So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 8): Finding the Magic

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

In every long-awaited trip, there is a moment in which you open your eyes a little wider and think, Oh my. This was so worth it. Or you open your mouth and say it to your traveling companion. Sometimes it happens at the end of the day and one of your party says, “I think [insert activity here] was my favorite thing so far.”

When that happens, you’ve had a magic moment.

On my first trip to Ireland in 2003, Gerry and I were driving from one point to another on a Sunday morning and happened to pass Jerpoint Abbey. It hadn’t been on our itinerary, but there it was. Was it open? We walked in. The place was deserted. I took some stunning photos (back in the days when you had to send film off and hope you’d gotten good shots), taking my time to look at every single rock and blade of grass. The morning was silent but for the blackbirds flying above our heads. I can still remember everything like it was yesterday—it was magic.

The altar at Jerpoint Abbey.

The altar at Jerpoint Abbey.

Most of these moments are completely unplanned—what else could they be?—but there are two things you can do to invite the magic to show up.

1. Accept the fact that you’re going to be out of your comfort zone. Relax.
2. Allow plenty of time, both in days and hours. Cut, don’t cram.

Both of these things seem self-evident, but you’d be surprised how many American travelers I’ve run into who aren’t really enjoying a long-awaited vacation, and it can almost always be tracked back to these two things. So let’s review.

Remember, this isn’t the United States—you will be out of your comfort zone. That’s a guarantee. So adjust your attitude now. Unlock your preconceived notions and set those puppies loose, friends. It always astonishes me when folks whine about some little thing that is “different.” Because I say, YAY! I’ll be home soon enough. These differences will make your memories. These differences will engage your mind. These differences are things you’ll be thinking about years later. Embrace them.

Americans also have a tendency to try to cram as much as they can into their vacation time—but let’s rethink that too. If you’re looking at the map you may think, Oh, it’s only fifty miles. But if you’re driving that fifty miles in second gear—and I’ve done that, due to road conditions (that is, mountain-y roads)—it’s going to take awhile. You think this is a small country, but the roads are narrow and you don’t know how to drive on them. (Trust me on this.)

So cut your itinerary, don’t cram it. You don’t want to be running from one must-see venue to the next, zigzagging all over the country, driving, driving, driving. You won’t enjoy any of it. And you’ll drive right past the magic.

Some of this crammed-itinerary phenomenon has to do with the difference between abundance thinking and scarcity thinking. That’s another post for another time, but in this context it simply means you should assume not that this is the only time you’ll ever take a trip to a foreign land, but that life is long and abundant, and you’ll be back to see those things you left off your itinerary this time. Slow it down. Your experience will be richer if you take the time to fully savor your adventure.

This can be said about life in general, of course, but that, too, is another post for another time. 🙂

Make sure you build enough unstructured time into each day for dawdling. Gerry and I stopped for lunch at a pub in a small village (Leap). The back door was open, and we could hear water running; when we looked, there was a picnic table next to a little brook. We sat and ate there. Then we lingered over a fresh pot of tea, reading the newspaper we’d pulled from the rack out front. Doesn’t sound like much to you, maybe, but I remember that as a magic moment.

Stop frequently, for no reason than to stretch your legs. If you see something you’d like to photograph, pull over. Found a beach? Take a walk. Say hello; talk to the people you meet. Turn off the main road if you see an interesting sign; 2 kilometers is barely more than a mile, so check it out. Go on.

I’ve learned to keep a loosey-goosey schedule, so there’s always a plan B, in case we find a venue closed or too crowded. I’ve also learned to simply let things go, quickly, if they’re not working out. Flat tire? Put the spare on and drive to the next town. Don’t stew. You’ve paid too much for this vacation in money, energy, and time to spoil it by fretting over things you can’t control. I once took some fantastic photographs of a thunderstorm from the garage of a tire shop near Kenmare. Magic. 🙂

A sudden shower, over in five minutes!

A sudden shower, over in five minutes! See the tires?

