After a fairly rough day at sea yesterday, we have landed in the Faroe Islands. Upon our departure from Iceland, we again crossed the Arctic Circle after we left Akureyri (for which we have received duly signed certificates), and sailed further eastward. Jim and I tried again to see the Northern Lights, but bad weather again prevented us. Current Score: Lights-2; Jim and Stacy-0.
This morning we have docked in glorious sunshine, albeit with a wind blowing about 35 knots.
I have managed to come down with a cold, so I missed this morning’s sightseeing tour. Therefore, most of these pictures are Jim’s. He took a scenic drive which gave him some amazing panoramic views of the harbor, and countryside of Tórshavn.
Jim came back for lunch aboard, and then we took the shuttle into town to walk around. From everything we can see, this is an incredibly prosperous island, one of 14 islands in the Faroe archipelago, which are a dependency of Denmark. The main industry here is said to be fishing, but the town looks too rich for that.
The early history of the Faroe Islands is somewhat unclear. According to Wikipedia, “It is possible that Brendan, an Irish monk, sailed past the islands during his North Atlantic voyage in the 6th century. He saw an ‘Island of Sheep’ and a ‘Paradise of Birds,’ which some say could be the Faroes with its dense bird population and sheep. This does suggest however that other sailors had got there before him, to bring the sheep. Norsemen settled the Faroe Islands in the 9th century or 10th century. The islands were officially converted to Christianity around the year 1000, and became a part of the Kingdom of Norway in 1035. Norwegian rule on the islands continued until 1380, when the islands became part of the dual Denmark–Norway kingdom, under king Olaf II of Denmark.”
Following the 1814 Treaty of Kiel that ended the dual Denmark–Norway kingdom, the Faroe Islands remained under the administration of Denmark as a county. During World War II, after Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany, the British invaded and occupied the Faroe Islands until shortly after the end of the war. Following an independence referendum in 1946 (which was unrecognized by Denmark), the Faroe Islands were given extended self-governance with the Danish Realm in 1948 with the signing of the Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands.” Today, they seem to function as a Danish depency with some limited self governance. Speaking of that, this is another place which developed early traditions of democratic governance.
Like Iceland, The Faroe Islands established a parliament called the Tinganes in Tórshavn between 800-900 AD, and like the Althing in Iceland, was open to all men and was a place where laws were made and disputes settled. Although it was disbanded during norse and Danish rule, the important representative Faroese ministers still work in the Tiganes buildings dating back to at least the 1600s.
Once of the most charming features of Iceland is the use of sod-covered homes. Instead of mowing the roof, if the grass gets too long, every once and a while, the Faroese just put a goat on the roof. Jim and I wandered around the harbor and into the old town area for a bit, but then returned to the ship. Regrettably, as this is still a country which hunts whales, and mindful of my friend, Chris’, admonitions; I wasn’t inclined to support the local economy by shopping.
Although still chilly this morning, it is not the bone-chilling cold of yesterday as we pull into the harbor of Qaqortoq, on the southwestern coast of Greenland. This town is very small, but not as small as Paamiut. Fortunately, the sun is shining, as we have a hike planned along a lake, which lies just outside of town. The walk through town is charming and everyone seems to have flung open their doors to greet us (or maybe just the sunshine). We expected another cold day today, but we were shedding layers before we even started our walk/hike.
We’re pretty much at the far southwestern tip of Greenland, which was originally populated by the Saqqaq people about 4300 years ago. There are some records of habitation dating from the Dorset peoples of NE Canada about 2300 years ago. However, recorded history dates back to the first Norse settlements established in the late 10th Century A.D., especially around the Hvalsey settlement, which is about 19 kilometers (12 miles) to the NE of Qaqortoq. However, for whatever reasons, those settlements died out in the 15th Century, and the current habitation dates only to 1774, when a Danish-Norwegian trader named Anders Olsen established a trading post here, originally called Julianehåb (Juliane’s Hope) after the Danish queen. Fast forward to the present day when we find Greenland a semi-autonomous state, still largely dependent on Denmark for trading and funding. The main industries are fishing and seal-hunting, and Denmark purchases about 60% of the economic output of this isolated town of just of over 3,000 people. Sadly, like in Paamiut, it appears most of the tourist souvenirs appear to be sealskin products. Sad!
