Ahh! Backpacking after 25 years. It's a delicious thought. Staying in hostels, tramping about, seeing new places, meeting new people. Would it be as fun as I remembered, expected? The idea was to walk in Ireland, not hike or bike or bus tour or rent a car. I wanted to have as simple a time as possible, take a bus between selected places and spend my days walking with a light pack.
The travelling went mostly as I expected, with some noticeable changes. I still love hostels, but in Europe, with travel so cheap, some of these things are huge beasts that attract groups trying to save money. Took awhile to figure this out and chase down the smaller ones. I finished most of my days by 3:00-4:00 PM and was not as keen to keep going and sleep wherever. I'm on vacation and I want a hot meal, some company and some beer. Definitely a different mind-set from 25 years ago.
Last time I was in Europe, I took a 40 liter bag that had a sleeping bag, small mat and a change of clothes. Nothing to make food or get out of the rain. As it turned out, I slept outside quite a few nights. Because of the walking, I wanted the same gear set, plus rain gear, so I took the same bag. Some of the gear is better…poly-tops, self-inflating mat, so I stuffed more clothes in the bag, but still walked out the door under 10 kg.
I like travelling alone. You spend the day how and where you please and have time to think. Staying in hostels gave me all the human interaction I needed and was a very enjoyable part of the day. The kids were young and thinking the same way I did back in the 70's and 80's. I had the smallest pack by quite a margin, which was often commented on. Course, I had to do laundry basically all the time, but a light pack is a treat 24x7.
The walking was a very pleasant surprise. It takes a while to gear down to that speed. I was meeting people with cars that had been here and been there (and places I wanted to go). Walking shortens your range quite a bit. With biking, you can really move about a country like Ireland in a few weeks. I chose to walk, and the benefits were little surprises along the way. Time for photos, time to chat, time to just sit and really soak in the view and the sounds of nature. After a few days of this, you find yourself 50-60 kms from where you started and it is an amazing feeling.
I didn't get to very many places (see map), but that was not the focus of the trip. I really liked the scale of what I did, the stillness in my head that allowed my thoughts to wander and my senses to just take things in. If I had more time, I would likely just walked further.
I look forward to doing more walking in more places. I hope to travel out to Vancouver Island next year and visit my brother and sister and all their progeny. What a great place to walk! I can hardly wait. I had originally planned to visit Ireland just as I left Dal in 2009, then move to New Zealand for a year (working on organic farms for room&board..or WWOOFing). Now I'm thinking of spending 6 months in Ireland, walking and Wwoofing along the way. Great way to know a country.
My Ireland Trip Movie
I chose to enter Ireland by boat, so flew to London, spent the day in St. James park, then took a bus/ferry on the overnighter. That means that I arrived in Dublin harbour on a sunny, Saturday morning at 6:00 AM. It felt wonderful. I could look south and see the Wicklow Mountains, my route for the rest the week. Little was I know that this was the last sustained sun for about a week. Ireland was tad colder and rainier than I expected.
The funky hostel was full, so I settled for one the behemoths (150 people). These hostels are well run, it's just a little harder to socialize, so many people, many in groups.
Walked around a bit, checked out Temple Bar area and had my first (and last) coffee and doughnut in a little café. Man! This place is expensive. Stuff costs in Euros what I expect in CDN
Time to head out to the Guinness Brewery. I HATE to pay entrance fees, absolutely refuse to just give people money with no real expectation of what's on the other side of the wall. Meet a young guy in Cork with the same attitude and we shared some stories of places we had gotten into without the up-front ante. I always spend a bit of time scanning the location and the entrance setup…just to see what my options are. The brewery site itself did not look too inviting, all high walls, fences and dogs.
The gift shop/entrance kiosk was very busy. I noticed a large group of tourists getting the low-down on the tour and hung around the back for a bit. Sure enough, they started handing out the little key fobs you use to get a Guinness at the sky-high Gravity pub after the tour. I didn't know this at the time, just made sure I was close enough to somebody at the edge of the group to get one. He gave me a queer look, but soon turned his attention to the guide. After some blather (soon to be called blarney), the group started to crowd past the entrance . I attached myself to a different group member and just sort of moseyed on in with them. What fun!