Look for the magic, and you’ll find it. My friend Margaret and I were at St. Fin Barre’s cathedral in Cork when lunchtime arrived. “Is there a good restaurant good close by?” we asked a docent we’d been chatting with earlier. “Would a vegetarian place be OK?” She referred us to Café Paradiso. “I wouldn’t say it’s close, but you can walk there,” she said. So we did. It was packed at three o’clock in the afternoon, and in spite of our not having a reservation (!), they fit us in. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. The ambience was electric, there was a couple at the table next to us who were relishing the meal and each other, and … well, it was magic. (Later, back home, I learned the restaurant is famous. Who knew!)

We had another magic meal on that trip—pears we’d picked up at a grocery store a week earlier and let ripen to perfection (juicy and sweet), eaten with a hunk of Cashel Blue we’d purchased earlier that day. Much less fussy than eating at a world-famous café, but just as memorable.

Remember the stealth sheep? I count that a magic moment. I count as magic the time we stopped by the side of the road so I could call my college-age son to get some important news; I woke him up. The sun was sparkling on the sea far below, and the news was very, very good.

Somewhere in County Donegal.

Stopping to make a phone call, somewhere in County Donegal.

I could go on and on. (And I will post other “magic moments” later.) The point I’m trying to make is this: Dawdling is allowed. There will be no tests on this vacation, no prizes awarded for Most Things Seen. Instead, look for your beauty, look for your delight … and you will find it. Magic.

So You Want to Go to Ireland! (Part 7): Eating, Drinking … and Music

This series started with an introduction, and here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Now, let’s talk about those to-do categories we skipped earlier, shall we? I haven’t forgotten them.

10 Have a drink in a traditional Irish pub
11 Hear traditional Irish music
18 Shop for uniquely Irish items
19 Enjoy the food

I’m going to put off the post on shopping, since this one has already gotten longish. So let’s discuss food, drink, and music! Here’s a little bit of background that will help when you’re planning your trip.

Traditional Music
What you may be calling Celtic is called traditional in Ireland. “Trad.” More than likely, you’re going to find traditional sessions in a pub—look for signs in pub windows. Don’t look for a stage so you can sit close—the musicians will most likely sit at a table somewhere in the room. If you’re an old fogey like me, do be prepared to stay up late: the musicians won’t show up until after 9:00 or even 10:00 pm.

If you love this music—and who doesn’t!—look for music stores in larger towns, where you can pick up CDs by local musicians to take home.

Public Houses
Ireland is the only place I know that exports its pub culture. You can go just about anywhere in the world—even my little town here in Tennessee—and find an Irish pub. (Authenticity is another story. About a dozen years ago I visited one such establishment in Nashville—now defunct—and was dismayed to find the wait staff dressed in caps and vests and short pants, looking like they’d just stepped out of the 1840s. Oh dear.)

You can search the Web or travel guides for well-known pubs in Ireland, but as far as I’m concerned, you can stop into any pub on your route, enjoy the ambience of the moment, and it will be an authentic experience. In his wonderful book, McCarthy’s Bar: A Journey of Discovery in the West of Ireland, Pete McCarthy has a series of travel rules, the first of which is Never pass a bar with your name on it … and this works for me. 🙂 Tourists have subtly influenced authenticity, though, so the further out you get, the real-er they’ll feel. (No pressure to look like an Irish pub for the tourists, you see.)

Unlike England, where you find pubs with names like Red Lion, Goose and Cloud, or Saracens Head, many Irish pubs are named after the owner or a previous owner. (There are exceptions, of course: the Bleeding Horse and the Confession Box, both long-lived pubs in Dublin, are just two.) A lot of social life happens in pubs—celebrations of all sorts, meet-ups, and general relaxation. We have nothing in the United States that approximates Irish pub culture.

