The Land of a Million Plastic Eiffels

Wednesday, February 15, Paris
I don’t mean to make a big deal of my being sick, really, but I was. I was taking the antibiotics, sure, but I’d only had them a couple days. I was still weak. The itinerary had to be trimmed because I just couldn’t keep up with the original plan—mostly because I never could get a real breath of air. For roughly fourteen days—from the day I got sick (the day after I arrived) until two days before I left—I felt like someone was constantly pressing on my chest. But what can ya do? So … we just moved slower. And things, as I’ve mentioned already, slid off the to-do list.

One burning question you may have had that I am pleased to be able to answer: do they really wear berets in Paris? Absolutely. The young, the old, men, women—there are lots of berets goin’ on there. Also lots of cigarettes: the old and, sadly, the young. I wrote in my journal: “I’ve breathed more close-at-hand cigarette smoke here in two days than I normally do in a year. And the cell phones! Everyone’s walking down the street talking on a phone! Don’t get me started … !”

But berets: yes. Simple, classic, chic. I’d read that Paris is a city of fashion, of careful dressing, and I saw that to be true. Even French men seemed to be very fashion conscious, even the old ones (which I found quite charming). And everyone—men and women—were wearing scarves. You see older women in the shops, all dressed up in hose and heels and a skirt, buying their groceries—no running down to the convenience store in your sweats on a Saturday morning, oh no. Paris is simply not a casual city. You can immediately identify the tourists: we’re the ones in the comfortable shoes.

And in jeans, of course.

It was overcast this morning, the fifteenth, and I found that I’d slept until almost seven, which is really late for me. Poor Gerry was trying to salvage what he could of sleep (with my deviated septum, I am an Olympics-caliber snorer*), so I puttered quietly in the kitchen, washing dishes, boiling some eggs for breakfast, then ran out to the boulanger and patisserie. When I came back, I brewed tea and had a bit of toast while I read the souvenir book I’d picked up at Sainte-Chapelle the day before. Later we had a light breakfast of that wonderful French bread, the eggs, and some thin, lean ham before heading out.

We crossed over the Pont Marie (bridge) to the Right Bank to catch the Metro, a route we would take often, as just past the Metro station (with that lovely red Art Deco sign—or maybe it is Art Nouveau?—from the 1920s) is the grocery store we would come to use, on the Rue de Rivoli, a major thoroughfare.

The Pont Marie Metro stop.

The Pont Marie Metro stop.

In the center of this boulevard is a tiny, permanent carnival, just three little rides, including a merry-go-round … a cheery sight, I must say. Sort of the French version of the Mommy-will-you-put-a-quarter-in-it plastic horses you see outside Wal-Mart, only better. In our apartment there was a collection of plastic tokens to use there, left, no doubt, by a previous tenant with children.

It apparently rained last night, or perhaps in the morning before we were out; the streets were wet but it wasn’t raining just then. Down the Metro we went, to ride out to the Champs-Élysées to see the Arc de Triomphe, and when we climbed out again, holy moly, it was right there, sitting in the middle of a roundabout intersected by twelve streets. Actually, Gerry insists that it is not really a roundabout, “because roundabouts have a sense of order to them, and this had none.” It was more like a free-for-all. Thank God I wasn’t driving in this city!

You come up out of the subway … and there it is. It’s huge.

You come up out of the subway … and there it is. It’s huge.

It’s huge. Often one finds that a thing that’s lived in one’s imagination since childhood is smaller than one expects (Stonehenge, for example, although that doesn’t diminish it one whit), but this was definitely much, much bigger than I’d imagined. So, we stood there and gawped for awhile, along with several dozen other tourists. We could see people all around it and on top of it, but we hadn’t a clue how to get over to it (because—trust me on this—there’s no way you could cross the traffic). Interestingly, the guidebook didn’t say, and it seems to me that this is a glaring omission, for tourists who might still be a bit overwhelmed by the whole getting-along-in-a-country-where-most-signs-aren’t-in-your-native-language thing (and I don’t just mean us English-speakers—at this point we’d seen people from all over: many eastern Europeans, a zillion Chinese, the odd Arab in swirling robes). Anyway, I must point that out to ol’ D-K Publishers—things that would be perfectly obvious at home in your comfort zone are not nearly so obvious here.

Because, of course, the reason it’s not in the guidebook is it is pretty obvious—we’d just overlooked it. There is a tunnel running under the street that brings you up like a prairie dog surfacing just to one side of the Arc. It has its own little stairwell that looks remarkably like an entrance to the Metro—two entrances, actually, on opposite sides; one was right next to us, but … well … we were turned around, and we missed it.

So we commenced to walk around the roundabout … and finally found the other end of the tunnel, on the opposite side, which took us under the street to the Arc. (It was here that we happened to look up and caught our very first view of the Eiffel Tower, and let me tell you … it was breathtaking.)

You know the story of the Arc. Napoleon wanted to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, where he suckered the Austrian and Russian emperors into thinking he was in a weak position, and then trounced them, virtually destroying both armies. This victory is regarded as Bonaparte’s greatest, a tactical masterpiece. So he began work on this memorial arch in 1806, envisioning himself riding through the center of it on a huge white stallion (I made that part up, maybe he wanted a black stallion), his victorious troops marching behind him. The Duke of Wellington put the kibosh on that, of course, and the Arc wasn’t finished until 1836, partly because of Napoleon’s fall from power.

Looking up at the center of the Arc de Triomphe. Beautiful.

Looking up at the center of the Arc de Triomphe. Beautiful.

Now it is a memorial to all French war dead. The names of major victories won during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods are inscribed around the top; lesser victories, and the names of generals, are engraved on the inside walls. France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is here, in the center of the Arc, topped by an eternal flame that commemorates the dead of the two world wars.

Names of battles.

Names of battles.

So we bought our tickets, followed the entry signs, and found ourselves in a very (very!) narrow spiral staircase, ascending what Gerry estimates to be nine or ten storeys. A long way, anyway; the guidebook says 164 feet. And I wonder: did the guy who sold me the ticket and pointed me at the entry door also assess my physical health before he turned me loose in that claustrophobic stairway with no warning or caution? There absolutely were not signs warning of the distance of the undertaking, nor of the tightness of the space, nor that there is absolutely no place to rest save on the stairs themselves, as others squeeze by, sighing or grumbling or pitying, depending on their mood that day. Was that gatekeeper confident that this chubby middle-aged woman would not have a heart attack in that narrow stairwell? I wonder, I do.

Behind me by several steps I heard a Brit mutter “Pace yourself,” and that was my first clue that we weren’t just going up a few steps to catch the elevator! Like my ascent at the Giant’s Causeway in the north of Ireland in 2003, I truly wish I had a T-shirt that says “I climbed the stairs at the Arc de Triomphe,” but, sadly, they don’t sell them. We got to the museum, one floor before the roof, and Gerry looked around while I sat on a bench and recovered my breath and my sanity (I’m a little claustrophobic) to go up to the viewing platform—one more floor—on the roof.

There are elevators; the guidebook says there are. But they keep them, if not hidden, cleverly unmarked, and apparently they are only for the handicapped, though, again, I saw no signs (we discovered the lifts by accident, when, as we were preparing to walk all those stairs down—and those of your who know my fear of going down stairs can imagine how I was dreading it—we found an employee heading into the thing, and we hitched a ride, with me saying a silent prayer of thanks all the way down).

So we went up one more level.

Seeing the Eiffel Tower from the roof of the Arc de Triomphe. And I say again: pinch me. February 2006.

Seeing the Eiffel Tower from the roof of the Arc de Triomphe. And I say again: pinch me. February 2006.

The view from the roof was magnificent.

Looking northwest-ish, down the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. What you see in the distance is the business district, La Défense, and more specifically, that square thing is La Grande Arche de la Défense, a monument meant to echo the Arc de Triomphe. It’s almost 4 miles away.

Looking northwest-ish, down the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. What you see in the distance is the business district, La Défense, and more specifically, that square thing is La Grande Arche de la Défense, a monument meant to echo the Arc de Triomphe. It’s almost 4 miles away.

Now looking the opposite direction, southwest, down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. (You can’t tell, really, without the leaves, but they shear the trees along the sidewalk into a square shape.) This avenue ends up ahead in the Place de la Concorde (a roundabout) that abuts the Jardin des Tuileries, and after that, the Louvre.

Now looking the opposite direction, southwest, down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. (You can’t tell, really, without the leaves, but they shear the trees along the sidewalk into a square shape.) This avenue ends up ahead in the Place de la Concorde (a roundabout) that abuts the Jardin des Tuileries, and after that, the Louvre.

So … the view was really something—particularly of the Eiffel Tower. When I was planning our itinerary, I had us taking the subway from the Arc to get us a bit closer to it, but frankly it looked very close (and the subway took us out of our way), so after referring to the map we decided to walk. We also spent some time watching the cars going around the roundabout, but really: there seemed to be no order to it, it just looked crazy.

We’d laughed thinking that the Eiffel Tower was probably father away than it looked, and it was, but only just a little … and the walk through the Chaillot quartier was definitely worth it. We’d been in the city over twenty-four hours, and I was still walking around in a dream, asking myself: am I absorbing it all? Am I taking it in? I’m in Paris, for heaven’s sake! Well, this little stroll through Chaillot was very Parisian, and I did take it all in.

Chaillot was a separate village until it was engulfed by Paris as the city expanded during what’s known as the Second Empire (1852–1870). The wide boulevards and many public buildings and parks that are Paris’s trademarks all date from this period, and in Chaillot there are many lovely old mansions; some have been turned into upscale apartments while many now house foreign embassies. It was quiet, beautiful, and untouristy.

Walking through Chaillot, following the Eiffel Tower. Can you see it?

Walking through Chaillot, following the Eiffel Tower. Can you see it?

A beautiful Chaillot residence in a flatiron-style building.

A beautiful Chaillot residence in a flatiron-style building.

My guidebook had suggested that one of the nicest views of the Tower could be had from the approach from the Jardins du Trocadero, so that’s the way we headed. (Actually, it was the shortest way too.)

From the Arc we walked down Avenue d’Iéna into the Jardins du Trocadéro, where we got off the street and onto the park paths.

From the Arc we walked down Avenue d’Iéna into the Jardins du Trocadéro, where we got off the street and onto the park paths.

Like many public parks, the Jardins du Trocadéro has quite a bit of statuary. Like this one:

The Triumphal Dance of Pallas Athene by Carlo Sarrabezolles (1925).

The Triumphal Dance of Pallas Athene by Carlo Sarrabezolles (1925).

When we came upon this statue, my first thought was I’ll have what she’s having. 🙂 She’s dancing with wild abandon, I thought. But if you follow this link, you’ll see in the original, she is holding a long spear. This is a statue of the goddess Athena, who, in Greek mythology, rules over wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, mathematics, strength, war strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. According to Wikipedia, “Athena is known for her calm temperament, as she moves slowly to anger. She is noted to have only fought for just reasons, and would not fight without a purpose.” The statue was executed in plaster by Charles Marie Louis Joseph Sarrabezolles (1888–1971), but apparently this one in the park is a copy. (Here’s a little more about it.)

Standing by Athena, looking at the Eiffel Tower.

Standing by Athena, looking at the Eiffel Tower.

We didn’t spend any time, really, investigating the park itself, which has a beautiful water fountain and houses a large museum, all of which was created for the 1937 World’s Fair. We only had eyes for the Eiffel Tower (and we knew my energy was limited).

But the guidebook was right about approaching the tower from this garden. It was stunning and exciting. It’s quite a sight, of course, from any angle. It’s funny the way something as iconic as the Eiffel Tower, something you’ve seen images of your whole life and that you feel is as familiar as your own backyard can be so jaw-droppingly, staggeringly incredible when you finally see it in person. (I’ve since read that the Eiffel Tower is the single most recognized landmark in the world; I don’t doubt it.)

So, then, we walked right down to this little herb garden, and across the Pont d’Iéna to le Tour Eiffel.

And there it was, in all its glory. What a day!

And there it was, in all its glory. What a day!

Looking east along the Seine. It’s a busy river.

Looking east along the Seine. It’s a busy river.

Built for the Exposition Universelle (a World’s Fair) to celebrate the French Revolution (did you know that, the French Revolution part? I didn’t), le Tour Eiffel opened on March 31, 1889 (they’d begun building it in 1884). It’s over a thousand feet tall with its spire. Here’s something else I didn’t know (courtesy of Wikipedia): “Maintenance on the tower includes applying … three graded tones of paint every seven years to protect it from rust. On occasion, the color of the paint is changed (the tower is currently painted a shade of brown). On the first floor, there are interactive consoles hosting a poll for the color to use for a future session of painting.”

