stigma attached to that.

Ireland - Burren

Group collected, we proceeded to our next tour site, the Burren. What makes the Burren unique is the landscape. Instead of nice bright green grassy fields, the Burren has been described as almost lunar like, almost entirely stone covered with grass peeking out between almost like weeds. We also passed by some small villages, and yes, except for the big cities and sometimes even in the cities, the villages and towns do look like they do in movies. That is short two or three story buildings, set in rows usually each one a different solid color with a storefront on the street level. Jerry mentioned that in some smaller villages the pub really is the center of the town as it also doubles as the general store. What operation goes in front depends on the priority of the owner. I believe we also passed a castle and Jerry said that some of the castles act like hotels, and in some cases you can rent the entire castle, in case you want to have the unique experience of staying the night in an Irish castle. Rental houses and smaller bed and breakfast operations are very popular in Ireland, and having rooms en suite (private bath) is a selling point to be put on the marquee.