With that in mind, here are a few things you should know:

• Belly up to the bar, there may not be a waiter.
• No need to tip the bartender.
• Don’t run a tab. Drinks are bought (and paid for) in rounds; that is, you buy a round for the entire table. And then someone else does.
• It’s pronounced JEM-i-sun (short e), not JAY-mi-sun.
• Remove your hat, young sir.
• Don’t ask for an Irish Car Bomb or a Black and Tan. Please.

Pubs in the larger cities and towns probably offer food—pub grub—throughout the day. More than likely it will be casual comfort food—soups, stews, hot sandwiches and fries—but some city pubs chase the business lunch crowd with expanded menus; in smaller towns you might be lucky to get a cold sandwich. Still, if you’re on a budget, a pub’s a good place to eat.

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

The local—a good place to meet new friends!

Eating
Let’s talk about what to eat. Don’t worry about “traditional” food and forget any jokes you may have heard about the quality of Irish cuisine. Some of the best meals I’ve had in my life I had in Ireland.

These, then, are the things that will always be good:

• fish and seafood
• lamb
• potatoes
• pork: chops, sausages, bacon
• brown bread
• dairy: cheese, butter, buttermilk
• fresh fruits and vegetables
• soups and stews: Guinness stew
• breakfast: white and black pudding

Some things are just obvious: you are never far from the sea in Ireland, so fish and seafood are fresh, fresh, fresh. By now you’ve seen the sheep everywhere, so it makes sense that the lamb will be good. Pork too—the locavore movement is in full swing here as in the States; the demand for organic and local foodstuffs supports farmers across the nation. Gerry gets delicious sausage from his local butcher, made to the butcher’s family recipe and available nowhere else.

Speaking of pork, be sure to enjoy the “full Irish” breakfast, wherever you find one; pay particular attention to the black and white pudding, which are really coarse sausages stuffed with oats or barley and pork (pig’s blood, in the case of black pudding). Seriously delicious. And the best B&Bs will be patronizing a local butcher for bacon, sausages, and puddings. Yum. Oh, and about breakfast: you’re not going to find a Denny’s or an IHOP in every town, so if you’re not staying in a B&B or otherwise find yourself in need of breakfast some morning and don’t know where to go, step into the local hotel, where the dining room will bring you a pot of tea and a menu right away. 🙂

Potatoes are served with just about everything in Ireland—fried, boiled, mashed, you name it. They are more flavorful than the potatoes you’re used to, so be sure to sample them. A decade ago we stopped at a pub for lunch and I ordered Guinness stew (a favorite of mine, and always a safe bet if you’re looking for comfort food); when the bowl of stew (beef, onions, and carrots swimming in gravy) arrived it was accompanied by a serving bowl of boiled, peeled potatoes. It was explained to me I should add one potato at a time to my stew bowl. Oh my. I felt like I was tasting potatoes for the first time, tasting ur-potatoes. I’ll never forget that meal. (Oh, and don’t you forget that french fries are called chips, and potato chips are called crisps!)

As noted, you can’t go wrong with a Guinness stew. And soup … OMG. Cooks across Ireland are stirring up the most imaginative pots of soup you’ve ever put in your mouth. I still fantasize about that bowl of parsnip and blue cheese I had in Glandore. Great pub food. You’ll also find delicious fried food in pubs—fish-n-chips, for example, and lovely fried chicken.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

Parsnip and blue cheese soup with brown bread. OMG.

You can always count on these types of meals to be served with hearty brown bread and butter. By all means, set your diet aside (you’re going to walk it off anyway) and sample the bread, kids. Heaven!

Or put a slab of cheese on that bread. If your’re a cheese-lover like me, you’re going to love your stay in Ireland; artisan cheeses abound. Be sure to order that cheese tray from the dessert menu, or duck into a farm shop or grocer to pick up cheese to snack on later. (If you’re in Dublin, go to Sheridan’s Cheesemongers and they’ll take fine care of you. Try the English Market in Cork.) I could go on and on about this—one of the magic moments you’ll read about in the next post has to do with cheese—but just trust me: try the cheese.