It was brown in 2006. (Or what is now known as oiled bronze in the DIY store.)

It was brown in 2006. (Or what is now known as oiled bronze in the DIY store.)

For fun, go to the official website, then click on “Eiffel Tower Gallery,” and then on “360° Virtual Tour,” for some splendid photos. (For a really lovely nighttime view from a different perspective, go here—this website has been up at least since 2005, when I discovered it, and hasn’t been updated, really, but it’s still beautiful. Use the scroll bars.)

Seeing French soldiers patrolling with full riot gear, rifles at the ready, was a bit of a shock for my American eyes in 2006.

Seeing French soldiers patrolling with full riot gear, rifles at the ready, was a bit of a shock for my American eyes in 2006.

The tower is definitely geared for tourists, with signs in both French and English. It being winter, they were only running the lift in the Pilier Nord (north pillar), and I was very disappointed to learn that we could not go all the way to the top viewing platform, due to some construction work. Nonetheless, we bought tickets to go as far as we could (needless to say, there was absolutely no discussion about taking the stairs), which was the second stage, and the view from there was a fine one. It was breezy and chilly.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Champ de Mars (it’s a public greenspace) adjacent to the Eiffel Tower. February 2006.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Champ de Mars (it’s a public greenspace) adjacent to the Eiffel Tower. February 2006.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Palais de Chaillot, situated in the Jardins du Trocadero; it houses several museums.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Palais de Chaillot, situated in the Jardins du Trocadero; it houses several museums.

From the Eiffel Tower: I loved this one apartment building with the garden and swimming pool on the roof.

From the Eiffel Tower: I loved this one apartment building with the garden and swimming pool on the roof.

The first stage—which you bypass at first, if you’ve purchased a ticket to go higher—is a shopping emporium, with a couple restaurants and, interestingly, a post office. Anything mailed from here is hand-cancelled, and the postmark reads “Tour Eiffel,” which is cool. I’d prepared postcards in advance of this, and bought stamps, and watched the postmistress as she carefully and thoroughly stamped over each postage stamp. (Regarding souvenirs: in contrast to what must be MILLIONS of people, given the number of them on offer in stores, I did not buy an Eiffel Tower trinket, plastic or otherwise. Not that I wouldn’t have—I just never found the right one.) 🙂

I’d thought this was going to be an easy day; after all, we’d knocked out the first two things on the list in fairly short and successful order. My itinerary called for a quick lunch and then to head over to the Louvre, which stays open late on Wednesdays—we could browse as we desired, without feeling rushed by a looming five p.m. closing. However, we (ahem) decided to press on, so … on to the Louvre.

It’s hard for me to articulate the feelings I had about the Louvre. Unlike the Arc de Triomphe or le Tour Eiffel, I don’t associate an iconic image with the word “Louvre”—it’s more of a state of mind for me. As if … as long as the Louvre exists, God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world. Knowing that, then, you’ll understand why the next few paragraphs pain me.

We took a very short ride on the Metro to the museum, where we discovered that not only was this week spring break for Irish children (and, apparently, British children, too, as we’d seen loads of Brit families on this trip)—it seemed the French were on spring break as well. The area under I. M. Pei’s lovely pyramid was raucous with noisy children going to the Louvre with parents or grandparents … and that was only the beginning.

Under the Pyramid at the Louvre.

Under the Pyramid at the Louvre.

Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre is much less easy for non-French speakers to navigate, or at least it seemed that way to me. Something as simple as buying the tickets became a challenge. We walked through a courtyard to get to the pyramid, stood in line to go through security, and then went down an escalator into the lobby—but then what? Or where?

First order of business: we were parched, so we headed for a little café to get a bottle of water. They were only €2.30 each (that’s nearly $3 per bottle, kids). All I really wanted to do was sit down, and the lobby, as huge as it is, has very few places to sit. We were chased out of the café’s sitting area by a waiter who gestured that we couldn’t sit there (we’d unknowingly bought to-go bottles, not to-stay cups) and—for the second time in two days—I was about ready to provoke an international incident (this one intentional!), so tired and cranky was I. I just wanted five minutes of sit-down time. But no, Gerry rescued me from a night in jail by urging me away before I told the waiter to kiss my very tired behind, and, instead, we went in search of tickets.

As I’ve mentioned already, the ATM-like machine that I tried to buy tickets from spit my credit card out in disgust. Fortunately the lines to buy tickets from humans weren’t long, and we soon had them, although, again, we weren’t really sure where to go next. It just wasn’t obvious—and hey, call me an unsubtle American if you must, I just like a little unambiguity now and again. Like, you know, one of those schematic drawings they have at the mall, with the red arrow and the words “YOU ARE HERE.”

As it turns out, there are three ways to go in, because there are three wings: Denon, Richelieu, Sully. These wings, actually, are what’s left of the French monarchy’s royal residence, built over hundreds of years (and obviously without a building permit! Ha!). The guidebook tells us that King Philippe-August built a fortress along the Seine in 1190; some of this building, which was the royal residence, is still a part of the Louvre as it exists today (Sully). In the sixteenth century, François I built a Renaissance-style palace next to it (Richelieu), “and founded the royal art collection with twelve paintings looted from Italy.” By the time Louis XIV moved the royal court out to Versailles in 1682, various wings and buildings had been added by various monarchs, creating the behemoth that it is now; when the Sun King left, however, building ceased. Revolutionaries opened the collection (which had grown, of course) to the public in 1793, and shortly thereafter, in 1800, Napoleon renovated the building intentionally to create a museum. Today there are over 350,000 priceless objects in the Louvre. You could spend days there and not see everything.

The thing about these old museums in these old buildings is they’re just not user friendly. I’ve become quite spoiled by some of the newer American (and Irish) museums I’ve visited, where the visitor is led from exhibit to exhibit, all but guaranteeing that everything is seen. Well, you just can’t see everything in the Louvre. They say you should decide what you want to see, and then go to that spot—and that’s a great idea, if you can figure out how to get there. Even the maps were confusing (in fairness, the buildings’ layout is confusing), and I’m normally pretty good with a map. Can you hear a rant approaching?

The long and the short of it: the Louvre was the biggest disappointment of my entire trip. In a word: I hated it. (Gerry says I hated it because we were there at the end of the day, and I was tired and—don’t forget—sick; he contends that if we’d gone there first thing in the morning, I would have liked it a lot better … and next time—next time!—we will do just that.) But picture this: Jamie and Gerry, walking through room after room of magnificent art, eyes glued to the map (“What room is this, honey?”), trying to get where we’re going. We spent forty-five precious minutes doing that. The place was packed, and there were tons of kids running around loose. The crowds can’t be helped (if Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world, the Louvre may well be the number one destination in Paris; certainly my Paris Top 10 book lists it as number one), but don’t people understand they should point their eyes in the same direction they are walking? Walk, or look at art: it’s a choice you have to make! There were people taking flash photography when it’s clearly signposted not to (and this wasn’t a few isolated incidents; it was constant). The security personnel, standing around in groups of two or three, chatting with each other, didn’t bother to try to stop it. (End of rant.)

As I write these words, it occurs to me that perhaps it was the seeming lack of respect—even my own as I strode through rooms that I didn’t even look at—that got under my skin. Attention must be paid! This is the Louvre, for heaven’s sake!

I wanted to see the Dutch masters; I fell in love with Vermeer and Rembrandt as a teen, and I’m still fascinated by the detail in the paintings from that school, still fascinated with the realism, with the portraits of old people with gnarled hands. I know very little about art history, and understand even less, but I know what I like, and I like these paintings. So that is where we went, finally. After we walked through that area, we headed down to see the Mona Lisa (because that’s what everyone does, of course; and that smallish room was packed). You can’t get close, and she’s behind glass (as were many paintings we saw), which means you might as well look at a photograph, but, as Gerry says, now I can tell my future grandchildren that I’ve seen the Mona Lisa in person.

At that point it really was time to go. We hopped on the Metro back to the Pont Marie, found the grocery store Giancarlo’d told us about, and yes, the prices were much better than what we’d paid on the island the day before. We were both beat and ready to be home in our snug, comfortable little apartment. We were going to stop in the boulanger around the corner for fresh bread.

At least, that was the plan. We were literally just two blocks from the Seine at that point (and just another one block from the apartment), but somehow we got turned around when we came out of the store, and we headed off in the wrong direction; eventually we walked in a big circle, about thirty minutes’ worth. My feet were killing me. By the time we got our bearings and the right direction (thanks to a barkeep who spoke no English but who did “speak” map), we arrived back in our neighborhood too late for the boulanger. Not that that spoiled our meal.

And just in time—it began raining as we sat down to eat.

* It would also turn out—though I wouldn’t know for years—that I was suffering from sleep apnea.

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Pinch Me, Please, I’m Going to Paris

Tuesday, February 14, Aer Lingus Dublin-to-Paris

WHO KNEW that Brad and Angelina would be in Paris (as the copy of People magazine I picked up in the airport informed us) on February 14th (and, in fact, for most of February)? But then as the world’s most famous lovers, why WOULDN’T they be in Paris on the International Day of Love and Expensive Meals, eh?

After some discussion with Anne Rogers last night (she and her husband, Kevin, owners of Blaithin House, were departing for Barcelona that day about forty-five minutes after we were due to take off for Paris), they decided not to ride to the airport with us. I can’t blame them—Anne offered to leave breakfast out for me, but I really couldn’t imagine giving up any sleeping time to eat, so why would they want to give up the extra sleep either? (I would come to regret declining that breakfast, though!)

Travel Tip: Eat your breakfast. You never know when travel circumstances may interrupt or delay your regularly scheduled feeding … forcing you to resort to, say, copious amounts of French chocolate until a real meal can be had. (Contrary to popular belief, chocolate—French or otherwise—is not one of the major food groups.)

Gerry likes to be early—or, I should say, he likes to have enough time to allow for mishaps, which, as we discussed in an earlier rant, are the herbs and spices in the recipe of international travel, in my humble opinion—so we arrived at the airport a bit after five a.m. Obviously there was no one to receive the rental car out at the lot, and by five-thirty, when we’d checked our bags, there was no one at the Europcar counter inside, either, so we just left the keys and went on.

We wandered through duty-free just to see what was there (forward planning for my departure in ten days)—and let me tell you, it was weird to see that much retail happening before six o’clock in the morning! Dublin has an excellent duty-free mall, by the way.

We’d heard earlier from Pat that this week is spring break for all Irish schools (the first time ever, it seems, that the event had been coordinated), and suddenly it made sense why there were all those teens roving around like packs of wild dogs—our plane to Paris was packed with teenagers on the loose, as well as families with small children on their way to EuroDisney, which is just outside Paris, apparently. Considering that Gerry’s house (and my B&B) is just a fifteen minute drive from the airport, and I still had to rise at four a.m. for this seven a.m. flight, I could only imagine how long some of those Irish folk had been up, and how cranky some of those kids must be, although we were, of course, soon to learn.

Another Travel Tip: Europe is awash in discount airlines; Ryan Air, originating in Ireland, is one, but there are several, all competing to fly folks between the major European destinations. Can you say “Price War”? If you’ve got your heart set on Rome, but the cheapest flight from the States is to London, jump on it. You can get there from … well … there. Anne and Kevin flew from Dublin to Barcelona for €25 each. Hel-lo—you read that correctly: twenty-five euro (roughly thirty bucks). Think about it, and plan accordingly.

Our flight was, as I’ve said, full, but it was uneventful (and in the case of air travel, that’s a good thing)—but that was the only easy thing about the morning. The French—with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald—are different from you and me. Especially as it regards, um, signage.

Yep, Charles de Gaulle airport is just a bit confusing, and I’d done my homework, I knew where we wanted to go! I could even see it—the RER (in other words, the underground train into/through Paris)—on the signs. I just couldn’t find it.

Here’s the thing in a nutshell: we landed at Terminal 1, and the RER only departs from Terminal 3 (oh, did I mention that CDG is spread out into several different terminals?). My guidebook failed to tell me that important piece of information, because it’s intended for the American market, and if you fly into Paris from the U.S., you’ll land at Terminal 3, and that will be that. But I entered Paris from another country in the European Union! Suddenly, it was a whole new ballgame.

Yet Another Travel Tip: I love the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. I’ve bought more than one brand of guidebook in my time, but I keep coming back to DK (I love the detailed street maps of the more important towns, for one thing). And now they make these “Top 10” books—Top 10 Dublin, Top 10 Paris—for people who have a limited amount of time. They give you the top ten don’t-miss spots, and then they break down each venue (the Eiffel Tower, for example) into the ten things you should see while there. They’re small (fit in a small purse like mine) and reasonably lightweight.