I did the tour by myself (really enjoyed the cask-making video) and ended up in the pub with my first and FREE pint of Guinness in Ireland. I enjoyed every pint on my trip, but this one was very special.
Saturday evening was a trip to the pubs in Temple Bar area and my first taste of TRAD (traditional Irish music...which I chase down daily from then on). Sunday was a great walk out to Phoenix Park, with all the polo&cricket grounds and the zoo. Skipped the zoo as it was a bank holiday weekend and stuffed with people and kids.
Sunday evening was the Rossini opera - Cinderella at the Gaiety Theatre. My expectations were high and both the theatre and the opera itself exceeded those expectations. I passed a most wonderful evening. They even served draft Guinness at the break. Man, this place is like heaven! The singing was strong all around and the staging was very imaginative. I was even allowed a few pictures once the place emptied.
Monday morning, and it's time to start walking out of Dublin. I spent the early morning getting to Marlay Park on the outskirts of the city. I can see the Wicklows the entire time and just have to keep the sun on my left. Once in the park, I start a bit of climbing and am on my way! Takes awhile to get used to the map/directions combo I have for the route. I'm lousy with maps as it is, so this is a good workout.
The views looking back to Dublin make me very happy indeed. The trip that has been in my head for months is coming to pass. I have time on my hands, my health is good and I have enough $$ for food, drink and shelter. Brings a big smile to my face just thinking about it.
As the day goes on, I can see Sugarloaf Mountain, which I cruise by on Tuesday. The peak screams at you to climb the beast. On a good day, maybe a full day's work. I have to put on shades to keep that image out of my head.
The fields here are as green as you imagine. My first clear view of a field of sheep is stunning. Old stone houses, slate roofs, small lanes…I am in Ireland!
The first day ends at a funky hostel (Knockree) that holds maybe 24 people. I need some groceries and my daily pint of Guinness, so troop off to Inniskerry…a mere 6kms away. That little jaunt adds 12 km to my 24 km walk. Nothing like stressing the entire system the first day. I opt for supper at a pub and the Irish Stew and Guinness really seal off an excellent day. There are 6 Belgiums there who are just finishing the Wicklows (I only saw 2 more walkers after this) and we spend a nice evening chatting about a coal fire.
The next day starts out with a full rain that lasts ALL DAY. It is also blowing enough to knock sheep over. The rain gear lasts a few hours, but the town of Roundtree is still not close. Oddly enough, this is one of the best days I have in Ireland. I spend a few hours crossing some hills that have nothing on them. No fences, no animals, no roads. I don't see a human for a few hours (I turn left in the picture). I love 'weather', and I get my fill of it.
I am so glad to get into 'town', which has all of 2 pubs and a B&B. No bank and definitely no hostel. The lady at the B&B dries my clothes and lets me put my boots by her stove. Dinner is the roast beef special at the pub and conversation is with a few locals and an Ulster man. Memo to self. Do NOT discuss politics with an Ulster man. Things got a tad testy and I haven't see eyes go that black in awhile. We patched things up, but the conversation died and I learned a good lesson.
My third (and last) day on Wicklow is very light and I end up in Glendalough, a gorgeous place where I get to spend the rest of the day. Big hostel, laundry, nice pub. I have my first noon-time Guinness, get in a gorgeous walk around the lakes and up the waterfall. Dinner is free and with a bunch of international students from all over Europe. Lots of energy. The evening is spent listening to live music in the pub, playing pool, drinking Guinness on someone else's coin. Here is where I learn that Skellig Michael can now be landed on…and I know I'm going to try and get there.
Thursday morning, I scam a ride to Wicklow with Andrew, the former morning DJ for Fox radio Melbourne. Then hop a bus to Arklow to see the town from the Van Morrison tune 'Streets of Arklow'. Not much to the town, but I just HAD to stop there. Next stop Waterford to buy some crystal for my mother. I know I can buy this stuff online or all over North America, but when in Ireland already, one MUST…don't you think? Next bus to Cork, which looks like an ugly industrial city at first glance, but is actually quite a funky place. I enjoyed my stay there. The downtown pedestrian shopping area was huge, with an amazing indoor market. Friday was spent walking out to Blarney and dealing with the castle. I am really enjoying this concept of walking wherever I can. Walking in and out of cities and towns gives you a unique perspective. I did NOT like Dublin. Other than the touristy areas, it's a big, sprawled out, dirty city with a lot of cramped public housing. Ychh! Cork is a working-class city and the outskirts were very colourful and a joy to walk thru.