One last thing: give tea a try, even if you’re a coffee drinker. The Irish drink a lot of tea, and they know how to do it right. And for a special treat, you should consider taking in a “high tea” (or call it “afternoon tea”) at an upscale hotel. (This will include sandwiches and baked goods in addition to your teapot full of joy.) We enjoyed this experience at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin (read about it here) and have already decided to do it again. It was special—and delicious—and it’s a quintessential Irish experience, so you should consider putting it on your itinerary.

Up next: Let’s go shopping!

The Glen of the Two Lakes and the Two Thousand Raindrops

Day 20, Sunday, 30 September 2012

Today we were going to make up for getting a little lost on the way to Clonmacnoise, so we picked up Gerry at ten o’clock with a plan to drive down into the Wicklow Mountains to see another world-famous monastic settlement: Glendalough. (Pronounce this GLEN-da-lock.)

It wasn’t easy to find either. That is, the signs to get us off the highway were perfectly clear. But then we got out on those little two-lane roads, and it became a little … less clear.

The Wicklow Mountains are beautiful and old, though. Gorgeous country. You’ll recall we could see them in the distance from the Portmarnock Hotel north of Dublin. Remember the Great Sugar Loaf? We drove right around the base of it. Fantastic stuff. It’s good to get out and drive around in the country like this. I always imagine myself living in … that house. Or maybe … that one.

I may get lost easily, but I do have a pretty good memory for what things looked like the last time I was here (partly because I take a lot of photos). And the approach to Glendalough (once we’d found our way there) was completely changed. I mean, changed like the Cliffs of Moher was changed: it was Disneyland Glendalough.

Standing at the entrance of the entrance office. The car park is somewhere off to the left, out of the photo. The sidewalk/path runs all along the outer edge of the lawn; you can see folks with umbrellas coming along it there in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

Standing at the door of the site office. The car park is somewhere off to the left, out of the photo. The sidewalk/path runs all along the outer edge of the lawn; you can see folks with umbrellas coming along it there in the center. You can click on the photo and click again to zoom in if you really want to see that lady in the blue jacket. (Margaret’s photo.)

There was a huge hotel, for God’s sake, that apparently has been there all along (though it has recently been enlarged) but which is now a main feature, since the entrance has been changed. You cannot miss it; the parking lot is huge.

Surely St. Kevin is rolling over in his grave.

So I was discombobulated. What I thought of as the “front” of the site (you know, like where the sanctuary gate—the entrance—is) is not the front anymore. And what I thought of as the back of the site—back where St. Kevin’s Kitchen is—is now what you see first. Have you been to Glendalough before this change? Does the fact that they removed that gorgeous old squeaky kissing gate distress you as much as it distresses me?

As you might have guessed by now, I was cranky when I got out of the car. Also: it had begun to rain. And not a light rain through which you might cheerfully press on. Although we did. 🙂

If I’d calmed down (and hadn’t been cold and wet) I might have appreciated this scenic approach :) but I wanted to get up to the ruins. (Margaret’s photo.)

If I’d calmed down (and hadn’t been cold and wet) I might have appreciated this scenic approach 🙂 but I wanted to get up to the ruins. (Margaret’s photo.)

At last, a glimpse of what we’ve come to see, still quite a way off. That’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church) on the left (near the pine tree) and the splendid round tower right in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

At last, a glimpse of what we’ve come to see, still quite a way off. That’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church) on the left (near the pine tree) and the splendid round tower right in the center. (Margaret’s photo.)

Getting closer!

Getting closer!

There: the backside of St. Kevin’s church.

There: the backside of St. Kevin’s church.

I don’t know why they call it Kevin’s Kitchen, honestly, and I can’t seem to track it down. There’s no evidence it was used as one. Perhaps it’s because the little squat bell tower looks like a chimney.