French signage is like a scavenger hunt: they only give you one clue at a time. So, we collected the luggage, said to ourselves, “OK, let’s get to the RER,” and then found a sign that looked something like this: RER —>

Hey! We don’t need to speak French to follow arrows, right?

We walked in the direction the arrow pointed, and ended up at an elevator. When we got to the elevator, the sign regarding RER only told us to go down one floor. When we got down one floor, the arrows pointed us outside, where shuttle buses were pulling up, and we overheard someone say that we could catch the train at Terminal 3 (someone who knew more than us). So that’s how we got to the train station, along with a load of puzzled Irish folk. But what should have taken us about ten minutes actually took about forty-five; there were some moments wandering around the airport when I felt pretty hopeless. I stopped and asked airport workers twice, and that interaction left us a bit frustrated too (oh, let’s be honest: they weren’t helpful, and it felt … as if they were unhelpful on purpose).

A note on foreshadowing: this isn’t foreshadowing. Normally I like to just let the story unfold. But right now you may be thinking that I had a bad French experience, which, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth. So I just want to tell you now that this all has a happy ending, I had a lovely time in Paris, France, and want to go back as soon as I can manage it. Frankly, Paris is one of those places that you have to go back to, because you do spend a certain amount of time fumbling around in the dark, so to speak. But then you figure everything out—what works and what you like, and where things are, and how much time to allow—and the vacation becomes everything you’d hoped it would be, only two days shorter. 🙂

But back to those frigging signs. It just seems like it could have been easier. For example, a sign that said RER, TERMINAL 3 would have made a lot of sense to me, and would have set us on the right path. After all, all we had to do was take the luggage fifty feet from the carousel to the elevator, go down one floor, catch a shuttle bus to the next-plus-one terminal where the train station and ticketsellers were, buy two tickets, and get on. We’re both reasonably intelligent people; this should have been doable. (Later our landlord agreed that Terminal 1 is, in his words, “a nightmare.”)

And don’t get me started on the kiosk-computer that was supposed to sell us a ticket; even with the help of an American woman who spoke (and read) “a little” French (in case I was doing something wrong, which I wasn’t), we never could make it sell us a ticket. We gave up, and she tried to buy a ticket and had the same problem as us (later I had the identical problem trying to buy tickets from a machine at the Louvre, which led me to conclude that my credit card—and possibly many American credit cards?—had some fundamental incompatibility with the French automated system; the machine would just spit it out after a certain point. Makes me wonder about their ATMs. It worked just fine, thankyouverymuch, at French stores though! Ooo la-la!)

Bottom line: I’ve only traveled to English-speaking countries thus far. Stepping outside that particular comfort zone (although, let’s face it, sometimes in Ireland I’m not completely certain I’m speaking the same language) takes international travel to a whole new level. I read up about this trip, I tried to prepare, and I actually thought I could handle it (and I did, most of the time). Having said all that, though, most places that tourists might go in Paris had (ahem) English subtitles. Restaurant menus had English translations. Most shopkeepers spoke more than enough English to sell us what we wanted. Paris is the number-one tourist destination in the world, for heaven’s sake, and, trust me, most of those tourists do not speak French. Parisians have definitely gone the extra mile to make us welcome.

So … putting all that behind us, we bought tickets from a human, not a machine, and finally dragged our luggage on to the train—the RER B-line, which goes straight through the middle of Paris. We exited at the St Michel-Notre Dame exit, which is pretty much dead center. Gerry was cursing as he dragged my suitcase up those last stairs—but there we were … Paris!

As we’d been instructed via e-mail (in English), we crossed the street, and met our landlord, Giancarlo Buccafusca. He is an emergency room physician at the Hôtel-Dieu (apparently that means hospital in French), and we just walked in and asked for him. Giancarlo came out to give us the keys and the security entry code, told us he’d drop by later to settle up on the rent, and gave us directions to the apartment.

Something Interesting: I didn’t know this until recently, but in major tourism cities like San Francisco, say, or Paris, there’s quite a bit of business done in short-term apartment rental. This gets you out of the hotel district and into a neighborhood, and in the case of Paris, integrates you into the life pretty quickly. (Of course, you take your chances: sometimes you end up in the Village of the Damned. But sometimes … you end up at 23 rue le Regrattier.) My friend Jenny had had a good experience with this type of accommodation in Paris, and had suggested several Web sites; I’d chosen one that you worked directly with the owner of the apartment (thus no brokerage fees). I’d decided what part of Paris to stay in, looked at several apartments, e-mailed Giancarlo, negotiated a price (because it was the off-season), set a date—and that was that! I cannot emphasize enough how much we loved this apartment, loved the location, loved having more than just a room in a hotel—for a lot less than we’d have paid for “just a room” in a hotel.

So we walked the seven or eight minutes to the apartment on the Île St-Louis, dragging our luggage behind us. Île de la Cité is pretty touristy, even in mid-February; there are dozens of shops selling little plastic Eiffel Towers (and other plastic Paris memorabilia) lining the streets. We walked right past Notre-Dame, and I was literally agog with the wonder that only a girl from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, could feel. Notre-Dame, y’all! Flying buttresses, gargoyles, tourists in the courtyard, yeah.

This is the backside. We walked up this street, along the side of Notre-Dame, many, many times. And it’s magnificent.

This is the backside. We walked up this street, along the side of Notre-Dame, many, many times. And it’s magnificent.

The temperature was in the 40s, just as weather.com said it would be. But when you’re on the move, it doesn’t feel all that cold.

Île de la Cité is where Paris was born: the first inhabitants of this area were a Celtic tribe, the Parisii, who settled on the island in the third century BC. Romans later destroyed the Parisii city and founded their own on the Left Bank (calling it Paris, after the Celts); and in 476 the Franks captured the city, converted it to Christianity, and made Paris the capital of their new kingdom, France. French kings even made their residence on the island until 1358.

Kilometer Zero stone, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 30 January 2004.

Kilometer Zero stone, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 30 January 2004.

Nowadays, all distances in France are measured from Point Zero, which is in the courtyard just outside Notre-Dame Cathedral—so you see, this island is pretty meaningful in French history. Its little sister, connected by a small bridge that ends up at Notre Dame’s backyard gate (so to speak), is Île St-Louis, where we were headed.

For a long time, Île St-Louis was nothing but a cow pasture, but in the seventeenth century, lords and financiers and other important folk began building their homes there, and that is pretty much the situation now. It is considered to be the most exclusive address in Paris. It feels like a small village, and when you leave Cité and walk into St-Louis, you can even sense the noise level dropping … it was quiet in among those old, old buildings. The island is fortified by a stone wall; you can take the stairs down to the river level and walk all the way around the island, which, I’m told, takes about ninety minutes all in. (Because I was still ill, this was one of the things that just slid off the to-do list.)

Islands …

Islands …

The street that runs down the middle of the island (rue St-Louis en L’ile) has plenty of shops (although the grocery store was pricey, so we shopped off the island for grocery items, once we learned where), and not a touristy shop among them! We did get in the habit of running out in the morning for fresh bread, right around the corner from the apartment. Oh, those French pastries. Oh, oh, oh.

Looking down rue St-Louis en L’ile.

Looking down rue St-Louis en L’ile.

And what a gorgeous apartment! Just a block away from Notre-Dame, we turned left on rue le Regrattier …

Turned left on rue le Regrattier …

Turned left on rue le Regrattier …

… went to the third doorway (past an antique shop and an entrance to another apartment building) …

The third doorway!

The third doorway!

… inserted the funny plastic key and waited for the lock to release. Once inside there’s a covered anteroom where the mailboxes are, which ended in another door. This required entering a security code; past that door the tiny, tiny courtyard held garbage bins and more doors. Ours was the first.

This building is very old (built in 1642, we’ve read); since our apartment was mostly below street level, Gerry speculated that we were probably in a piece of what used to be the servants’ quarters. From the front door stairs you can go down into the living quarters or up into the loft bathroom and sleeping area. (Note: these photos were taken on my old [film] Canon F-1, with no flash. They’re not great.)

In the righthand corner of this photo is the entry door (covered by curtains). From there you can go up to the loft or walk down into the living area.

In the righthand corner of this photo is the entry door (covered by curtains). From there you can go up to the loft or walk down into the living area.

Standing on the stairs looking down into the living area. The living room is out of the frame; this little central wall/closet separates it from the kitchen (left) and dining room (right). The refrigerator and a small closet are hidden inside this wall.

Standing on the stairs looking down into the living area. The living room is out of the frame; this little central wall/closet separates it from the kitchen (left) and dining room (right). The refrigerator and a small closet are hidden inside this wall.

The efficient little kitchen.

The efficient little kitchen.

The high ceiling has two magnificent—and obviously ancient—wooden beams running the length of it; again, these probably supported the floor of what was once a mansion above, though now it’s just other apartments. There is nary a straight line on any wall in the place, such is the age of the building.

Standing on the stairs, looking at the high ceiling with the very old beams. On the left, the loft bedroom, made private by this canvas curtain. When you look out this window, you see people’s feet and ankles. :)

Standing on the stairs, looking at the high ceiling with the very old beams. On the left, the loft bedroom, made private by this canvas curtain. When you look out this window, you see people’s feet and ankles. 🙂

The apartment is small; if you’ve looked at the Web site [now defunct] you’ll have seen it’s just 560 square feet—but let me tell you, it’s 560 well-used square feet, and, of course, modern and nice and comfortable. (Unlike the Village of the Damned, the heat had been turned on in anticipation of our arrival.) The kitchen was fully stocked with plenty of dishes, pots and pans—and, amazingly, olive oil, spices, condiments in the fridge, even cookies and cereal in the cabinets! (We made sure to leave some treats behind too.) The bathroom is quite large, with a built-in washer and dryer, and plenty of extra towels. And a bidet (a first for me). And there was even a box of Kleenex in the kitchen, which I would make ample use of as I continued to recover from my cold.

“Hey! Come see this!” Gerry called from upstairs. “Steve McQueen is on the telly, and he’s speaking French!” During our stay in Paris we also managed to see Starsky and Hutch speaking French, and Billy “City Slickers” Crystal speaking French; who knew these guys were bilingual, eh? (While this phenomenon of familiar American movies dubbed into French was amusing at first, let me assure you it lost its charm pretty quickly—especially when there was, um, Paris to explore.)

So we were out the door. We found the baker (la boulangerie), and yes, we walked around with a pair of loose loaves of bread stuck under our arms. Found the greengrocr (la marchand de legumes), the cheese shop (la fromagerie), and ooooh yes, the patisserie (need you ask?). A deli (la charcuterie) for cold cuts. Found a small grocery store and bought a few supplies for breakfast. Since we didn’t speak—or read—the language, we shopped by looking at the pictures on the packaging, although I was amazed at how much of my high school French started coming back to me. We carried all this culinary loot back to the apartment (it’s so cool, this neighborhood shopping!) and then set off again.

Now we crossed back over to Île de la Cité, walked past Notre-Dame—it was much larger than I expected—straight up the island to Saint-Chapelle (translated literally, this means “holy chapel”). This is what the official guidebook says: “The Sainte-Chapelle was built by St. Louis, king Louis IX, in the middle of the thirteenth century, at the heart of the palais de la Cité, the sovereign’s residence and the seat of his administration.”

It is a spectacular little jewelbox of a building, originally built by the very devout Louis to house holy relics: Christ’s crown of thorns, a fragment of the cross, and other items. (Remember, of course, that this was in 1239—in other words, more than a thousand years after the Passion. Everything Louis kept in Sainte-Chapelle is gone now, so we’ll never know if they were … uh … real, but I for one have serious doubts.) Be that as it may, the chapel was built (consecrated in 1248), and attached to the enormous royal residence. At that time it was taller than everything around it, sitting in the center of the palace’s courtyard. Now it is almost invisible, having been swallowed up by larger buildings built all around it, most notably the Palais de Justice.

[My photographs aren’t great, so I poked around the Web trying to find some. Back in 2006, there wasn’t a lot but these days, Saint-Chapelle has a Facebook page. 🙂 The photos here are magnificent, and I recommend you stop and take a look.]

Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, until you’ve been inside: gothic in style, the building is in remarkable shape (think of every World War II movie you’ve ever seen and then remind yourself that the Nazis entered Paris in mid-1940 and stayed a really long time—it’s a miracle it survived). It reminds me of a doll’s house, with every perfect little detail.

A website I investigated gave these directions—“To visit, go to the Palais de Justice, and follow the signs”—which made me laugh out loud.

You see, we did that. And once again we fell victim to the whimsy that is French signage: we saw the sign that said Sainte-Chapelle, and we followed the arrow, which led, as best we could tell, right into the Palais de Justice, which houses the city’s Judicial Court.