Cork is sort of the homebase for Murphy's. It looks like we never owned a castle or ran an army, but we're involved in trade (and multiplied like rabbits!). I have lots of pix of Murphy business. Had to stop, was running out of space on the memory chip.
Blarney is a nice little village, with a town square based on the River Lee. I love small places built on rivers and never tire of visiting them. When I visit the relatives in upstate New York, that's is how I spend my days, biking to these small towns. My brother had asked for a rock from the 'homeland', and I figured Blarney castle was a good a place as any. Of course, I had to try and sneak in first. I put in a good ½ hour and found what I needed, just didn't have the nerve to make the jump. The place is enclosed in a sharp fence, with the only opening being over a small stream with one of those half-moon spike fences forcing you 6 feet out over the water, should you decide climbing is an option. The only real trouble with the setup was that all this motion would take place in full view of the exit gate. I would be in full view of tourists for the entire climb on this spike fence. Damn! Pay the fee. Big demerit points.
The cool thing about the castle was the underground water passages accessible from the castle grounds exterior. They could be flooded in an attack, but were an alternative entrance. I took my trusty led flashlight and climbed inside the castle almost to the inside square, but the distance started to freak me out. All right, up with the tourists to kiss the bloody stone. The views from up-top were astounding. Lovely countryside.
Skulking about the place, I found that the family room fireplace was big enough to get inside. In I go, out of sight and start digging at the rock. I loosen up two stones and I have my 'gift' for my brother. His own "Blarney Stone'!
Saturday morning, it's a quick bus to Killarney, where I will start the Kerry Way walk along the Ring Of Kerry. I absolutely love Killarney and wouldn't mind living there. I find the Sugan Hostel, easily my favourite on this trip. A very small, funky place, run by a Young Polish guy (Martin) and full of young people avoiding the larger hostels. I met a young girl there (Elodie), that I would meet again in Galway, and the Aran islands. She was from France, working as a nanny, and spending here free weekends checking out the country. I got in a nice walk out to the big Torc waterfall in the National Park and the music that evening was the best I hear in Ireland, including an astounding banjo player.
Sunday was a planned day off. I hung out with Doug, an English architect, and we read the English newspaper and planned our trip and betting for the Killarney Races in the afternoon. The racetrack was a blast. Bookies everywhere and a gorgeous, grass track. I watched the bookies as much as the races. Buddy Doug lost 100 Euros that afternoon!!! My betting was tad more conservative, and I was actually up after the day. The setting of the track, with the mountains in the background made the whole experience very special.
I came back to those same mountains the next day on my walk.
This walking business is a lot more fun than I expected. The speed change is interesting, as is the feeling of control. I go wherever I want, whenever I want. Of course, the scale is small, but once you adjust to that, the feeling of freedom is quite startling. I notice all sorts of things, trees, birds, plants, trees, flowers, animals, scents, sounds, the clouds. My mind is open, not cluttered, receptive. I like this a lot.
As much as I enjoyed the walk in the Wicklows, I was anticipating the Kerry Way even more, as it ran along the ocean, just above the road called the Ring of Kerry. I have taken some mild flak in my Ireland Walkabout Blog for the liberal use of exclamatory words like astounding and amazing and so on, but really…what does one do? If I was a better writer, I'd spread the blarney around a bit and not be so obvious. Some of the scenery on this walk just made me stop and be so grateful for the experience (and the health to enjoy it as freely as I did).
If you take the time to download the little movies I took, it's quite obvious that I am having grand time.
Monday, I start out of Killarney on my way to Kenmare. This part is not on the coast, but the scenery is delicious anyway. A lot of animals, and a lot of silence. I actually meet the only other walkers on my trip. I did meet a few people up for a 1-2 hour walk, but other than that, just 2 sets of distance walkers like myself. Fine with me.