Glendalough was founded by Kevin, who was born in 498, a descendant of the royal house of Leinster, the province in which Glendalough is located. Kevin rejected his life of privilege, choosing instead to live as a hermit in a cave here; later he founded a monastery on the site in the sixth century. The settlement was sacked repeatedly by the Vikings, yet it flourished for more than six hundred years. The age of the buildings still extant is uncertain, but most date from the eighth to twelfth centuries.

The round tower at Glendalough is one of the finest of its kind in the country. Landmarks for approaching visitors, round towers were, of course, bell-towers, but they were also places of refuge during an attack: the door was always on the second story, entered by a rope ladder which could be pulled up after the last monk was safely inside. The round tower at Glendalough is still all in one piece (the conical roof was rebuilt in 1876 using the original stones) at 110 feet high.

The new approach to the Glendalough monastic site. Now we’re getting close; that’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church).

The new approach to the Glendalough monastic site. Now we’re getting close; that’s St. Kevin’s Kitchen (Church).

A closer look at the round tower.

A closer look at the round tower.

At last, we cross the brook, and there it all is.

At last, we cross the brook, and there it all is. We’re standing about where the kissing gate used to be.

Have you seen enough of this little building yet? It’s all I’ve got, honestly. (Margaret’s photo.)

Have you seen enough of this little building yet? It’s about all I’ve got, honestly. (Margaret’s photo.)

It is, as you can see, quite ancient. (You can also see raindrops on the lens.)

It is, as you can see, quite ancient. (You can also see raindrops on the lens.)

They have Disney-fied the the perimeter, but inside it’s still quite wild and old. (Margaret’s photo.)

They have Disney-fied the the perimeter, but inside it’s still quite wild and old. (Margaret’s photo.)

Unfortunately, by this time it was pouring down rain and the wind was gusting, and though we tried, we just had to give it up: none of us wanted to walk around in the rain.

A last look; the rain is really coming down.

A last look; the rain is really coming down.

So we began to retrace our steps. We stopped in Roundwood (pop. 833), at the Roundwood Inn, right on the R755, for Sunday dinner. The Lonely Planet says the inn is in a seventeenth-century German house; Google+ says it’s been in business for more than twenty-five years. What I can tell you is they had a nice turf fire burning, and we snuggled up to it with a pot of tea while we looked at the menu.

It was pub grub, but it was hot and good. I had the roast chicken and chips. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was pub grub, but it was hot and good. I had the roast chicken and chips. (Margaret’s photo.)

Outside we were struck by the stunning window baskets with petunias and fuchsias and that little blue flower. (Margaret’s photo.)

Outside we were struck by the stunning window baskets with petunias and fuchsias and that little blue flower. (Margaret’s photo.)

Every window had a different selection, and the fuchsias were just gorgeous. This one is a double. (Margaret’s photo.)

Every window had a different selection, and the fuchsias were just gorgeous. This one is a double. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was quite a treat for the eyes. (Margaret’s photo.)

It was quite a treat for the eyes. (Margaret’s photo.)

After we left Roundwood we drove back toward the Avoca Handweavers shop in Bray, just off the N11. It’s quite a place—as the name suggests, they sell beautiful woolen sweaters, scarves, throws, and such—but it’s become quite touristy and pricey. But you can get wool goods there you can get nowhere else. We were glad we stopped, as this is the main location.

Back in Dublin we visited with Bridie for awhile, uploaded our photos, and I finished and emailed those editorial notes I’d been working on. By then it was getting late-ish, so Margaret and I drove back to Clontarf and our B&B. Later we had an evening snack of Cashel Blue (Irish farmhouse cheese: a “subtle creamy blue hand made in Tipperary”) spread on butter crackers, accompanied by fresh pears at the perfect ripeness, followed by a second course of homemade banana bread (brought from the B&B in Lahinch) accompanied by Butler’s dark chocolate with almonds. And it was very, very good.

Today’s Image

St Kevin chose Glendalough (“Glen of the Two Lakes) for his hermitage because it was remote and wild and beautiful. It still is. Even in the rain.

Glendalough in the rain, the last day of September 2012.

Glendalough in the rain, the last day of September 2012.