One view of the Palais de Justice, 2006.

One view of the Palais de Justice, 2006.

We got in line, went through security, removing belts and shoes and coats—and then realized we were actually on our way into a court of law, not into a tourist destination. (Later, retracing our steps, wondering what happened, we realized that we should have seen the next sign and arrow, just past the doorway we entered; sort of the bread-crumbs-in-the-forest method of directional signage.) Anyway, I almost caused an international incident when I dashed out the next exit: an agitated cop followed us, shouting the French version of “Stop or I’ll shoot,” but when he saw me and realized that all he really had on his hands was a chubby discombobulated Yank, he just threw up his arms, rolled his eyes, and let us go.

I’d been told that late afternoon was the perfect time to see it, so our timing was excellent. The building is very tall, and very narrow. You enter, at street level, the lower chamber, where services were held for the palace staff during the time of the French monarchy. The colors are rich: reds, golds, and blues, with the French fleur de lys appearing everywhere. It’s impressive enough (until you get upstairs); I kept repeating to myself: “Built in 1248, built in 1248, oh, my.”

Just to show you the magnificent color. The lower chapel, 2006.

Just to show you the magnificent color. The lower chapel, 2006.

Although in Louis’s day there was an outdoor ramp-like staircase that led into Sainte-Chapelle, today we climb an interior spiral staircase to reach the nave above, which is 34 feet wide, 108 feet long, and 67 feet tall. There are practically no walls—it’s almost all glass (but remember, it didn’t look like that from the outside!); what walls there are are cleverly disguised.

“Doesn’t look like much” from the outside.

“Doesn’t look like much” from the outside.

But those same windows on the inside … oh my.

But those same windows on the inside … oh my.

And besides, who would notice a wall beside those dazzling 51-foot-tall stained-glass windows! More than two-thirds of the original thirteenth-century windows survive; the rose window at the front of the building was damaged and repaired in 1485. There was a major restoration of the building in 1840, to repair damage sustained during the Revolution. It is, in a word, stunning. Nothing I can write can do it justice—you’ll just have to go there and see for yourself. : )

We walked around the outside of the building, then headed further along toward the tip of the island. We ended up at a little triangular park, the Place Dauphin. My guidebook says it is a charming place, but in winter the grass is dead, apparently, and, even though it is clearly posted to scoop your pooch’s poop, the first thing I saw in the Place Dauphin was dog crap. Everywhere.

The Place Dauphin, Paris, February 2006. Click twice to zoom in—you can probably see all the poop.

The Place Dauphin, Paris, February 2006. Click twice to zoom in—you can probably see all the poop.

Walking to the north edge of Île de la Cité near the Place Dauphin, looking at the buildings on the other side of the river. On the far left is La Samaritaine, a department store. The other buildings are also shopping emporiums, I believe.

Walking to the north edge of Île de la Cité near the Place Dauphin, looking at the buildings on the other side of the river. On the far left is La Samaritaine, a department store. The other buildings are also shopping emporiums, I believe.

At this point—having been up since four a.m.—we were tired, and, frankly, my feet hurt. On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at Marche aux Fleurs to buy fresh flowers; hey, it was Valentine’s Day! Marche aux Fleurs is sort of like the floral section of the Nashville Farmer’s Market: held in the center of a plaza-like area, it’s a combination of vendors in semipermanent stalls, selling potted plants and cut flowers. It’s the oldest market of this kind in the city, dating from the early 1800s. I picked out red tulips to match the apartment’s decor. The shopkeeper wrapped them in cellophane and tied them with a burgundy satin ribbon, which she affixed with a pretty sticker. This was my first experience in Paris with such elaborate packaging, but that is the way they do it: everything carefully wrapped, often beribboned. Presentation is important.

Presentation is important.

Presentation is important.

Just over the bridge from Cité to St-Louis there is a little brasserie with brick-red awnings hanging over plenty of outdoor seating (though it was too cold for that), and a prix fixe menu posted. It looked reasonable, so we went in, where the seating winds itself around a central bar. It’s all very close and cozy. No one spoke English, but everyone was friendly, and we managed to get a good hot meal, although it was a bit pricier than we’d expected, as the prix wasn’t REALLY fixe (The French fries were extra! Who knew!).

Just over the bridge there is a little brasserie … Can you see the awnings?

Just over the bridge there is a little brasserie … Can you see the awnings?

The Cassoulet Maison on Île St-Louis, February 2006.

The Cassoulet Maison on Île St-Louis, February 2006.

After this nice rest, we strolled down the main shopping street to get some Berthillion ice cream (it’s considered the premium ice cream in Paris, and, I can assure you, it is very, very good)—and it’s not busy in February!—then walked back to the apartment to relax and wait for Giancarlo to come and settle up.

Tulips in the dining room make the place cheery.

Tulips in the dining room make the place cheery.

He was a lovely guy; interestingly, exactly what I expected in terms of age—looked to be early forties. He speaks excellent English, and is very chatty and friendly … and this at the end of a long day in the emergency room! He spent an hour with us, giving us tips and suggestions (“Don’t buy groceries on the island, it’s very expensive!”), showing us on the map where we could find wifi (that would be wee-fee in French!), giving us directions to the closest supermarket (about a five-minute walk away), showing us features of the apartment, asking us if we needed anything. We had a laugh about trying to get out of the terminal, and about dragging our luggage up out of the subway—and we got our first real insider’s tip: although the guidebooks may recommend it, don’t take the train from the airport—take the bus. Buses depart from all the terminals (not just Terminal 3), and you don’t have to schlep luggage up a flight of stairs once you’ve arrived. In the end, Giancarlo even said he would come pick us up on Saturday and drive us to the nearest bus terminal; he wrote it in his Daytimer (and he showed up too). But that’s a story for another day. 🙂

Addendum to Clonfert Cathedral

There were several very old gravestones and memorials preserved inside the tiny cathedral at Clonfert. This one was was so sad it took my breath away:

To the memory of James Frederick Henry Dennis, son of Major James Dennis of the 4th Regiment, whose remains lie interred near this place. He was born at Newark in upper Canada the 17th of January 1805 and died at Shannon Bridge the 8th of Sept 1820, aged 15 years, 7 months, and 29 days. This humble stone was placed as the last tribute of his fond parents bereaved early of a son whose affectionate and religious conduct endeared him to every acquaintance. His infant sister Ellen, aged 2 years, 6 months, and 24 days also lies interred by him, having only survived him 10 days. Blessed be their peace for ever.

To the memory of … (There’s an addendum to this post, to tell you all about this.)

To the memory of …

Naturally I imagined a story to go with it: Maj. Dennis and his wife were emigrated Irish and had come “home” to Ireland (for a visit? to stay?) with their two children.

But I wasn’t thinking like a historian. My dear friend Margaret, a skilled genealogist, set me straight: Maj. Dennis must have been stationed in Canada with his regiment for a while. She found numerous mentions of his presence with British forces in Canada in the early nineteenth century (Newark, where the son was born, was the capital of Upper Canada, which is now Ontario) and quickly discovered that the major was a career officer who saw service in several countries. She quoted from some official records; he

served in Copenhagen campaign; wounded in both hands. Present at Queenston, wounded (Bvt. Major 28 Nov. 12), Fort George, Stoney Creek, twice wounded, Hoople’s Creek. Commanded a Division at Maharajpore, 29 Dec. 43. Bronze Star and appointed K.C.B. for his services.

You caught that, right? He was in Denmark, then shipped to Ontario for what we Americans call the War of 1812 (these were battles: Queenston, Ft. George, Stoney Creek, Hoople’s Creek) and brevetted to major; then they shipped him to India sometime before 1843. Think about how long that took with a wife and kids and household goods. As a result of the awful and bloody Battle of Maharajpore he was awarded the (bronze) Gwalior Star and made a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. (I just report these things, kids, but you’ll see it really does have to do with, well, taking a bath.)

Margaret continued to poke into the records over the next half hour as we speculated via e-mail about why Maj. Dennis happened to be in Ireland in 1820. Was it his home? Or was he there as part of the British forces keeping the “Irish problem” in check? This period of time in Irish history was pretty tumultuous (when was it not?) and the English had garrisons all over the country.

Then she found an obituary that told us this:

In 1801 he married a daughter of Hugh Lawton, Esq. of Cork. That family were descended from an old Cheshire family, Lawton of Lawton Hill, who went to Ireland with Wm. III. In Ireland Hugh Lawton Esq.’s seat was called Marsh Hill. Maj. Gen. [promoted again and again!] Sir James Dennis, K.C.B., died at age 78, Jan. 14 1855, in Pall Mall.

Now, Wm. III would be that darned Dutchman, the Prince of Orange, who as the English king in 1690 won the Battle of the Boyne, and set in motion many of the problems that still exist in the north of Ireland. Thus we might assume the Lawtons were Protestant. And Pall Mall is in London, so I’m betting ol’ Jamie was English born. Margaret told me she found his obit in “Gentleman’s magazine and historical chronicle,” vol. 43, with all the details of his service, including Canada. Interesting is that he started in the Royal Navy as an ensign who distinguished himself and later switched to the army.

A few minutes later, Margaret had even more information:

Mrs. Dennis was Sarah Lucia Lawton, and she died in 1828, having had ten children. Seven of those children died under the age of fourteen. From what I can determine only two grew up and married. After the death of Maj. Gen. Sir Dennis there was a complicated court case between representatives of the children, competing for shares of the estate. One was the widower of an adult daughter.

So there is the rough outline of a life. Of two lives. James Dennis married Sarah when he was twenty-four and stayed married to her for twenty-seven years (a long time in those days; an average marriage was ten years, due to all the wives dying in childbirth). But it’s still very odd that—if Sarah was landed gentry from Cork—she was so far away from her home. Shannon Bridge is in Co. Offaly—the Midlands—and St. Brendan’s in Clonfert is about two or three miles away. So that part makes sense, but she was still a long, long way from Cork, especially by the standards of travel in 1820. What was she doing in Shannon Bridge? It’s a very small town, and it’s not really on the way from/to anything.

It’s a mystery.

A Little Old Church With a Big Name

Monday, 13 February 2006, Co. Clare/Galway/Offaly/Westmeath/Meath/Dublin…
We had a lovely breakfast that Gerry fixed, then packed up our stuff and left the Village of the Damned behind forever.

Good-bye, Village of the Damned!

Good-bye, Village of the Damned!

After stopping in Ennistymon to fill my antibiotic prescription (and take some photos of their pretty church), we were officially on the road.

Artsy photo …

Artsy photo …

And this morning I felt so much better! Driving was fun, the scenery was beautiful … I was so much better, in fact, that I was actually driving the car and seeing the scenery, which I hadn’t really done yet. It was a gorgeous day—sunny and breezy. Just perfect.

Let’s call this part When Jamie Got Her Groove Back.

We took the N85 to Ennis, the N18 to Gort, and the N66 to Loughrea. We passed the pub—named Christy’s Bar—that my friend Christy found on her first trip to Ireland, and decided she wants to own. I recognized it immediately from the picture I’d been shown (and Christy, they’re taking real good care of it for you!).

From Loughrea we took the N7 on towards Ballinasloe. Our destination was Clonfert, a tiny little town that has a lovely, ancient cathedral with a doorway that is considered one of the jewels of Irish-Romanesque architecture.

Am I right? Clonfert Cathedral (St. Brendan’s), 2006.

Am I right? Clonfert Cathedral (St. Brendan’s), 2006.

One of the oldest continuously functioning churches in Ireland, St. Brendan’s was originally a monastic community founded by Brendan, one of Ireland’s three patron saints; he is said to be buried here. Although the monastery was established in 563, nothing survives, as the first buildings would have been wooden; portions of the current stone cathedral date from the twelfth century (the rest from the fifteenth).

St. Brendan is best known, particularly to Americans, as Brendan the Navigator or Brendan the Voyager—in other words, the Irish monk who might well have preceded Columbus to North America … by about nine hundred years. The evidence is plausible, perhaps.

We arrived at St. Brendan’s just as a funeral was breaking up—we’d passed the hearse on our way in, and the funeral-goers were all standing around the grave talking as the gravediggers shoveled the dirt back into the hole. We waited politely outside for a bit, …

Waiting outside the church walls, politely.

Waiting outside the church walls, politely.

… but it began to be cold, so after we’d put our coats on, we decided to go on in. I mean, Clonfert is really off the beaten path, and it had taken no small amount of time and attention to get there, so I didn’t want to just leave.

Coming in through the gate.

Coming in through the gate.

Looking to the right, into the churchyard. We didn’t look left because funeralgoers were still huddled together talking.

Looking to the right, into the churchyard. We didn’t look left because funeralgoers were still huddled together talking.