Kenmare has no one in the hostel but Polish construction workers. Friendly, but only one guy had enough English to get in a conversation. I call daughter Sophie for her 20th birthday, get in a full laundry, a great pub meal, shared with an old geezer called Dennis. The locals I meet in the pubs are quite friendly, and pretty much have been to Canada or the US, or have relatives who live there. We really do live in a very small world these days.
Tuesday is a long walk to Sneme (my favourite village on this trip). Too small for a hostel, but the pharmacist directs me to a nice B&B. I always check with pharmacists…they know everybody. The walking is so enjoyable. The sun is out, the animals are everywhere, spring is in the air, and the scent of flowers fills my day. I am so happy. Under my own steam, in a gorgeous country, communing with nature. Whew!
The views are breath-taking. Again, I don't gain a lot of height. These walking ways take the path of least resistance. Usually, they were the old postal routes that people used to make deliveries between villages. Doesn't take a lot of height to get the contrast you need. Most of the paths go through farms, where there is no path, just a field with a little ladder at both ends. The map I have is pretty good, and I spend a lot of time ensuring where I am. The Wicklow maps had a lot of accompanying text, but here, all I really have is the light topo-like map, which actually works better, as you are forced to be more aware of your surroundings.
The weather is perfect. No other word for it. I am in a light-shirt, as compared to the 5 layers I wore on the second day of the Wicklow walk. I finally get in a Gonzo swim. This is the first day in Ireland that I would call warm and also the first day with no rain. Some of the days just had rain here and there, but they weren't particularly warm. As I've stated in other Gonzo writeups, it's the contrast that is enjoyable. My enjoyment of today is directly related to how the past week has gone. It's not just another sunny day.
Sneme is surrounded by low mountains, a river and has 2 town squares. I am in heaven. I have another great pub meal, call my Mom and daughter Emily and call it a day.
Wednesday is the walk to Waterville, which is sort of the turn at the bottom of the peninsula. I had originally hoped to walk to Cahersiveen, but it turns out to not be very realistic. I am just not moving very fast. I would have to say that this is the most enjoyable day of walking on the whole trip. The views of the ocean, the warm weather, the week and a half of this type of travelling, all the lambs, goats, cows, horses, birds and flowers. I am just soaking this stuff up. The entry way to Waterville is probably my favourite view of the trip. It strikes me the same way Chimney Pond does, once of my favourite places on the planet.
The walk into Waterville is much longer than I expect, and my feet are feeling it, so I hike a ride. As it turns out, buddy is going to Cahersiveen. Next thing you know, I'm in a pub, booked into the very funky Sive hostel, someone is doing my laundry, I've booked a boat ride to Michael Skellig (buddy will pick me up at the hostel!) and the Guinness is so good. Little bit of serendipity.
Cahersiveen is another funky little town. I actually get hold of a Herald-Tribune. News that is not London/England based for a change. They even let me use the internet in the library. I wouldn't mind staying here for a few days. Lots of ferries to offshore islands from here. Lots of Polish workers again. A few of them keen enough to work on their English with me. It's a struggle on both sides, but I can tell buddy is pleased to be getting his points across.
I am so happy to have a chance to get to Skellig Michael. The islands are sort of like the Knife's Edge at Katahdin. Access is controlled by weather more than anything else. I have met people who have tried to get to these islands 3 times with no success. The days breaks with sun being held back by local fog. The temperature is very nice. Myself and girl from South Carolina get picked up at the hostel by the skipper for a 45 minutes ride to the dock at Port Magee. Buddy asks for my help is replacing his 2 deep-cell batteries (and cuts my fare appropriately), a bunch of Amish kids get loaded on, and were off.
The ride out is a lot of fun. Little fishing boat, big engine. The initial look at Little Skellig (with the 20,000 pairs of gannets) is shrouded in fog, but that doesn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits. The big prize is Skellig Michael and it is fast coming into view. We spent over 2 hours on this little chunk of rock and it is an amazing experience.
A bunch of monks, trying to keep away from marauding groups like the Vikings, decide to build their 6th century monastery on a little chunk of rock 12 kms off the coast. They have to carve steps out of the rock, and build their little community up on the 100 m cliff-tops. The monastery buildings are still there and in very good shape, the graveyard still there, amongst the beehive cells (I mean, where else would it be???). The physical experience of the place is overwhelming. The birds and flowers make the place vibrant and alive, the monastery is surreal. It looks like it could be used today. Whew!
