Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Ireland (cont)

When we last left our adventurers, they had retired after an evening of St Patricks day festivities.  Saturday is a day to explore outside the city.  The prior day we made reservations in the Dublin tourism office (very friendly place, centrally located downtown) for a day trip to Newgrange.  After breakfast in the hotel (buffet remains the same each day - scone, soda bread, toast or croissants, cereals, fruit and yogurt and a selection of Irish bacon, sausage, blood pudding, baked tomato, mushrooms, beans and either fried or scrambled eggs), we made our way to the shuttle bus - both of us a bit tired from the late night prior. 

Nothing much to note on the drive itself - we quickly left the city and the suburbs and entered the countryside.  As we approached the Newgrange visitor center in the Boyne valley (about an hour north of Dublin), the sun started to peak through the clouds - the first real sunshine of the trip - though the wind was still extremely brisk.  The valley itself was quite nice - incredibly green with fields boxed in by hedges, trees or stone walls.  As we were in a valley, the fields rose on the hillsides around us and the sun truly made the view grand.

Newgrange itself is an ancient passage tomb that dates from 5000 years ago - older than the pyramids and I believe the oldest manmade structure known on the planet.  Circular in shape, it has the diameter of about a football field and is probably about 40 or 50 feet high.  The base is large stone, with smaller rock decoratively building up the walls (though the walls in view are a recreation using the original stone as the original walls fell at some time back).  The passage within the tomb remains exactly as built - its been watertight since its construction and the size of the rock used for the passage is such that it has passed the test of time.  The tour included entry through the passage into the central chamber.  The passage was built such that on the winter solstice (+/- a few days on either side), the sun would shine directly down the passage and into the central chamber, illuminating it for about 15 minutes during the sunrise.  It was all quite amazing when you think of the magnitude of the structure, the fact that the stones were brought in from several different locations around Ireland, that it took the commitment of 2-3 generations to complete, and the understanding of nature required to get the alignment (both vertical and horizontal) correct for the illumination on the winter solstice.  It was also quite amazing that of the graffiti that was etched into the inner stones (prior to becoming a protected site), the first that we saw was "P McDonough" suggesting the McDonough boys have a long history of trouble-making.

After a quick stop at the hotel, we were out at the pub next door to watch the Irelend v England rugby match.  The bar was packed with a decidedly pro-Irish group (though there were a few English rooters among the group).  The game itself was quite good - it took me a bit to understand some of the basic rules having never played or watched a Rugby match in the past - but the crowd reactions quickly taught me good plays and bad plays.  Ireland made a number of mistakes that allowed England to take a late lead, but were able to recapture the lead in the final minutes on a play that required video review to determine if the try was successful.  It was and a huge cheer erupted through the bar!  Ireland was able to hang on as time ran out and another huge cheer went up.

On to Temple Bar for dinner.  We try a place with a "modern Irish menu".  As we arrived before 8, it was easy to get a table.  Both our meals were below average, but it was nice to have a casual dinner.  Off to a small Italian restuarant for Irish coffee and desert.  Followed, of course, by a pub crawl back to the hotel - though this one not as intense as the prior night as we stopped at only a few bars and had only a few pints on the journey home.  Bars generally remained crowded, though there were a few that were quite empty.  Very odd that bars only a few yards from each other can have such a different personality inside.

After breakfast on Sunday morning, we headed out to see Trinity College and the book of Kells.  We got an early start with the hope of visiting a museum as well before Sean departs.  After a stroll through St Stephens Green to Trinity, we arrive to find the first tour starts at 11:40 and the book of Kells doesn't open until noon on Sundays.  So, off we go for coffee, returning in time for the tour.  It was interesting to hear a bit of the history and to see the likely residence of my great grandparents.  By the time the tour finished, quite a line had formed for entry to the book of Kells.  As Sean needed to get back to the airport, our hearts sank as it looked like we wouldn't be able to view.  However, luck was with us this morning, just as we were about to depart, all those on the walking tour were allowed immediate entry.  There was a very good exhibition on the history of the book, followed by a viewing of two of the books and then the long hall (which itself was quite amazing).

After Sean's departure it was back out through St Stephens Green and on to Merrion Sq and the museums.  On the way I stumbled across a street fesitval that was part of the ongoing St Patricks Day festival.  This was geared towards the younger crowd with street performers, rides and activities to keep the kids entertained.  The Natural History museum (free) is filled with many, many (many) stuffed animals - 4 floors of stuffed birds, fishes and just about every other animal you can think of.  They also had collections of shells, though they were not as brilliant as those Mathilde has assembled.

I stopped at the National Gallery next (also free), though didn't find much that was awe inspiring in either the building, its presentation or its collection - though you can't beat the price!  Dinner was at a Thai restaurant were the coconut encrusted sea bass was nicely prepared.  An early evening in as I need to rise early to catch a train to Limerick.

Leave the hotel at about 6am for the half hour walk to the train station - not a lot of people out at this hour, but the daily perishable deliverables were well underway at the stores and restaurants.  The train gets underway promptly at 7am on the way to Limerick.  Although heading west this time, the journey is similar to the ride to Newgrange - we quickly leave the city, then the suburbs and are accompanied by fields and the occasional village for the remainder of the journey.  We arrive in Limerick a little after 9am and board a coach.  We start with a very brief drive through Limerick with an even briefer narration on its history.  We soon arrive at Bunratty castle (dating from the 1500's) were we're given a tour of the castle and allowed to explore the folk village (think "Sturbridge Village", but without the character players).  The houses in the village were interesting - very functional in layout and the smell of the burning peat was enjoyable, though it did make some of the houses a bit smokey.  And, the fires didn't seem to be providing all that much heat (on yet another cold day).

After Bunratty we stopped at a pub in Doolin for lunch.  Being on the tour route has trained the staff well as they were able to get us all served and on our way very quickly while truly retaining an ordinary pub feel (ie, it was not a manufactured experience).  From Doolin, it was a short drive to the Cliffs of Moher.  As the wind has been blowing from the east, the seas on the west coast were rather calm making the cliffs seem at peace with the ocean.  From the viewing location atop the cliffs looking out to others, its tough to get a true sense of the magnitude and abrubtness with which the earth meets the sea.  I'm certain it will be even harder to get this sense from the photos.

We continue north, and enter the Burren where we get a chance to venture out onto the rocks.  Its not until we continue on our way to Galway that the vastness of the Burren is truly appreciated.  Acres of land with extremely little in the way of vegetation - somewhat similar to being above the treeline in the mountains but surrounded by gently sloping hills instead of steep rises and falls.  The tour finishes in Glasgow where we catch a late train back to Dublin.  Not much to see on the way as darkness quickly falls after the train departs.  It was definitely a worthwhile experience to see the "best of the west" as the tour states.  But, there are still plenty of locations around Ireland left to visit on future trips.

The final morning in Dublin starts with breakfast followed by a final walk through Grafton St (through hopefully what will be the last hailstorm I encounter) on to the DART station to catch the train to Dun Laoghaire.  As the train rolled past Dublin Bay, I'm pleased that I'm giving the ferry / train one more chance as the views across the bay are pleasing.  As the ferry departs, I'm treated to some magnificent views of the hills and mountains of the Irish coastline rising above the sea. 

Goodbye Ireland!  I'm sure I'll be visiting again in the future.

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