The highlight of the building is that Romanesque doorway. There are six intricately carved arches, and above them a triangular-shaped tympanum. One Web site I referred to pointed out that this odd triangle of stacked human heads bears a striking resemblance to ancient Celtic structures that were used to exhibit the severed heads of fallen enemies, and thus demonstrates the continuing influence of pagan Celtic religious belief—some eight hundred years after the establishment of Christianity in Ireland! That may be a stretch, but the doorway is certainly awe-inspiring.

Look up.

Look up.

You can’t enter the church through the front door anymore, though, because it’s so fragile; brush past the sandstone columns and yet another piece of ancient history might be brushed away by your coat or scarf or purse.

It’s beautiful, though.

It’s beautiful, though.

Detail of the door, Clonfert Cathedral, 2006.

Detail of the door, Clonfert Cathedral, 2006.

The base of the 6 arches that surround the door.

The base of the 6 arches that surround the door.

Detail on the columns. Cats, maybe?

Detail on the columns. Cats, maybe?

So you have to walk around the side and enter through the transept. (It was positively freezing inside—so cold that when we came out again, even though the temperature had been dropping and it was about to rain, it still felt balmy! It was the oddest sensation!) The inside looks like it hasn’t really been renovated since the 1800s, and is otherwise unexceptional.

It’s small. And so very cold. Note the space heaters.

It’s small. (Each pew seats 3 or 4, I’d say.) And so very cold. Note the space heaters.

There are a few very old gravestones inside, from the late 1500s and very early 1600s. They are pasted, more or less, to the inside walls, helter-skelter. But at least they’re safe.

Old gravestones, preserved inside.

Old gravestones, preserved inside.

Another gravestone, this one from 1612.

Another gravestone, this one from 1612.

And then there was this, so sad I had to take a photograph:

To the memory of … (There’s an addendum to this post, to tell you all about this.)

To the memory of … (There’s an addendum to this post, to tell you all about this.)

From there we drove on to Dublin, listening to the radio for traffic reports, as there’d been two major wrecks earlier in the day, one of which caused the southbound M50 to be completely closed for roughly four hours (can you imagine I-24 shut down for four hours? Rutherford County would have a collective nervous breakdown!). Wonderfully, no one was killed. What this meant for us, though, was that we arrived in Dublin just at evening rush hour, so I sampled my first real driving in Dublin at rush hour (up to this point, Gerry’d been pretty protective of me: whenever we’d go “in” to Dublin city we’d take a cab, and then walk)! As you know, though, I’m an experienced rush hour driver, so … no big deal! We stopped at “the chipper” (fish-and-chips takeout) on the way home to grab chicken and fries for supper, then I headed down to the Blaithin to get to bed early, since I needed to get up at four a.m. … because (tra-la!) we were going to Paris!

Stay tuned for a Paris interlude. And oh—did I tell you that Brad and Angelina were there too?

A Visit to Doc Shannon …er, ShannonDoc

Sunday, 12 February 2006, Co. Clare
After another night of coughing that I could feel from my waist to the top of my head, I was finally convinced I was not getting better. Isn’t that what we always think, that we’re about to turn the corner? It was definitely wishful thinking in this case. In fact, I was concerned that I was getting a sinus infection, and rather than wait for it to make me truly miserable (I wrote in my notes: “My neck, my cheeks, my ears, even my teeth hurt”), and possibly spoil my trip, I decided I’d had enough. Gerry’d been patient and kind and attentive, but TLC was no longer enough. I wanted drugs.

This makes it sound all very civilized, when in fact what happened was I hobbled into the living room, threw myself on the couch, and whimpered, while, possibly, shedding a few tears, “I’m sooo sick. Do you think you can find me a doctor, like, right now? Pleeeeeze?”

Gerry dialed 11811, which, in Ireland, gets you both Yellow Pages (called Golden Pages) directory assistance and regular old information too. And it’s live, not automated. He requested a doctor in Lahinch, and was given a number to call. This was at eight a.m., which is important to the story; you see, it seems Gerry was given the number of a doctor who is retired. Actually—he woke him up. The man was then kind enough to rouse his wife, who got up and located the number of an after-hours clinic! In spite of the fact that it involves my causing two elderly folk to be woken out of a sound sleep on a Sunday morning, this is my favorite story of the trip. 🙂

Lucky, lucky me: Gerry called the clinic and learned it was in Ennistymon, or, actually, just outside Ennistymon, on the Lahinch side. So it was very close, a five-minute drive. “Just look for the ShannonDoc sign,” we were told, and to arrive at ten-thirty. No prob.

Gerry cooked up a wonderful breakfast that I could hardly eat, and by ten-twenty we were turning up the long drive to an old folks’ home, out of the back of which ShannonDoc operates, as Gerry mused aloud that the name sounded like an American television show (Doc Shannon: the story of a kind, small-town country doctor saving life and limb in the wilds of western Ireland! Tune in next week when a rich American benefactor of Irish ancestry gifts the Doc with a helicopter, to dramatically increase the amount of lives and limbs he can save! You won’t want to miss this touching episode, etc.!).

The waiting room was in the home’s dining room, empty, at that hour, of the elderly, although the décor was distinctly … old-folksy. While we waited (Gerry with his newspaper, me with my book), the loudspeaker on the wall crackled into action, as a small choir of really old women with quavery voices began singing a hymn, a capella. It was time for mass to begin, and it was being broadcast to everyone in the home, even us sick people waiting in the dining-slash-waiting room.

We were only there a short time, but I remember the kindness of the nurse, who stroked my arm with tenderness as she took my temperature, speaking quietly to me as she wrote in my chart, assuring me that I’d be well taken care of (not that I was worried). The doctor was a gentle, long-haired man in his early forties who said, as he looked at my chart, “the closest I ever got to Tennessee was Harlan County, Kentucky,” which, all things considered, I told him, was pretty darned close! It seems I was wheezy (I’d listened to that wheeze for two nights), developing bronchitis; he gave me a day-and-a-half’s worth of antibiotics and a prescription for more. He was very thorough, even informing me that the pills I would get from the pharmacist might be a different color. The whole episode took half an hour and cost forty euro (roughly forty-eight dollars), which I didn’t think was bad at all.

But this is my vacation. I’d like to see something.

So from there we set off to explore the Burren (from the Gaelic boireann, meaning a rock or a stony place), which, as I mentioned earlier, is a geologically important land formation of stratified karst limestone in northwest County Clare, about 115 square miles of it. It’s nearly impossible to describe; I read something interesting just now that said it’s not obvious like, say, the Grand Canyon. After all, Ireland is a rocky place anyway. You could just … not notice it. 🙂

But then you do: those hills aren’t green, they’re grey.

See it? The grey hills? That’s the Burren.

See it? The grey hills? That’s the Burren.

Look closer now. Those are hills of limestone.

Look closer now. Those are hills of limestone.

And suddenly you find yourself driving down lanes between fields of stone, like pavement, eroded into interesting patterns; underneath there are huge caves and rivers that can flood when it rains (spelunking is not for amateurs here, as it can be dangerous). Let’s not even discuss the potential for twisted ankles, since it makes me cringe. It is a very inhospitable land, and it goes on for miles and miles.

But you know it when you see it. The Burren.

But you know it when you see it. The Burren.

It would have been a hard, hard existence here, eking out a life from this rough landscape, yet you can find remnants of whole villages that were abandoned—either through death or emigration—during the Famine, which is fairly recent. That they were, actually, living here is the fault of Oliver Cromwell, a horrible man, the English Lord Protector who’d recently toppled King Charles in the English Civil War and was now engaged in a ten-year war of extermination (that is, genocide) against the Irish. (Actually, Cromwell had it in for Catholics, but at that time the Irish were almost all Catholic.) By the mid-1600s he had forced them to surrender, and tried to crush the Irish resistance by deporting thousands of land-owning Irishmen to west of the Shannon, saying he would send them “to Hell or Connaught!” (The Burren is a part of the province of Connaught.) At the sight of this poor and barren province, even one of Cromwell’s own generals observed that there was “neither water enough to drown a man, nor a tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury him.”

There’s strong evidence of a thriving prehistoric life in the Burren too. There are megalithic stone hilltop cairns (graves), wedge tombs, and portal tombs (called dolmens) that date as far back as 3800 BC (although they were used well into the Bronze Age, which is put at 2200–500 BC). There are over three hundred fulachta fiadh—horseshoe-shaped mounds of burnt stone, built around stone or timber water toughs, which are the remains of giant Bronze Age cooking-pits, and there are stone circles too. There are several impressive stone forts that date from the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 500). And early Christianity is represented as well, with up to eighty-two ecclesiastical sites—church ruins, cemeteries, hermitages and monastic enclosures, holy wells, saints’ seats or beds, and penitential stations—covering a millennium of worship.

I find this all quite amazing, given what the Burren looks like.

We’d watched the weather (on the all-Gaelic-all-the-time channel), which had indicated that we’d get rain all day. Indeed, the wind had blown ferociously through the night, and the morning light had been slow in coming due to the heavy overcast. After watching the forecast, I’d expected it to be pouring down rain, but it was just a light/thick mist, really. We drove down the N6 toward Lisdoonvarna, stopping off in Kilfenora to visit the little twelfth-century cathedral there.

This was a repeat visit; we were here in 2003. And, like the discovery I’d made yesterday at the Cliffs, progress has reached the little cathedral here, too: they’ve put a lovely glass roof on the once-roofless north transept (the south transept is completely gone). I actually was quite taken with it (watch for a photo); after all, a new roof is a new roof. This one makes no pretense about “fitting in”—it is sleek and modern and lets in plenty of light; I just really liked the juxtaposition of the thousand-year-old stones and the modern glass roof.

Love the glass roof at St. Fachnan’s.

Love the glass roof at St. Fachnan’s.

Kilfenora has three very famous high crosses; now two of them have been moved inside from the churchyard, to preserve them from the elements. This has been going on all over Ireland, an attempt to keep the intricate carvings from eroding.

The Doorty Cross, east face, in 2006.

The Doorty Cross, east face, in 2006.

The Doorty Cross, west face.

The Doorty Cross, west face.

Generally they house them right on the premises, as they do in Kilfenora; often they install … um … fakes, back out in the churchyard. Inside the chancel there is an interesting Gothic style sedilia built into the wall (a seat for the priest), above it is the carved head of a bishop.

The sedilia inside the old cathedral.

The sedilia inside the old cathedral.

Even though there were no overt drops of rain, it was very, very wet. This is an interesting and very Irish situation, it seems to me; walking around in it was less unpleasant than being in a downpour, even a light one, but we were getting just as soaked. So we got back in the car with the intention of finding the Poulnabrone Dolmen, a well-known site that we’d failed to find in 2003 (when we were driving around in a downpour).

On our way there I saw a little old church out in a field, and stopped to investigate. To get from the road into the field I had to go into a shallow ditch and up over a stone stile; there was a farm dog running around, following a couple who’d gone in before me about a minute earlier, although he came back and gave me a few friendly wags of his tail before running off on some other dogly errand. I watched as the pair climbed over a second stile into the churchyard; the iron gate has long since rusted shut.

The iron gate to the churchyard—long since rusted shut. Look for the cairn too. (Remember, you can enlarge any photo by clicking on it, then clicking again.

The iron gate to the churchyard—long since rusted shut. Look for the cairn too. (Remember, you can enlarge any photo by clicking on it, then clicking again.

We learned, together (from a sign near the gate), that this is Carron Church, and it served the largest parish in Clare until the sixteenth century, when it began to decline. The initial building was erected around 1200, but some of what is there now dates from the fifteenth century. You can see this in the photo of the doorway below—you can see the edge of the older material, and what was added, perhaps after a raid of some sort: a hodgepodge of materials that came to hand, including an old broken grindstone, a half-circle of rock that sticks out incongruously, but which was just fine to use to rebuild the church (it’s very human and touching, it seems to me). And just so you know, that raid comment isn’t out of the blue: the church has battlements and a bartizan (a small defensive projection that allowed defenders to fire on intruders below), which suggests that the parish priest felt a need to protect himself. And, of course, he did.

Standing inside Carron Church, looking at the rebuilt doorway. See the grindstone? See the irregular “line” through the wall to the left of the doorway? This entire doorway was blasted out once, and repaired.

Standing inside Carron Church, looking at the rebuilt doorway. See the grindstone? See the irregular “line” through the wall to the left of the doorway? This entire doorway was blasted out once, and repaired.

To the south of the church there is a small mound of stones—a cairn—from which Carron probably gets its name (you can see it in the distance in the photo above of the iron gate, in front of the far fenceline). It used to be a local custom to carry coffins around the cairn before they were buried in the churchyard.