With that, we were happy to proceed to our walk in the outskirts of town! The hills ringing the town appear to be a combination of granitic and basaltic stones, on which lichens and mosses appear to be struggling to survive. There are no trees here, but, upon closer inspection, you notice a whole alpine-like ecosystem covering the hills. There are tiny streams everywhere, and furzes and heathers cover the rocky ground, punctuated by tiny wildflowers and wild berries including Icelandic blueberries and cow berries. The hills are open to anyone who desires to gather them and they are all ripening now. Because the day is so still and calm, the lake surface is like a mirror, which makes for some great photography! Jim and I walked about six miles in total along the rocky lakeside path, winding up back in town. We sampled one local beer at the local tavern, and then headed back for the ship.
Once again, we are blessed with a beautiful sail away. It’s even warm enough that Jim strips down a shorts and flip flops, even though we can see little icebergs bobbing in the bay.
But, first, a lovely parting gift from Qaqortoq … as Jim and I were having a cocktail standing at the balcony of our cabin, a juvenile humpback whale surfaced right below us, and spouted off. What a fun send off!
Juvenile Humpback surfacing right under our balcony
Tomorrow, we are looking forward to a day-long transit of Prinz Kristian Sound; a deep fjord system that bisects the lower tip of Greenland from its southernmost Cape Farewell archipelago.
Yes, that’s the view that greeted us when we threw open the shades this morning as we sailed into the glacial bay in which the harbor of Paamiut is located. We appear to have lost our sunshine in Nuuk, and it’s a foggy, overcast morning here in Paamiut. Whereas Nuuk is the major city in Greenland, Paamiut is tiny; consisting of only about 1,500 inhabitants. In fact, there are only about 50 vehicles here!
We bundled up well, because it’s only 38 degrees outside, and there’s a light wind blowing, which intensifies the cold. Then we took the tender into the town for a short walking tour to get to know Paamiut. This tiny town was established in 1742, as a trading post by a Danish trader named Jacob Severin. The town was originally named Frederikshåb (Frederick’s Hope) after Crown Prince Frederick (later King Frederick V) of Norway. The town prospered mostly on fur and whale products. In the 1950s, it boomed following the cod fishing boom, and in the 1960s, the town was consolidated and a number of larger apartment blocks were built to lure people living around the town to come into the center to help in the cod fishing industry. However, when the cod fishery almost died out in the early 1990s, so did the town.
We were met at the docks by a local guide. She walked us around, and proudly pointed out all the buildings of importance in the town. One thing you notice right away is how many schools and activity centers there are for the youth. Our assumption is that they must be pretty heavily subsidized by the Danish government because there just isn’t that much industry of any kind here, and tourism is merely an afterthought. However, like in Nuut, all the buildings are painted bright cheery colors.
There is one building, in particular, of which the villagers are really proud. It is the local church, Fredenskirche, built in 1909 in the Norwegian Hansel and Gretel style. Looking at it, you could see where model for gingerbread houses comes from! The graveyard in the churchyard and a monument across the street memorialize fishermen lost at sea. There is also a replica of a traditional Greenlandic sod house. Also, exactly one supermarket, one grocery store, a café, one gift shop, and a couple of bars. Residents all seem to carry cell phones, but the ship has had no Internet since yesterday (sporadically), and there is nowhere in town to get WiFi. Having concluded our tour, we were happy to head back to the ship and thaw. Hopefully, there will be more warmth and sun tomorrow as we head south about 150 miles to Qaqortoq.
Jim and I awoke this morning to glorious sunshine, which was quite the relief after a dreary day yesterday. It was all the more surprising when you consider that St. John’s, Newfoundland, has well over 100 days of fog every year, making it the most foggy place on Earth. Many of the businesses in town incorporate “fog” into their names; my favorite was a coffee shop called “Fog Off”.
