Category Archives: Mature travel

Good-bye Bog, Hello Wicklow

My housesitting experience came to an end Sunday as my second hosts returned home, and I wasted no time putting the midlands of Ireland behind me on Monday morning. Good-bye soggy bogs, grey skies and same-same views. Hello lovely east coast, great coffeeshops and the sparkling waters of the Irish Sea.

My nearest neighbors in the midlands. ©Marcie Miller

My nearest neighbors in the midlands. ©Marcie Miller

Midlands review in a nutshell: It is a nice place to visit, on your way somewhere else. As a tourist, two days with a good list of things to see there would be plenty.  My two months of housesitting worked out very well; I feel lucky to have found both of them so quickly and I have no regrets there. But, if I do this again, I think I would look for appointments farther apart. Live and learn. But more on that in another post.

Wicklow Harbor - feels like coming home.

Wicklow Harbor – feels like coming home.

I moved on to Wicklow Town, a six-hour bus trip from Roscommon Town, and a world away. OK, well it is still Ireland, but Wicklow is set on green, rolling countryside running down to the sea, where sailboats mix with fishing boats, and swimmers in wetsuits maneuver around the boats at anchor in the harbor. The Irish have a passion for swimming in the sea all year, often without wetsuits. Keeps them tough I guess.

Dublin is an hour train or bus ride to the north, with plenty of interesting stops along the way. The coastal stretch from Dublin to Greystones (approx. 10 miles north of Wicklow) is historically where the rich from Dublin used to come on holiday — back when 20 miles was a long way to go. The towns are chock-a-block with stately Georgian homes, and it really feels like stepping back in time as you stroll the promenade along the beach.

I’m staying in a historic Georgian house on Bachelor’s Walk, which runs along the Leitrim River, parallel to the shore. It’s now  Capt. Halpin’s Hostel. I thought it would be quieter and cheaper than staying in Dublin for the final 10 days. And there is only one other hostel between here and Dublin. The room I’m sitting in, the parlor, has an original marble fireplace, high ceilings, a crystal chandelier and upright piano. It smells musty, but that’s pretty much the smell of Ireland. It used be Leitrim Lodge and it’s claim to fame is that the town’s most famous citizen, Capt. Halpin, once lived here. I had to share a bunk room with three smelly, and I do mean smelly, boys last night, but for the rest of the time I’ll be in an all-girl room.

Enough for now — sun’s out, time to go strolling!

A Farewell to Inishmore

 

Teampall Bheanain, the 11th century church of St. Benan, sits on a high hill overlooking Inishmore. ©Marcie Miller

Teampall Bheanain, the 11th century church of St. Benan, sits on a high hill overlooking Inishmore. ©Marcie Miller

As I stood at the stern of the ferry, watching Inishmore receding in the wake, I was glad that I had spent time here and gotten to know it a little better. But as my hand closed around the small gray beach stone in my pocket, I felt that I had only scratched the surface—and I already longed to return.

Like most tourists, my first trip to the Aran Islands 10 years ago consisted of taking the shuttle bus from Galway to catch the ferry over for a day trip. Tour vans driven by out-of-work fisherman or farmers meet the disembarking day tourists, all hawking tours around the island. Horse drawn carts and bicycles are also an option. Although, with bicycles for rent seeming to outnumber the tourists 10 to 1, I imagine that if all the bikes were rented in one day the island would look like Bejing at rush hour. Fortunately that is not the case.

I don't know why they need this much verbage on a speed limit sign...

I don’t know why they need this much verbage on a speed limit sign…

This visit I gave myself the luxury of an entire week. Long enough, I thought, to really explore Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran islands. In Irish, Inis Mór just means “Island Big.” Not highly original, but descriptive. The other two islands are Inishmaan (Middle Island) and Inisheer (you guessed it, Small Island).

The Aran Islands are a gaeltacht, as mentioned before, an area where Irish is the primary language. Hearing the locals casually talking in Irish really makes it feel like a foreign country (but it makes eavesdropping impossible).

The islands can be reached either by the bus/ferry combination from Galway, or by a smaller ferry from Doolin, weather permitting. After a blustery weekend I was fortunate that the seas calmed and I was able to take the boat from Doolin. The hour-and-a-half trip affords beautiful views of the smaller islands as well as the coast along Galway Bay. Fans of the BBC comedy series, Father Ted, will recognize Inisheer as “Craggy Island,” with its iconic, rusty freighter washed up on the rocks.

Does he dream of greener, less rocky pastures? ©Marcie Miller

Does he dream of greener, less rocky pastures? ©Marcie Miller

The islands are an extension of the Burren in County Clare, a lunar landscape of karst limestone, scoured by glaciers to create fissures and deep gouges called “grykes,” with little vegetation.  It’s been said that all the fields on the Aran Islands were made by hauling in seaweed and animal manure, but I think that might be an exaggeration, as there is soil where obviously no one has cultivated. The islands are iconic for the miles of stone walls which divide them into a patchwork of small pastures, each farmer doing what he can to make the best of the rocky ground.

A single, round granite boulder in a sea of limestone block walls. I'd love to know the story here. ©Marcie Miller

A single, round granite boulder in a sea of limestone block walls. I’d love to know the story here. ©Marcie Miller

Island by bike

After landing on Inishmore I checked into the Kilronan Hostel, a large building right on the harbor, and went off to rent a bike. I decided I wanted to explore the island at my own pace and have the freedom to really get off the tourist trail.