Cairns can be found all over the world, but they are very common in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales—three regions that also share a language, Gaelic (although the dialects are different). They are always manmade, and the tradition may have begun as burial mounds among prehistoric peoples. They were often used as a landmark or to commemorate an event. (The Scots even have a blessing: Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, that is, “I’ll put a stone on your cairn.”) As a side note, cairn terriers, a breed that originated in Scotland, were bred specifically to hunt small game of the type that would live in and around a cairn.

It may seem—when you see the photos—like just another desolate pile of rocks (no pun intended), but when you’re there in person, it’s very moving. There’s no traffic noise; perhaps you hear the wind rustle through the tall grass. It’s just a silent, holy place, a monument to the hardy souls who lived in the area, squeezing a living out of the rocky fields. On Sundays, at the end of a long week, they came, perhaps in a donkey cart but more likely on foot, walking for miles to worship … right here.

Inside the sanctuary of Carron Church; it’s very old. (The white dots are rain drops on the camera lens.)

Inside the sanctuary of Carron Church; it’s very old. (The white dots are rain drops on the camera lens.)

I struck up a conversation with the other visitors, a brother and sister. Originally from County Clare, he’d moved away, but she still lives in and is very fond of Clare. He was just visiting. We talked some about the features of the church listed in the little informational sign in the churchyard, and about being here in winter, which has its drawbacks (it’s wet and chilly, after all). But she pointed out how nice it was to be here with no tour buses, and said that this was the only time of year that we could see these things without having people crawling all over. (As tourists, we often don’t think enough about the locals, and how we’re affecting their lives.) I was grateful to see this place with these two quiet people.

I mentioned, then, that we were going to Poulnabrone and they said that they were going there next too. The Poulnabrone portal (or tomb) dolmen dates from the Neolithic period, around 3400 BC. Used as burial sites, portal dolmens are always oriented toward the rising sun, indicating a reverence for the dead that suggests a religious attitude. These people—the pre-Celts—were the matriarchal society we’d learned about in the documentary we’d seen the night before. Poulnabroune is still in the process of being completely excavated; since 1986 the remains of fourteen adults and six children have been discovered, along with fragments of jewelry and pottery, arrowheads, and other artifacts.

So we got in the car and rolled a couple miles to Poulnabrone.

Poulnabrone seen from the road. You can see how we missed it in 2003 (in the rain).

Poulnabrone seen from the road. You can see how we missed it in 2003 (in the rain).

We walked around—carefully, watching where we put our feet.

Gerry, staying warm at Poulnabrone.

Gerry, staying warm at Poulnabrone.

Poulnabrone dolmen.

Poulnabrone dolmen.

Another angle of Poulnabrone, 2006.

Another angle of Poulnabrone, 2006.

It was lovely … until a tour bus pulled up.

Rant: I’d imagined … hoped … that I’d get through this trip without seeing one, but nooooooo. Nooooo. Don’t do it, kids! Don’t get on that bus! Strike out on your own! Strike out for Freedom and Truth and Beauty and stuff like that there! (ahem) But seriously. Just call me anti-structured-tour: I just don’t want to be told what to look at, what to think; I like finding my own way based on what interests me. And I certainly don’t want to be told how long I have to shop! Frankly, the “wrong” or unexpected turns we’ve taken have added just as much to the trip as the times when we’ve gone straight to our destination—sometimes much more. (Thus endeth rant.)

Anyway, this bus vomited out thirty or so bored-looking young people (I’d say they were ages eighteen to twenty-five) of a variety of nationalities. Some English-speakers (some Americans in that group), some not. It’s a short hike to the dolmen from the road, and I actually heard one girl say, once she and her friend had arrived, “There, can we go back to the bus now?”

Seriously, who is paying for this woman to take this wonderful trip? I could (maybe understand a comment like that if she were a five-year-old. (sigh)

The woman I’d spoken to at Carron Church earlier made eye contact with me and smiled, and, without missing a beat, suggested that Gerry and I might enjoy Aillwee Cave. And at that we said good-bye and moved on.

The cave was a few miles up the road, and as we drove we listened to the radio. Gerry had it tuned to RTÉ, which is sort of like NPR and sort of like the BBC. Probably more like the latter. You know you’re in Ireland, though, when it strikes the Angelus at noon and six p.m. It’s an arresting sound (the bell chimes in three groups of three, with a pause between groups); one should stop and say the Angelus (prayer) during this time. Can you imagine what might be accomplished if this actually happened?

We’d also been listening to a lot of discussion about the Irish president’s trip to Saudi Arabia; you see, from this country born of a Neolithic matriarchal society, President Mary McAleese had just been sent to address the Jeddah Economic Forum in Saudi Arabia—a country where women are largely prevented from voting in elections and are subject to numerous discriminatory practices, which are sometimes required by law. Indeed, at this event women were required to arrive through a separate entrance and to sit, unseen, behind a screen! Let me tell you, people were outraged. At least the ones calling in to the RTÉ talk show were. (To be fair, in her speech Ms. McAleese called for women’s participation in Saudi Arabian political and economic life.)

And then we arrived at Aillwee Cave, “Ireland’s premier showcave,” as the souvenir booklet trumpets on its cover. This is one of the many caves in (or underneath) the Burren that I mentioned earlier, but, as the booklet points out, these other caves are “wild” caves and must be treated with caution, as they react very quickly to rainfall and could be very dangerous. The most interesting thing about Aillwee (pronounce this ALL-wee), really, is the story of its discovery. They think that the first modern man to discover the cave was the landowner, Jacko McGann, in 1940. He’s described as a herdsman, but I’m not sure if that’s cattle or sheep. He was forty-four years of age at the time, and he crawled in with a candle, explored some, left his initials scratched in the wall … and then didn’t mention the cave to anyone for thirty-three years! At that time he told a group of cavers from Bristol (England) University about it, and they performed a more thorough exploration. Two years later work was begun to open the cave to the public. The booklet shows photos of “Sunday afternoons in the car park,” picturing a traditional music group and dancers (probably taken more than twenty years ago), which I think must have been fun, in a weird way. The booklet also has a very thorough timeline, which lists such items as “1980, second tea-room and terrace opened,” “1985, Japanese royal visit,” and “Jan. 1989, ice-cream kiosk constructed”—in addition to the more important stuff like “1977, sump 1 first dived by Jeff Philips” and “Mar. 1989, tour extended to take in waterfall.” 🙂

Aside from all this fascinating detail, really, it’s … well … just a cave, albeit a charming one. Like lots of caves, it maintains a constant temperature of 50°F, has bats, lots of straw stalactites, and shows evidence that prehistoric animals used it (no human evidence until Jacko entered in 1940). Most interesting are the hibernation pits and bones of a brown bear; since bears have been extinct in Ireland for over a thousand years, this part of the exhibit is pretty special.

All in all, a pleasant hour or so. On our way out, we stopped at the little Farm Shop at the bottom of Aillwee Mountain, and bought some nice fresh cheeses and local honey (the label reads, simply, “100% pure and natural, unheated and coarse filtered honey from Ben Johnson’s apiaries in the Burren, Co. Clare”), which we used at supper that night.

The “edge” of the Burren comes upon you without warning. You’ve been driving through fields of stone, and then … you’re not. I stopped and took some pictures as we left this unique region behind.

Leaving the Burren behind. Love that hairpin-curved road.

Leaving the Burren behind. Love that hairpin-curved road.

Back in Lahinch we went for a late lunch at the Shamrock Hotel (the second recommendation, you may recall), where I had a nice potato-leek soup. We wandered down to the sea and parked.

Parked along the seawall. The Spinnaker Hotel is where we’d originally reserved an apartment.

Parked along the seawall. The Spinnaker Hotel is where we’d originally reserved an apartment.

We walked along the sea wall, where I took photos of the beach at high tide. Actually there is no beach at high tide; the waves were already crashing on the rocks that support the sea wall, and as I watched the sun go down they came close enough that I could feel the spray. Time to go home!

High tide, sunset, at Lahinch, February 2006.

High tide, sunset, at Lahinch, February 2006.

Back at home, we boiled water for tea and laid out fruit, crackers and cheese, and the honey we’d bought at the farm shop. Perfect and cozy.

Tea and goodies … and even a couple books we bought at one or another gift shop.

Tea and goodies … and even a couple books we bought at one or another gift shop.

That night we watched a television dramatization of what’s known in Ireland as the Stardust Disaster. It refers to the Stardust nightclub, which burned just after midnight on Valentine’s Day in 1981, causing the deaths of forty-eight young (teens and early twenties) people (Wikipedia’s article really covers all the bases), maiming many more (over two hundred were injured), and creating devastation in the Artane neighborhood where it was located. Gerry grew up in Artane and still lives there; he was a regular at the nightclub at that time (he says it was the place to go, if you were from Artane; he and his friends usually showed up about once a week, although “none of us were there that night,” he told me). His parents were good friends with people who lost children in the fire, so it was definitely an event that touched his family, and he was interested in watching it.

As is the case with disasters such as this, there are many, many unanswered questions, and twenty-five years later the wound is still fresh; the RTÉ docu-drama itself was controversial, as many of the Stardust families, as they’re known, felt as if it was taking advantage of their pain. I myself sat there crying, watching as the parents rushed from one hospital to the next, searching for their children. The scene was very disorganized, and it was hours and hours before parents could get an accounting; some parents lost more than one child.

Even though some exits were locked and others had chains draped around the handles (to make them look as if they were locked), most of the kids might have made it had the doors opened outward. As it was, once the panic started, the people closest to the doors were simply crushed against them—there was never enough room to swing the doors inward. This gives me chills just thinking about it.

Sadly, the owner of the club collected his insurance money and went on with his life, never publicly acknowledging the families’ loss. To add insult to injury, he kept the property, which has had a car park (read: parking lot) on it; however, late last year he built a new bar, called the Silver Swan (which is the name of the pub many of the Stardust victims drank at before heading over to the nightclub back in 1981), at one end and—incredible as this may seem—planned to open it on February 14, 2006, exactly twenty-five years after the fire. Members of the Stardust families have been picketing in front of the business ever since, trying to dissuade people from entering. The opening was postponed for a few days as a result, but I believe it’s open now. No word on how well it’s doing—they’re still picketing out there.

The Morning After

Friday, February 10, Co. Dublin/Co. Kildare/Co. Laois/Co. Tipperary/Co. Limerick/Co. Clare
You’ll recall that we were out late last night at the pub …

I was awake at five a.m.—apparently the time needed for my body clock to adjust to a different time zone is just forty-eight hours. I’d hoped to sleep longer but unfortunately that was not to be; perhaps I was just excited about leaving for County Clare.

We’d had a small disappointment yesterday when the booking agent for our planned destination (some of you may remember how excited I was that our apartment in Clare was to be right on the ocean) called and said that our rental had been storm-damaged, and they were putting us in a holiday village just one minute down the road. Uh-huh.

Definition: holiday home, holiday village
Ireland—especially towns near the coast or in some desirable destination—is peppered with holiday villages, little neighborhoods of identical or nearly identical houses that are intended to be rented to vacationers. People rent a holiday home by the day or week or month, but no one actually lives there permanently. So there’s no landscaping, no pleasant potted geranium on the front porch, no wreath on the front door. I find them sterile, sad, and lonely-looking.

Definition: storm damage
Storm damage is what happens when you’ve promised an apartment to someone who’s only going to rent it for three days during the off-off-season (and paid for it in advance!), but then someone else comes along who wants to rent it for a week (or, to be fair, maybe longer). Even if there hasn’t been a storm on the west coast of Ireland for weeks. 🙂

So, I’m awake with a bit of a nervous stomach that might or might not have something to do with County Clare. That’s it, no more drink for me (don’t we all swear it off on the morning after?). And no shower either—I couldn’t bring myself to take off my clothes and get into cold water feeling that lousy. Maybe our apartment, er, holiday home in Lahinch would have a reliable shower … so I decided to wait.

But no, no, actually, the reason I couldn’t sleep and felt so lousy was I had the scratchy throat of an impending cold. After the “full-Irish” (i.e., breakfast) downstairs, I realized truly that I was sick; it wasn’t a hangover I had—it was a full-blown head/chest cold with a ferocious sore throat and cough. I drank some more Airborne and resolved to pick up some over-the-counter cold remedy once we got on the road.

As was the case during my last visit, I managed to get us just a little bit lost at first (I’d forgotten that the pictographs on the road signs are as important as the words are), but then I began to hit my driving-in-Ireland groove. The real problem was that I getting visibly and audibly (anti-audibly: I was losing my voice) sicker by the minute, and we finally stopped to buy cough syrup and medicine that would at least alleviate the cold symptoms.