St. John’s Visitors’ Bureau had certainly rolled out the red carpet for us, up to and including a beautiful Newfoundland dog. Jim and I wandered about the town and saw some of the key sights, including the town hall, the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and the Supreme Court of the Province of Labrador and Newfoundland. However, my favorite was all the brightly painted row houses that dot the hillside of this neat and friendly town.
As bright and sunny as it is today, it is not terribly difficult to imagine the town cloaked in snow; there are as many taverns and restaurants as there are churches, and many of the stores in town exist in indoor malls like you find in Toronto and Minneapolis. Jay Menzel: this poutine shop is for you! Once again, though, my primary mission this morning was to find a powerful Internet connection so I could upload the last two days blog posts.
Mission accomplished; Jim and I were ready for our excursion today: a whale and puffin watching boat trip into the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve! The Ecological Reserve is about a half hour to the southeast from St. John’s accessed from the harbor town of Bay Bulls. I’m so excited I can barely wait to get on the boat. We’ve never seen puffins in the wild, and the Witless Bay sanctuary is the largest nesting ground of the Atlantic Puffins in the world. About 260,000 nesting pairs of puffins return to the Reserve each year between late spring and summer. The islands are also home to huge colonies of Common Murres (called Guillemots in Europe), Leach’s Storm Petrel, and Black-legged Kittiwakes. There are four islands in the Reserve: Gull, Green, Great and Pee Pee islands.
Today, we will visit Gull Island and go by Green island on our return. As you might imagine, with a name like Gull Island, this nesting ground is also home to thousands of different gulls, which, sadly, feed on baby puffins. Our tour operator for the cruise is O’Briens’ Whale and Puffin Watching Tour; run by the descendants one of the numerous Irish families in this area. Our tour guide, Con O’Brien, is also a very well-known local and national singing star. On the very rough trip over to Gull Island, Con serenaded us with an Irish ballad, and the boat’s sound system played several numbers by his group, the Irish Descendants.
As we approached Gull Island, you first saw puffins in the water, and then in huge swarms flying overhead. As we pulled in closer to the island, you could see them and their hundreds of burrows stretching up the slopes of the island. In many spots, hungry gulls would perch on the slopes near those burrows, just looking for a chance to pick off an unwary puffin. Although I know these are a ton of photos, please appreciate that I took over a 1,000 photos today!
As we piloted around the island, and the topography changed, so did the kind of nesting birds we saw. While the puffins nest in burrows they dig into the grassy banks of the islands, murres lay their eggs right on naked rock ledges. We didn’t see any storm petrels of great auks, but we did see some kittiwakes, which also nest in the rock crevasses, but actually build grassy nests to shelter their eggs.
Then it was time to return to port, and the serious hunt for whales began. Jim took the opportunity to try a local specialty beer called “Iceberg Beer” which aptly describes its water source. In the spring and early summer each year, Arctic icebergs wash down along the east coast of Newfoundland, and the icebergs are harvested to provide the water for the beer. 20,000 years pure, as the Newfoundlanders like to say!
However, it wasn’t until we got back into Bay Bulls that we saw our first (and only) whale. This was a humpback grazing in the harbor, and it accommodatingly surfaced several times so we could record its passing.
On the way back to town, we stopped briefly for a photo opp in the scenic little town of Petty Harbor. Had we gone a couple more miles to the east, we would have seen the lighthouse at Cape Spear, which is the eastern-most point in North America. But, no worries! We will sail out within view of it tonight.
Once we got back to the ship, Jim and I headed up to the top deck to snap some final pictures of the terraced skyline of St. John’s. Jim and I enjoyed the sail away from the beauty of our balcony deck. We are pretty darn sure that as we enter the Labrador Current tonight enroute to Greenland, that this is the last night we will be able to enjoy the balcony in a long while! See you in a couple of days when we pull into port in Nuuk, Greenland!