I have my lunch (including a can of beer, as Guinness doesn't have a pub here…yet), on the highest spot on the island, just off a 100m sheer face. It is a peaceful place. It has been an almost mystical experience.
On the way back, the fog has mostly lifted and we get a great view of Little Michael. How do you describe that many birds in one spot, hanging on to bits of rock no bigger than your finger? A singular sight and a memory to treasure.
The Aran Islands
From Cahersiveen, I took a bus up to Galway and booked my trip to the Aran Islands, Specifically, the largest island called Inis Mor and more specifically, the fort of Dun Aengus. I stay in Galway overnight and get in some great Trad music . The ferry out in the morning steams into Kilronan and I can tell that this is where I will be doing my gift-shopping. I have booked a B&B here with a woman called Mary Kelly, who lives at the edge of the village. I am guided there by an older woman who lived on Boston for a time. Actually, everyone I met on this island had lived in North America for a least a bit. Interesting. Because I am walking, and by myself, my range isn't that wide, but I end up in some interesting conversations and situations.
If I have one regret on this Ireland trip, it's that I only spent one day on the island, and two would have been the minimum. I walk out of the village and head for Dun Aengus, a 7 km walk that will take me along the eastern coast and all those little rock fields that everyone sees from the tourist photos. I had arrived in Ireland by ferry, because I wanted to 'approach' Ireland, not just 'be there'. The same with Dun Aengus…I needed some time to think. The walk to the fort was perfect. Had a little chat with a farmer, and a run in with a mule (seriously, he's running down the lane, being chased by a young lad on a bike and the rock hedges on both sides leave me sort of vulnerable). The entrance to the fort site itself is of course all sealed in, but sneaking in takes but a few minutes.
The fort itself is quite amazing. There are lots of forts all over the world, but not too many that are semi-circular, with a 100m drop to the ocean as the backdrop. Once again, I have my lunch (including a can of beer) inside the fort, just off a 100m sheer face. It is not as peaceful as Skellig Michael, but my mood is very serene. This fort was the focal point for my trip. I was going to make it here if nowhere else. I try to imagine the lives of the people that would use this fort as a last line of defense.
I do some shopping and chatting in the small village by the fort (I should have stayed here if I was seriously planning to spend a night in the fort). I buy 2 hand-made items and some hand-made postcards, hitch a ride back to Kilronan and do more shopping. Dinner is at the pub, then back to another pub later for music and chatting with some locals and a bunch of kids from the hostel.
Walking back from the pub later on, I am struck by the stillness of the place. I can see the lights of Galway, but the island is dark and very quiet. I could spend a week here.
Sunday, it's back to Galway and a very funky hostel (Claddagh, named after the ancient local fishing community and celebrated rings). I stay here 3 nights, and each night, the cultures in my room change quite dramatically. The first night is all Aussies, New Zealanders and Americans. We stay up past 1:00 chatting, which is very enjoyable. The next night it's Belgiums and Germans and the last night, it's Koreans. Man, this is fun. There are also quite a few Spanish women staying there, working in the hostel itself, or pubs and grocery stores nearby. Everyone is working on their English. .
It's my planned day off, so I do a bunch of reading, update the blog and start trying to figure out a way back to London. I want to take the train/ferry combo from Galway to match the bus/ferry combo I used to get here. Unfortunately, the trains are going on strike…..so I check out Ryan Air and book a VERY cheap flight (3 Euros plus tax) from Shannon to Gatwick. Not as romantic as the train, but hey, an extra night in London and will use the saved $$$ to go see a play…Phantom, or Les Miserables or the opera.
I am enjoying this flexibility. I have ended up in a few industrial-sized hostels, and had to book a B&B on Aran because of my lack of planning, but the benefits on the other side are well worth it. I decide each day...how I will spend that day. I have time, energy and just need to buy food, find a place to sleep and a pub with Guinness and music. Hard to put a price on that sense of freedom.
I spent the afternoon finishing off my shopping and dropping in on three separate bars with 3 distinct types of music (Blues/Jazz, Dixieland, and Traditional). It is a very enjoyable day all around. Galway is a gorgeous city and with the Burren and Connemara and the Arans Islands here, you could make this a base for a week's worth of travel quite easily.