I’d planned to do some sightseeing along the way—taking the N7 from Dublin south and west to Portlaoise to see the Rock of Dunamase—but as we approached the town (pronounce it port-LEESH) it was evident I wasn’t up to climbing rocks, so we continued on. I wasn’t even much up to enjoying the scenery, frankly, although it was beautiful—and completely different from the countryside I’d experienced in September 2003, since it was a different season altogether. Gone were the charming, tree-ceilinged lanes; instead I saw dramatic branches outlined starkly against the soft winter sunlit sky, and wild gorse in brilliant, yellow bloom. A harbinger of spring, the gorse—I’m sending a photo—is a spiny shrub that grows nearly everywhere in Ireland, providing shelter for birds and small wildlife.

Wild gorse!

Wild gorse!

We continued on the N7 through several counties … through Roscrea and on to Nenagh, which skirt the lovely Silvermine Mountains (Gerry pointed out every mountain range as being the “Dublin Mountains,” which don’t actually exist—Google them and you are redirected to Wicklow Mountains—and this became a running joke for the entire trip: “Amazing that you can see the Dublin Mountains all the way from County Clare, eh?”) before dropping you down into the basin of the River Shannon.

The Republic is in the process of switching from miles to kilometers (don’t ask my why; Wikipedia seems to imply that metrication is being done to impose a single system on the whole world—but that doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to me!), which means all distances and speed limits are given only in kilometers … so I got a chance to practice my math skills on the drive as well. The change means that all those quaint old pressed-tin signs that listed both miles and kilometers are disappearing, replaced by new, flat signs that only indicate distance in kilometers. The locals still refer to distances in miles, though, I learned to my amusement when I stopped for directions. You can take the miles off the signs, but you can’t take them out of minds and hearts, by golly!

Irish humor: I wondered out loud where all those historic old signs were going, and Gerry replied that “they’re no doubt being sold in America at a handsome profit.”

The Ford I was driving was brand new, and the speedometer was in kilometers, which was good, since I had no idea, when I started, how fast 120 kph is, although those of you familiar with my lead foot can imagine the little thrill it gave me every time the speed limit was 120 (it’s 74.56 mph)!

The N7 takes you all the way to Limerick city (we used the bypass to avoid traffic in this very busy city rather than going in to explore, because at this point I just wanted to be “home”), and once you cross the Shannon, you’re in County Clare, which was our destination.

From Limerick we jumped on the N18 to Ennis, a town we really enjoyed in 2003; today there was a traffic jam in the city center, and we spent more time than we wanted there. Though we’d been driving in lush dairy farmland, once you reach Ennis the landscape becomes more and more bleak until you reach the Burren, the vast limestone plateau that dominates northwest Clare (and which really must be seen to be appreciated).

In Ennis we found the N85, a smallish road that heads northwest straight toward the coast, through Ennistymon to Lahinch … at last! A journey of just 160 miles took us six hours—and most of that was on main roads. This was the Ireland I remembered, and love.

The Links holiday village is on the main road (the N67, in fact) between Ennistymon and Lahinch, just before you enter the little seaside village itself; a walk into town might take five or six minutes from the front door of our house (which had been left open for us). Again, back in August when we made our reservations, we’d rejected the Links in favor of the Wharf (which, as mentioned earlier, sits, ahem, right on the wharf). Parked in front of this grim—but pink—house, I wasn’t sure if I was as disappointed as I was—deeply—because I sick, or what … but I do know I’d had my heart set on watching the tide roll in from the warmth of a cozy apartment.

Warm and cozy are not words that can be applied to the place we’d just arrived at. Lucky for Gerry, I’d completely lost my voice at that point—so I couldn’t complain! Ha! The place was freeeeeeezing; holiday homes are not kept warm and toasty in anticipation of your midwinter arrival. (In fact, you pay extra for heat.) We immediately overrode the automatic timers on the radiators, and turned every single one to the equatorial setting as we unloaded the car.

Our little pink house in the Village of the Damned.

Our little pink house in the Village of the Damned.

In retrospect, the place was not so bad. It was very roomy, with a bedroom and bathroom downstairs, and a bedroom and bathroom upstairs as well. The full kitchen was large and adequately supplied with cooking utensils, a microwave, dishes, flatware, and so forth (and an electric kettle, the likes of which most of you have probably never seen, but which is, let me tell you, one of God’s great blessings in this dark world). There was a cheery dining room, and a comfortable living room with both a television and a fireplace (and a comfortable couch and large coffee table, on which we ate all our meals). There were ample windows.

No, there’s really no reason for me to refer to the Links as the Village of the Damned (well, OK, perhaps the teenagers renting the home next to us shouting drunkenly outside at three the next morning have something to do with it), but in my cold, cranky, coughing state, that is what it became, and what it remained for the duration of the trip (world without end amen amen), even though we did manage to warm it up after the first twenty-four hours.

More pressingly, however, there was one unresolved detail: there were no towels. The fact that we needed to bring our own was clearly stated in the written material and on the website; in our excitement, we’d just failed to make note of it. This oversight had an unexpected, and pleasant, consequence, however, as we were forced to drive back to Ennistymon for towels, and where we got some excellent recommendations for places to eat in Lahinch.

Lahinch, you see, is pretty much a resort town. The population is just 800 or so, and it only has one retail area about a block long. But—and this is a big but—it has two claims to fame: it has a magnificent mile-long beach (locals call it a strand) enjoyed by sea-lovers and (as I was amazed to discover in cold, cold February) surfers, and it also has a world-class championship golf course that dates back to 1892. There are several pubs and restaurants, a few shops, a grocery store, a church, a post office, a seaside aquarium along a boardwalk, and—even in February—a casual, surfer dude vibe. (On Saturday morning the beach was teeming with surfers in colorful wetsuits.)

But—no bath towels. Ennistymon is just five minutes’ drive from the Links, though, and it is a bit larger, with a busy city center. And, as I’ve said, the woman who sold us towels gave us two recommendations for eating, both of which we tried over the course of our visit. Neither of us had eaten since breakfast, so we hustled back to Lahinch and the Corner Stone, which is a snug little pub with an excellent menu. I choose exactly what I’d been fantasizing about for the last three or so hours: beef stew. And oh man, it was just what the doctor ordered! The beef was fork tender, the stew was loaded with meat and carrots and potatoes, seasoned with porter ale and onions, and was served with thick slices of brown bread.

I wrote in my notes, “I am so going to indulge myself in this Irish brown bread,” and I did. This simple wheaten bread, made without yeast, had caused me to search out local artisan breads when I returned from Ireland in 2003. Nowadays that’s all I buy. Interestingly, I’d noticed in every grocery store we’d been in so far that the artisan bread mania has hit Ireland too. Only there it’s—oooo la-la—labeled French Bakery, and the choices are fantastic. It was easy to give in to temptation!

After dinner we strolled Lahinch’s main street, shopped a little (I bought a mohair/wool scarf, which I would use on the rest of my trip), picked up some turf for the fireplace, then headed back to the Stepford House.

For those of you who’ve never smelled a turf fire, I’ll say you’re missing one of life’s great pleasures. Just imagine the coziest, homiest smell possible, though, and you’ve got it. It’s a little smoky-flavored, and makes me think of what it smells like on a fall day when someone in the neighborhood has been burning leaves. Gerry built the fire while I boiled water for tea (for Gerry) and a stiff hot toddy (for me—the best possible thing for a cold!), then we skootched the couch up close to the fireplace, pulled the duvet off the bed, and huddled up underneath it while we watched an Irish American-Idol-type show on the television. After a second hot whiskey I was asleep and snoring on the couch, and at eight-thirty I gave it up.

Gerry’s Hot Toddy Recipe:
Place two thick slices of lemon in a large mug; squeeze the juice of whatever’s left of the lemon into the mug too. Add a teaspoon (about two dozen) of whole cloves. Add whiskey (I prefer Jameson’s Irish Whiskey) to fill half the mug. Pour boiling water over lemons, whiskey, and cloves to fill, and muddle (mash) the lemons with a spoon to bring out the juice. Add sugar or honey to sweeten if you’d like (I do).

Saturday, February 11, Co. Clare
We were both awake around three-thirty (which is what happens when you go to bed so early, I guess), listening to the kids next door, who were outside in the yard, shouting and carrying on. Actually, they woke me up around midnight, too, with similar antics, but I’d thought the party was over. Oh, how wrong I was.

We’d been wary of the kids when we’d come in yesterday; there were several of them, boys and girls, in expensive cars that they’d parked carelessly, thinking they had the cul-de-sac to themselves. This, as it turns out, did not bode well. Gerry had asked the village superintendent whether we should be concerned, and he’d said no, they were Good kids! Locals! Just on their spring break! If we had any trouble, he said, call and he’d sort it out. Of course, one doesn’t really want to call anyone in the pre-dawn hours.

Later I woke myself up coughing, and I decided to get up and drink some medicine and some hot tea. I was, I realized, very, very sick—probably developing a sinus infection. Gerry took excellent care of me, though, by cooking big breakfasts, keeping the fire built, and making sure I always had a cup of hot tea to keep my cough down. Meanwhile, I had no energy, and no “wind”—it felt like something was constantly pressing on my chest.

Finally around eleven a.m. we managed to get out of the house. It was overcast and windy, but there were patches of blue sky trying to peek through, which was encouraging, and off we went, heading straight for the Cliffs of Moher. You may recall that on my last visit here we weren’t able to see the cliffs due to heavy mist, so I was particularly anxious to see them on as nice a day as possible.

They’d changed the entrance to it since the last time I was here; in the past you could drive by and see the cliffs in the distance. If you wanted, you pulled into the parking lot, paid the per-car entry fee, and walked down to cliff’s edge. Well, no more. The temporary visitor center is on the opposite side of the road, and they’ve built up a huge earthen barrier, which prevents you seeing anything of the cliffs until after you’ve climbed it. I wish now that I’d taken a photograph of this path, because in my memory it looms as large as Mount Everest.

Construction at the Cliffs of Moher.

Construction at the Cliffs of Moher.

It will be nice when it’s done, I guess, but right now it’s all still a construction site. (In point of fact, it’s a twenty-one-million euro project, with the tourist center to be dug into the side of the cliffs, leaving it virtually invisible from ground level. We saw plans for it, and when it’s finished, the views should be stunning. It may be that the path we climbed was on top of this structure, which is due to open in spring 2007.

You can see why, though: this was the path that tourists used to use to walk along the edge of the cliff. Probably a bit dangerous, all things considered.

You can see why, though: this was the path that tourists used to use to walk along the edge of the cliff. Probably a bit dangerous, all things considered.

This is a bit of the new path. Better, but still dangerous. If you wanted to go over the edge, you could. A work in progress!

This is a bit of the older path. Better, but still dangerous. If you wanted to go over the edge, you could. A work in progress!

See? I took this standing next to the danger sign.

See? I took this standing next to the danger sign.

Still, the cliffs were there, they were visible, and that made me really happy, even if it did take every bit of my energy to climb the hill to see them. You really get the sense, as you stand there struggling against the wind, that you are on the edge of the world, with nothing but the roiling Atlantic between you and New York City. The cliffs are five miles of sheer rock face with a massive 700 foot drop; get too close to the edge and a gust of wind—and there’s plenty of that—could carry you right off the edge. Walk the dirt path along the edge at your own risk.

But it made me happy, sick as I was.

But it made me happy, sick as I was.

We even walked up to O’Brien’s Tower, a Victorian-era observation tower (that is, a tourist attraction).

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006, just after the remodeling at the Cliffs had begun.

O’Brien’s Tower in 2006, just after the remodeling at the Cliffs had begun.

This is what it looked like in 2011—all shiny and new! (I got this photo from Wikipedia.)

This is what it looked like in 2011—all shiny and new! (I got this photo from Wikipedia.)

In fact, it was extremely windy and cold, but that was invigorating. Invigorating enough, that is, for me to drive us back to Lahinch. (It was a continuing theme of this trip that my original itinerary had to be modified, cut back, to accommodate the fact that I was moving slower and had less stamina. And really, that was OK. We thoroughly investigated the things we did see, and we enjoyed them. The rest can wait for another time.)

On my 2003 trip I’d picked up a brochure for a shop located in Lahinch that offered silk-screened T-shirts featuring original Celtic designs; when we’d driven through that time, though, I’d failed to find it. Since we were to be staying in Lahinch on this trip, I wanted to be sure to visit, and—knowing that some places shut down during the winter—I’d emailed the owner to ask if he’d be open.