Another big day in our itinerary is finally here: we are bound for the Giant’s Causeway to see this incredible geological formation that left giant hexagonal basalt columns sticking up like broken teeth or stepping stones on the edge of the ocean! It’s also time for us to get our geek on; specifically, geeking out about Game of Thrones. All along our drive today, we’ll be seeing several of the sites featured in the series, which Jim and I really enjoy. It turns out Steve is a big fan, too.
We drove out of Belfast this morning to the east to drive along the coast, for another very picturesque drive called the Nine Glens of Antrim drive. We will spend the whole day in County Antrim, but you are very clearly still in Northern Ireland, as it seems that each successive town takes turns proclaiming their allegiance to either the Republican or Loyalist forces. You can easily tell this by the prominent use of either Irish national flags or the British tricolor. So much for getting out of the corrosive partisan atmosphere of Belfast!
Nonetheless, the drive was as lovely as advertised! Our first stop was in the town of Carrickfergus, with a fort dedicated to the English invasion of William III of Orange. Plainly, this is a Loyalist town, complete with a mock redcoat statue on the ramparts of the fort.
Next, we stopped in the quaint seaside town of Glencloy, which has been used to film scenes in Game of Thrones, both as the seaside port in Braavos where Arya Stark goes to learn from the Faceless Man, and the cliffside behind the town, which was featured when the Whitewalkers attack the Wilding encampment, a If all of that means nothing to you, just know that Glencloy is the prototypical Irish seaside town and enjoy it for that!
Beyond that, we drove through village after quaint village, with sheep and lambs grazing happily in the fields. One town in particular, Ballycastle, looked like it might be a pleasant place to stay at the seashore, but we would probably pick the westside of the Irish Republic before we would come back here.
Shortly thereafter, we pulled into a carpark on the coast on the cliffs high above the sea. From here, you can see the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which connects the mainland to a tiny island that lies just feet off the coast. From here, you can also see the much larger Raflin island, and just 11 miles away, the outline of the coast of Scotland. While I would have liked to climb across the bridge, several in our group don’t deal well with heights, and we still needed to get to the Giant’s Causeway.
Finally, we came into the town nearest the Causeway and had lunch at a very cozy pub, called, appropriately, The Nook. Somewhat uncharacteristically for Northern Ireland, all of the young women working in the pub were very friendly.
Following lunch, we hopped on the shuttle bus which takes you into the Giant’s Causeway area, and at last, we were free to explore! First I hiked out along the seashore just past the main tourist part of the sight, which was TEEMING with visitors. Then I walked up the trail behind the site to see the organ pipe-shaped rock formations, and then up to the top of the cliffs overlooking the site so I could get some perspective shots. Finally, I scampered down to the main site to see all I could before we left. Sadly, I felt like I did not get nearly enough time here, and I would like to return someday, perhaps when there are fewer tourists.
Then it was back in the bus to continue our tour of Game of Thrones sites. As we drove south from the north coast of Northern Ireland, we headed for the location of the “Dark Hedges”; more properly known as Kingsroad in the series. This location is a country road lined with twisted, gnarly beech trees, and was used a few times, including in the scene where Arya Stark dresses up like a boy to escape from King’s Landing, but is captured instead, and dragged off to the Brothers without Banners hideout (which was filmed in another part of Northern Ireland — Pollnagollum Cave, in County Fermanagh). The actual road is Bregagh Road, outside of Stranocum, in the Ballymoney district in County Antrim. Obviously, this is not a well-kept secret, as tour busses jockeyed for position, and it was a challenge to get a photo without other tourists in it. Some people went to elaborate lengths to strike poses from the GOT scenes.
Finally, it was back to Belfast. We enjoyed a super good meal at the restaurant James Street South. Tomorrow dawns with the last day of our tour, so we all hurried back to pack and go to bed.