The island is hilly, but rental bikes are at least 18-speeds, so it wasn’t that difficult, even for someone who is incredibly out of shape (cough). I headed north, as the bike renter suggested, cruising along the beautiful coast road on the east side of the island (facing the mainland). Fortunately the rains of the weekend had passed on and the weather was bright and beautiful. No one does blue skies and puffy white clouds better than Ireland.

The view from Dun Eoghanachta. ©Marcie Miller

The view from Dun Eoghanachta. ©Marcie Miller

I turned up a narrow gravel lane with a sign pointing to Dun Eoghanachta (pronounced Onachta), a ring fort set on a hill with a commanding view.  The lane quickly gave out, and I ditched my bike to walk up the last quarter mile or so. The fort is mostly intact, a large circle with high, thick walls and the remains of several stone buildings inside. I climbed up the stone steps to sit on top of the wide wall, admiring the view and enjoying the solitude. From there I could see a couple winding their way up the trail. As they reached the fort they made a beeline for my exact position, climbed the stone steps right in front of me (although there were at least four other sets of steps), sat down not 10 feet away—and started smoking. I handed her my camera and asked her to take my picture, then departed.

As the bike wasn’t due back until the next day, the following morning I headed to the other end of the island to check out Dun Dubhchathair (Black Fort), a ring fort perched on the cliffs along the Atlantic coast. The most popular ring fort on Inishmore is Dun Aonghusa (Angus), which has been developed into a major tourist attraction. It is impressive, with a semi-circular front facing the island, and a back side that is a high cliff. I had been there before, and wanted to see the lesser-visited Black Fort. It did not disappoint.

Almost there - Dun Dubchathair in the distance. ©Marcie Miller

Almost there – Dun Dubchathair in the distance. ©Marcie Miller

Again I rode my bike as far as I could, then ditched it to walk the rest of the way, over the crest of the island. The fort was visible in the distance, but required picking my way over the barren limestone landscape and through several stone walls to get there. These large stone forts were built by the Celts and date to the 5th century. As I stood in the silence, with only the wind whistling through the stone walls, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have lived there. They would have seen the same waves crashing against the sheer rock walls far below, the same expanses of stone stretching to the horizon, the same type of sea birds wheeling overhead. This time my solitude was not broken by company.

Like Dun Aonghasa, Black Fort backs up to the Atlantic cliffs. ©Marcie Miller

Like Dun Aonghasa, Black Fort backs up to the Atlantic cliffs. ©Marcie Miller

I spent another day exploring the south end of the island before the weather deteriorated into rain and wind. The hostel was not very comfortable, with no place to sit and write and very limited internet access, so I decided to move on to Galway for the weekend. Now, as I walk the crowded streets of Galway, it comforts me to hold that small piece of limestone in my pocket and think of Inishmore.

 

‘Araby’

James Joyce ponders the international food options in Dublin. ©Marcie Miller

James Joyce ponders the international food options in Dublin. ©Marcie Miller

What? I thought she was in Ireland! I am. “Araby” is the name of a James Joyce short story from “The Dubliners.” It’s about a boy who is in love with an older girl and wants to impress her by buying her something exotic from the “bazaar” being held in his village. He builds up the suspense all day—waiting for his father to get home to give him money, imagining how wonderful the bazaar will be, like going to a foreign country, and finding the perfect gift to make the unsuspecting girl fall in love with him.

Unfortunately his father gets home so late that by the time the boy gets to the bazaar it’s closing up. The lights are turned up and the merchants are packing to go home. He sees it’s not an exotic bazaar at all, but just the plain old community hall. The veil falls from his eyes and he goes home, sadder but wiser.

I’m not planning on going home soon, but I thought of the story this morning as I sat in a cafe, stewing about being overcharged for a skimpy breakfast and looking out at the statue of Jame Joyce, framed by a sign for a Thai noodle restaurant. How many tourists, I wondered, find that Ireland is not Araby either?

It wasn’t a shock to me, having been here before, but Dublin is a big, dirty city, far from the shining image portrayed in glossy tourist brochures. The streets are crowded with more people speaking Polish or Chinese than English, panhandlers are more prevalent than street performers, and litter blows down the sidewalks like snow. Parks are closed “for maintenance” and buildings on the main streets are shuttered and decaying.

Friday I walked for what seemed like miles in the hot sun to reach the James Joyce Museum in the Martello Tower in Sandycove, featured in the opening of Ulysses. The exhibit was tiny and musty, with the ceiling sagging badly from the dampness. The tower was anticlimactic, with views over the tiny beach crowded with sunbathers.

No, it’s not all rainbows and leprechauns on the Emerald Isle.

But it is still a country with an amazing history of producing artists, writers and musicians unrivalled anywhere. Sunday afternoon I attended a free (free!) concert at the nearby Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (a mouthful, I know) with a trio called Triocca, with viola, flute and a beautiful concert harp.

The event was special because they were debuting a composition by a Dublin composer, John Buckley, who was in attendance. His composition was called “To Lands Beyond Time,” and was his musical interpretation of six Japanese haiku. Before each musical haiku a lovely Japanese woman stood up and recited the Japanese version, followed by one of the performers reciting it in English, with of course a soft Irish accent.

The senior gentleman who sat beside me, Charlie, said he was taking a musical appreciation class from Buckley at the local college. He clued me that the composer would be present, and said I would recognize him because he “looked like a composer.” The caterpillar eyebrows and sideburns were the giveaway.

Buckley said he liked to think of haiku as what Joyce called “epiphanies”—little moments in time. I thought that was a graceful way to tie the two cultures together. So, with all due respect to Joyce and Buckley, I composed this haiku to Dublin:

Red brick buildings stand erect

Black-shawled beggar woman

Dances in the sun