Monday, I get in a full laundry (sitting around in my rain gear, and EVERYTHING else in the wash). Can't do laundry on Sunday, as it's my day off…and not much is open Sundays as well…something Nova Scotia shares with Ireland. I spend the rest of the day hanging about in bookstores, antiques shops and galleries. I am lucky enough to catch a Russian string-quartet putting on a free concert. Again, a very enjoyable day. I find a book on the Aran Islands that was written in 1907. Outside of pubs, most of my chatting is with locals. Inside pubs, it's been mostly tourists. The opposite of what I had expected.
If I had been on a longer trip, I would have walked 3-4 days in Connemara as well. It is a gorgeous place. I only had the one day, but enjoyed is as much as any other day in Ireland. Of course, it was raining, but I never found rain to be a deterrent to my enjoyment of a place. Just a different view. Of course, on a sunny day, you can just relax into the scenery. But life can't be all sunny days. It's the contrast that we enjoy, and getting dry&warm after a day in the rain is a delicious experience. Add a Guinness to that? Sweet.
My trip is coming to a close. Tonite will be the last Guinness in Ireland for awhile, the last bit of Trad music and hanging out with kids ½ my age. I'm feeling a tad melodramatic, and the scenery appears to agree with me. I have hiked up the side of a small mountain (part of the 12 Bens) and the views are stunning. Everything is very green, there is a great big lake below me, the Kylemore Abbey castle off in the distance, and I'm surrounded by sheep and goats. It's rainy and windy and I am all by myself, and happy as a clam.
Wednesday, it's a bus to Shannon, a clean, quick flight on Ryan Air to London, a nice hostel full of Spanish, Polish and Eastern European people and a night in the local pub watching Arsenal (a London club) and Barcelona (a Spanish club) play the UEFA Champion's League final. The crowd is ¾ English, ¼ Spanish, and the place is hopping.
Thursday, another complete laundry and a trip to the Tate Britain (free, didn't have to scout the joint), a walk along the Thames and some light sightseeing. I buy ½ price tickets to see Phantom and that is how I spend the evening. Big-city theatre is always a stunning experience and Phantom has been playing for 20 years for a good reason. The place is packed and the staging is mind-blowing. How do they do that inside this small space? Whew! Knowing the play, and having the CD already, just adds to the experience.
It's a great way to finish a trip. I started in Dublin with a museum and a trip to the opera. I balance that out in London with a museum and Phantom of the Opera. I fill the space in between by being outdoors every day, communing with Mother Nature (and all her little animals, and all their droppings) and spend the evenings socializing in hostels and pubs.
A perfect trip. Would do it again in a flash. Give me some $$$, three weeks off, put me in Galway, and I'd head north this time, doing essentially the same thing
The trip home is pretty easy, at least until I hit St. John's. The ears are under control and I can keep them clear. Customs gives me a hard time about my form (I forgot to claim the present I sent home from Waterford, and modified the form…big mistake). I end up looping thru Customs twice, because their flow control is a tad sloppy. As well, Security doesn't like my pen-knife and forces me to loop around again and check my baggage. I lost tweezers in Halifax, a bread knife in London, but can't give up the camping knife. Overall, I found the security standards a tad inconsistent.
Back to my house. I have a present from the Aran Islands for my wife. My presents are mostly hand-made and the materials are wood, brass, cloth, stone and crystal. I am happy with the variety and hope the receivers enjoy them. A quick call to my daughter in Florida and my Mother in PEI, an email to my brother and sister in British Columbia, and dinner with my daughter here in Halifax.
I'm back. It's been a very full three weeks. I needed 6 weeks, but hey! Who has 6 weeks? I had originally planned to do this trip as a sign-off for when I leave Dal in 2009, then hopefully spend a year in New Zealand. With both kids out of the house and a bigger than expected tax return, my thoughts were that I should do this trip now. My health is basically good, and I wanted to see if the reality was as enticing as it seemed.
Truth was, I enjoyed the travelling very much, living out of a bag, meeting new people everyday and having new experiences. The trip was a very good choice, as was the decision to walk. Now my appetite is whetted and I am hoping to travel out to British Columbia next year to visit family and get some more walking in.