Wow! Today was a really action-packed day! We left Lough Eske (in County Donegal) early this morning so we could get Paula and Steve to Derry, where they were set to met with the parents of friends back in Virginia. In doing so, we left the Republic of Ireland and entered Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
Dermott drove us expeditiously to Derry, also known as Londonderry (but never by anyone from the Irish Republic). It lies on the seaside, where the River Foyle opens to the north onto the ocean. There has been a town here since 546 when St. Columba founded a monastery here. Derry is a completely walled city, which became one of the first “Plantations” after the British took power back following the Nine Years War.
Derry was the center of several violent incidents during the “Troubles” which resulted in armed clashes between Republican and Loyalist forces in Ireland from the late 1960s until The Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in 1998. The Troubles arose out of a civil rights movement by the republican (largely Catholic) residents of Northern Ireland against discrimination in jobs, housing and suspensions of civil liberties against Catholics by the unionist, (largely Protestant) local councils and police forces. The city of Derry was the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre when British soldiers shot 13 unarmed demonstrators dead, and the Northern Irish Parliament was suspended, and direct rule from London was imposed.
Dermott dropped us off at the Guildhall Building, which is situated right on Lough Foyle. The building itself is lovely, Neo-Gothic in style (it was built in 1890), with stained glass windows telling tales of Ireland’s history. Additionally, there is a really good comprehensive museum archive, which documents the British Plantation system, as practiced in Ireland, and the seeds of Irish discontent which led to the Troubles, and ultimately, to limited Home Rule for Northern Ireland.
The Guildhall is located right on Lough Foyle, and right across from it is a Calatrava-designed bridge called the Peace Bridge. We all hopped down from the bus and started to walk across the bridge, but the wind was blowing so hard (and cold), that we decided to get a latte instead. After visiting the Guildhall, and learning more about the Plantation system (so we could get a better idea of the factors leading to the strongly opposing political views in Northern Ireland), we collected Paula and Steve, and moved on to see more of Derry.
Then we drove around to see more of the city. You immediately sense the turbulent emotions underlying the divergent political positions as you drive through the streets of Derry, which are divided into strictly Republican/Nationalist and Unionist/Loyalist neighborhoods. First stop, the Bogside neighborhood, which is staunchly Republican, and in the late 1960s, barricaded its streets from outsiders, creating an area known as “Free Derry”. There are extensive murals on the walls of some of the homes depicting political themes, mostly in favor of greater civil rights, and commemorating the struggles of Irish nationalists during the Troubles.
From Bogside, we drove up to a point where we could access the walls of the city, and see the city from the walkways there. There are still cannons remaining on the ramparts, ostensibly placed to protect British forces of yesteryear from attacks by the sea. However, as I look at them, it’s easy to see that they are also pointed at the largely Republican neighborhoods in the city, and the feel is vaguely menacing instead of merely historical.
Then we all piled back in the bus to drive on to Belfast. First stop: the Titanic Museum! The Museum is located right in the docklands area of Belfast, and the building housing it looks like it has a giant ship’s bow on all four sides.
We all had signed up for this very interactive tour, and enjoyed learning more about Belfast at the turn of the 20th century, when it was the second richest city in Europe. In addition to all the exhibits which detailed the building of the the Titanic, and its final fateful trip, there was a reproduction gantry which reached up about 4 stories, just like the two which had been built about 100 yards from the museum to build the Titanic. You could take a motorized ride through sections of the reproduction ship, and really get a sense of what a massive undertaking it was. There were also re-enacted rooms which gave you a very good idea of what the traveling conditions were from the those of the first class passengers all the way down to the steerage passengers. There was also a very cool overlay on the window looking over the former shipyard which gave you an idea of the scope of the ship as it was being constructed. Finally, there was a great exhibit detailing the discovery and documentation of the Titanic wreck, with some great footage from the submersible ROV which recorded the conditions of the wreck as it lay on the ocean floor.
We then picked up a local guide, Bibi, who would be our leader to some of the more recent historical spots in modern Belfast. We went first to the Northern Irish House of Parliament (Stormont). It was built between 1928 and 1932 as a result of the Treaty between the Irish and the English which settled the Irish War of Independence, and resulted in the partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State and the British-controlled Northern Ireland. As noted above, this Parliament was suspended after the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1972, and the Northern Ireland Assembly not re-established until Good Friday Peace Treaty of 1998. A huge purpose of that peace treaty was to restore limited self-rule to Northern Ireland.