This was the response I’d gotten last September:

Dear Jamie
I apologise for not answering this mail last month.
I think it was because I like to reply immediately ..but didn’t know the answer.
February is so far away !
If you get to our door and find it closed, just call [redacted]
and it will magically creak open within minutes
yours
in fear of forward planning
Mike O’Connor

So when we got back into Lahinch, we parked and walked along the boardwalk (I’m sure that’s not what they call it in Ireland, but that’s what it is), where there were, again, quite a few young men in wetsuits surfing in the vigorous waves on a day when the temperature couldn’t have been over thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit.

The low-tide beach at Lahinch, February 2006.

The low-tide beach at Lahinch, February 2006.

The shop was closed, but I raised Mike on the mobile phone; he was watching the big rugby match (Ireland/France) at one of the local pubs, and preferred to continue watching it, so we agreed to meet at the shop at four p.m., and Gerry and I hustled home to watch the game ourselves.

At four we were banging on the door, when a young man—not Mike—showed up. It turns out that he was the silk-screener, and was planning to work a little. He was a bit puzzled by us pounding on an obviously locked door, but when we explained the situation, he laughed, said Mike might have dozed off at the bar, and let us in the back door, where we had a private shopping excursion. After that we went back to the Corner Store where we’d eaten the day before, because I was hankering for more of that hot beef stew.

So this was not an action-packed day, but it was as much as I could handle. That evening we watched an interesting show on the subtitled all-Gaelic channel (yes, a channel for Gaelic-speakers, complete with news shows, documentaries, and even soap operas in a language that is a marvel to hear, as it’s not like anything—French, German, Swahili—you’ve every heard before). It was about how the indigenous folk on the island were a matriarchal society up until the time the Celts arrived in 500 BC. The Celts were warlike, and men did the fighting, so that influence began to change the society, and then when Patrick arrived with his Christianity, the switch from a woman-revering society to a patriarchal one (even, one might say, a misogynistic one) was complete. It was suggested that perhaps Mary’s importance was emphasized here to gain allegiance from the locals who still intuitively remembered the old, female-centric ways. Regardless of what you believe, it was an interesting hour of television.

And that seems as good a place as any to close this episode, curled up in front of a warm turf fire, nursing a hot toddy, munching on a scone. There’s more to come, including my semi-annual rant about tour buses. 🙂

What’s Your Comfort Zone? Mine Starts in the Shower.

9 February 2006, Thursday / Co. Dublin
Did I say I wouldn’t whinge about the shower at my B&B? Forget that! When I checked in yesterday, I was impressed by the large “en suite” bathroom, but I made the mistake of closing the door to it when I went to bed (trying to keep all the heat, and I use that term loosely, in the bedroom), so in the morning that bathroom was cold enough to hang meat in, and I’m not kidding.

I know now that I am spoiled by my central-heat-and-air, and that when I travel in the winter, airfare and lodging will be cheap, but bathrooms will be chilly. And that’s just the way it is. It was a hard lesson to learn. 🙂

So, yes, once again I was faced with a recalcitrant European shower: after I pulled the ceiling switch to “on,” turned the water pressure up, and set the temperature, I found that the water cycled up from completely cold to unbearably hot, then back down again, over and over. There was about seven seconds in the middle of each cycle when it was passing from cold to hot or from hot to cold during which I stuck my head sideways into the water to wash my hair (didn’t want to actually get my body wet during this process, because it might ice over before I finished shampooing).

This is not a whinge. I’m merely stating facts. Later I wrote in my notes: “I’m not sure if I’m clean or not but I don’t care, I’m so cold. There’s no way I’m putting on body lotion. Down to breakfast.” In point of fact, I never did feel warm enough after any shower to apply body lotion, so I could’ve saved that space in my luggage. 🙂

However, all this was mitigated by the fact that the Blaithin House has wireless! Yes! Yes! Yes! I can’t tell you how great it was to simply open the laptop and check my e-mail. It turns out that this was the only place I was able to get online with no effort—so thank goodness I checked in to this B&B every few days, eh?—during my trip: there are no Starbucks in Ireland (and only one in Paris), by which I mean precious little free wireless to be had.

One thing I’m pleased about is that I knew the B&B “ropes” this time around. You may remember that the very first time (in 2003) I ate breakfast in the Blaithin’s dining room, I was joined by a German couple, and had to stifle my Yank feeling of having my space invaded (they could have sat at the other table!). This morning when I went down, I made straight for the table with an occupant, feeling very European as I did so.

His name was Sebastian, a lovely boy (OK, late twenties) from Romania who spoke halting but excellent English. (And again I am humbled in the face of bilingualism; I really must learn to speak another language, it’s embarrassing to be from such a prosperous nation with so many resources at my disposal and yet … This is a subject I’ll return to, of course, when we get to France.)

Naturally, I plied Sebastian with a million questions (no doubt confirming one or more of his opinions about Americans, although he was very patient): He’s a computer technician. He’s here in Dublin training people how to use his company’s software. His work has taken him to France, Pakistan, and India in the last year. He spent six months in India, where he met a girl from Uganda whom he now considers his girlfriend. Isn’t it amazing, this world we live in! We talked about the price of long distance phone calls, among other things. He was very sweet and shy.

After breakfast I walked down to Gerry’s, and we caught a cab to Harolds Cross, which is the neighborhood where his office is. It’s near the Grand Canal, and we stopped there for awhile to watch the swans that live on it.

The Grand Canal, Harolds Cross, Dublin, 2006.

The Grand Canal, Harolds Cross, Dublin, 2006.

Like everything else in this historic city, the Grand Canal has a story. Originally intended to connect Dublin with the River Shannon and the Irish Midlands, it begins with a sea lock at the mouth of the tidal River Liffey in Dublin and winds it way through the city and beyond, stretching eighty-two miles inland (it has forty-three locks, five of which are doubles). Work was begun in 1756, and the main line through Dublin was completed forty years later; the first trade boat passed through it in 1804 (and the last in 1960, after which it fell into disrepair for a time, although it’s been restored now, for pleasure boaters). We don’t know for certain, but it might well have been a Guinness boat that inaugurated the canal: Arthur Guinness purchased the property on which he intended to brew beer in Dublin—and which bordered the canal—on the last day of 1759, and we do know that it was a godsend to his business, since at that time canal transport was much cheaper and much more reliable than road travel. Guinness not only used the canal to bring in raw materials and ship his famous black stout back out, he even used the water in it for brewing (one of the objectives in building the canal was to provide a reliable source of drinking water). The Guinness Company today still uses the stretch of the Grand Canal that borders its property.

As commercial travel on the canal began to fade in the early twentieth century, waterfowl, including swans, began to live there, generating a variety of visual art and poetry that referenced them. Gerry notes that some years ago they appeared to be on the wane, but—as you’ll see—they’re doing fine now. It could be that the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (which now runs the canal) has had something to do with their resurgence … regardless, they make a picturesque sight, and you’ll find the swans mentioned frequently in guidebooks for the city.

Gerry … and the swans on the Grand Canal. Dublin, 2006.

Gerry … and the swans on the Grand Canal. Dublin, 2006.

Had a cup of tea and a chat with Gerry’s colleague, Brendan, while Gerry checked his voicemail, then the three of us caught a cab to the Burlington Hotel for lunch, where Pat joined us. These guys are great fun, articulate and witty (in my notes I wrote, simply, “Great craic”), and they treat me like I’m someone special. Brendan even brought presents—I’m getting spoiled by this!

“Lunch with the Gentlemen”—Brendan and Pat at the Burlington Hotel, Dublin, 2006.

“Lunch with the Gentlemen”—Brendan and Pat at the Burlington Hotel, Dublin, 2006.

At lunch we had a lively conversation about the current brouhaha created by Muslim Arab reaction to those Mohammed cartoons published by that Danish newspaper. My reaction to all this (when I wrote this in my notes nearly a month ago, buildings had been burned and people had died, and we had no idea what more might happen) was, basically, “lighten up”—but Pat was particularly incensed by the media groups that had reprinted the cartoons knowing that they were causing offense, knowing that it was going to cause another reaction. And Gerry’s point was that if it had been a cartoon ridiculing the Holocaust, we’d all be tsk-tsking, saying that it was in poor taste … but at that point in time, not one Western journalist had spoken up to say anything like that publicly (some have, now). Our culture has lived with a free press for a long time, and we’ve become somewhat inured to the pitfalls and pratfalls that accompany it, so we tend to see the Muslim reaction as an overreaction (and to be fair, there is an element of overreaction in what’s happened, not to mention a fair bit of political grandstanding), and … well, you can see how a bottle of wine and a good meal can stimulate the confabulation.

We repaired from the dining room to the lounge out front (for the great people-watching!) for more chat and drinks. I had an Irish coffee, and by then had quite a little buzz going.

From lunch we went to the National Gallery to see the Caravaggio. I’ll explain … I’d received The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr (he’s the guy who wrote 1997’s best-selling A Civil Action) as a Christmas gift, and read it before the trip. Meticulously researched and written so it reads like a thriller, the book is about the discovery, in 1992, of a painting that had been presumed missing for more than 200 years. Working on an unrelated project, a young art history graduate student at the University of Rome happened on a clue in an archive that led her to search for Caravaggio’s 1602 Italian Baroque masterpiece The Taking of Christ, just as an art restorer working for Ireland’s National Gallery stumbled on the painting itself in a residence that belonged to the Jesuits. It’s a fascinating, well-written story (Harr learned to speak Italian so that he could conduct his own interviews), and when I’d finished the book in early January I’d put the National Gallery on my list of must-sees. The painting itself—portraying Judas’s betrayal and the arrest of Christ—is lovely, dark, and desolate; the look on the face of Caravaggio’s Jesus is so sad, so sorrowful, so powerfully human it will make you weep.

One of the interesting things about visiting new places is learning new things, and it helps when one’s traveling companion enjoys the role of Chief Instructor and Sometime Tour Guide. I was constantly pestering Gerry with requests for the pronunciation of Gaelic names and terms. (And remember, Gaelic is not easy, not self-evident: the word taoiseach—which means “chieftain” or “leader” in Gaelic—is pronounced TEE-shock. Would you have guessed that?)

Anyway, there were plenty of them (Gaelic words) for me to wonder about in the National Gallery, and finally Gerry resorted to an answer any parent will recognize: the next time I asked, “how do you pronounce …?” he replied, “What do you think?” The name of the painting was The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife (it’s a well-known event in Ireland’s history, wherein one of Ireland’s Norman conquerors married a girl related to the high kings of Ireland, thus solidifying the Norman [French] hold on the country). I’m proud to report that I figured it out—pronounce this EE-fah. If you say it out loud, you’ll hear the English version of this name: Eve.

The National Gallery is not the most famous art museum in the world but it is well worth a visit. It has a marvelous Yeats Room, with the paintings of John Butler Yeats and Jack Butler Yeats—the father and brother, respectively, of Nobel Prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats, whose famous portrait (painted by his father) hangs there. There are paintings also by some Yeats sisters (it was a very creative family). Another highlight for me was Lady writing a Letter, with her Maid, by Johannes Vermeer. There are only thirty-five Vermeers extant in the world, so that also makes the National Gallery pretty special. I found it interesting, when I was reading the museum’s Concise Guide later, to learn that George Bernard Shaw “left one-third of his posthumous royalties to the institution he referred to, in an autobiography, as ‘that cherished asylum of my boyhood.’” As you might imagine, that is a not-insignificant bequest, and until comparatively recently was the museum’s largest source of funds for acquisitions.

And best of all, the museum’s free to the public!

We shopped a bit in the museum’s gift shop (I can’t resist), then we walked through Grafton Street and shopped a little more.

We’d made plans to go out that night with Gerry’s nieces, so we took a taxi back to Artane to rest up. Later Gerry, Bridie, and I walked two blocks down the road to the Roundabout, where we met up first with Orla and her brother Neil. Then William, Gerry’s brother, showed up, followed by his second son, Eoin (this is the Gaelic “Owen”), and finally Clare (sister to Neil, Eoin, and Orla), when she got off work, escorted by her lovely boyfriend, Kenneth. I had plenty of time to get a generous amount of Jameson’s and Guinness down as I got to know Gerry’s family better while simultaneously grilling poor Kenneth (Clare, I really like him!).

L–R: Front: Bridie, Neil, William, Eoin, Gerry / Back: Kenneth, Clare, Orla. At the Roundabout, 2006.

L–R: Front: Bridie, Neil, William, Eoin, Gerry / Back: Kenneth, Clare, Orla. At the Roundabout, 2006.

The party broke up a little before midnight, and I only needed a little help getting back to the B&B that night. … Gerry was a bit concerned that I was so drunk we wouldn’t keep to our plan of leaving early that next morning, but my body clock has always been more than faithful. No prob!

Oh, I was feeling no pain. Clare, me, Orla … at the Roundabout.

Oh, I was feeling no pain. Clare, me, Orla … at the Roundabout.