Stormont sits in a very pretty parkway way off in the eastern part of Belfast. There is also a prominent statue of Edward Cason, a Dublin barrister, who was the leader of the Northern Ireland campaign against Home Rule under the banner of the Unionist Party. He is largely credited with being the force behind the partition of Ireland in the Irish-Anglo Peace Treaty of 1921.
Our next stop was at the Queen’s College of Belfast. Candidly, in comparison to Trinity College, this seemed to lack a little, with the exception of the fact that after negotiating the Good Friday Peace Treaty, Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell was appointed Chancellor of Queen’s College of Belfast; a post which he held from 1999 until 2009. How cool!
We then drove to western Belfast, which was the epicenter of The Troubles. Many civil rights marches occurred here, among other areas in Northern Ireland, and it became a flashpoint for violence during the Troubles. In response to rising violence from both sides, the British Army erected huge walls between neighborhoods (some as tall as 25 feet high) which effectively partitioned western Belfast into Unionist and Republican enclaves, called “Peace Walls” or Peace Lines. Not only were (and are) the walls physically imposing, but the British erected armed checkpoints at the major intersections, and prohibited vehicular access (and some pedestrians) after dark every day. Ironically, there are more peace walls today than there were before the 1998 peace treaty, but a sad fact is that a majority of the Belfast residents still think these walls are necessary for protection.
Candidly, you could write a doctoral thesis (and many have) on the topic of The Troubles. However, because I will undoubtedly blow the nuances about this issue, you can read more about it in the very good article in Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Troubles.
We made three major stops in western Belfast: We stopped in the Republican Falls Road area of West Belfast, and drove through the nearby Unionist neighborhood of Shankill Road, and made stops to look at the murals on the peace walls in several neighborhoods, as well as the infamous heavily fortified checkpoint station known as “Checkpoint Charlie”. On one of the main peace walls, tourists are actually encouraged to write graffiti messages of peace, and many famous people have done so, from President Bill Clinton to the Dalai Lama.
The Shankill Road Loyalist Neighborhood
After this mentally grueling afternoon, we made our way to the Europa Hotel in central Belfast right next to the Opera House, and then made our way to dinner at a nearby restaurant, Ginger Bistro (recommended by Dermott), we had an excellent meal and went to bed.
Today had us journeying from Killarney, in County Kerry, up to County Mayo via the west coast in County Clare to take in the spectacular Cliffs of Moher, on our way to Ashford Castle. We rose to a gray drizzly day, but hope the weather will clear by the time we reach the Cliffs.
Our first stop is in the small town of Adare, located in County Limerick, which bills itself as the prettiest village in Ireland. I’m not sure it deserves this credit, but it does feature a few worthy sights to see, most notably, the classic Irish country-style cottages with thatched roofs. It was still raining by the time we got here, but we braved the weather to snap a few pictures of the cottages and the Trinitarian Abbey which anchors the town. the Abbey, which is now the town’s Catholic church, has a cool stone dove cote at the back. Right outside of town is Desmond Castle, ancestral home to the earls of Dunraven.
We continued our drive through the countryside, passing more abbeys, castles and Norman manor houses than I could count (or remember). Sadly, I didn’t ask Dermott to help me label those flyby pictures! I think these pictures were of Bunratty Castle (but I’m not 100% certain). UPDATE: Dermott weighed in and provided the missing names of these structures. Thanks, again, Dermott!
We also passed by Dromoland, which was a great estate, now a hotel,once frequented by George Bush.
Our next brief stop was at the Monument to the Great Hunger, a memorial dedicated to the nearly 1 million Irish people who died from starvation in the Great Famine from 1845-1852. Most Irish people feel that the famine deaths were greatly elevated due to English landlords throwing Irish tenant farmers off their lands when their crops failed in the potato blight, and during which time, the English government continued to import wheat and the other grains raised by the Irish to England. From 1840 to 1922 when Ireland gained its independence from England, the population of Ireland was cut in half by both the Great Hunger and the mass emigration caused by the potato blight. Today, the Irish population still has not achieved its numbers before the potato blight, and more people of Irish descent live in the U.S. than in Ireland.
Fortunately, as we drove on, the weather gods smiled on us again, and the day cleared. As we drove, we noticed the growing prevalence of stone walls in the fields, that seem to be laid out with no rhyme or reason. Dermott tells us that the use of dry-set stone walls has been in use in this part of Ireland for over 6,000 years. They sure make for charming scenery, with all the new lambs frolicking in their pastures.
Then we came to the Cliffs of Moher, and it was ever bit as awe-inspiring as advertised. Although it is a huge tourist attraction, the entire site is so large, it didn’t really feel crowded. From the car park, you hike up to the headlands, from where you can see the rugged coastline fall away below you nearly 700 feet straight to the ocean. We watched the sea birds reeling around the cliffs and then hiked up a bit further to O’Brien’s Tower, from where you have the best views of the coastline. The Cliffs stretch for about 5 miles along the coast and are made mostly of black shale, which made me really glad this morning’s rains had stopped so we didn’t have a slippery walk. Hopefully, these photos show you why it’s worth the trek to see the Cliffs!
After leaving the Cliffs of Moher, we drove through a unique area called the Burren, which is home to a very bio-diverse ecosystem, which largely lives in the fissured limestone surfaces and shallow pools called turloughs. Sadly, we had no time to stop here, but this would be a top destination on a return visit. Reputedly, not only is the flora and fauna really interesting, but there are also some amazing rock formations, including a great cave called Doolin Cave, and a stone dolmen (tomb) called Poulnabrone which dates back to 2500-2000 B.C.
On the way, we passed through the quixotic town of Lisdoonvarna, which is known as the Matchmakers’ Town. In olden days in Ireland, towns which stood at the crossroads became centers for courting, and dances were held in the town squares of those crossroads to meet prospective mates. Apparently, this was somewhat threatening to the Catholic Church (with its goal of controlling most aspects of Irish life), so they prevailed upon the government to pass a law banning these dances. Instead, the town of Lisdoonvarna sought to establish itself as a tourist destination by hosting a yearly “Matchmakers’ Festival”. As you can see from the sign, this year the festival will last for a “full six weeks” during the month of September. Obviously, someone else has paid a visit to Blarney Castle!
Our next stop was in the seaport city of Galway, which looked lovely. There were even swans floating on the river Corrib, which leads to the sea from Lough Corrib. Just months before his assassination, John F. Kennedy visited Galway, and was pronounced a Free Citizen of Galway by its residents who were much taken with our American President, despite the fact that the Kennedy family hailed from the town of Dunbrodie in County Wexford in southeastern Ireland. We stopped long enough to visit Eyre Square , where there is a monument to President Kennedy. Amazing, there is even a pub nearby which changed its name to “Kennedy’s” for his visit, and then never changed it back. I also walked around the corner for a quick visit to Shop Street in the heart of old Galway, and then it was off for our final destination: Ashford Castle.
All is can say is Wow! Wow! Wow! The Castle sits in the middle of a woodland park with its own golf course and forest, right next to the small town of Cong, which was the setting for the movie, The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. You even approach the Castle by passing over a river and through a turreted stone gatehouse.
The Castle was originally built in 1228 as a Norman castle, and was owned for decades By the Guinness family. In 1939, it passed to the Irish state, but was again returned to private ownership in the 1950s and turned into a hotel. Today it is part of the Red Carnation hospitality company and is part of the Leading Hotels of the World group. As Jim and I were shown to our room, we could see a bride out on the great lawn being photographed before her wedding. I take this as an auspicious sign of our visit!
Tomorrow, we plan to hang out at this glorious resort and check out the town of Cong. I’m kind of looking forward to a day without any bus travel involved!