Wednesday, August 13, 2014

And... a long walk on a long pier

Here I sit in Heathrow, sippin' tea and charging everything that plugs in (bless lounges with outlets at every seat), getting ready to head back home.  Technically, the trip back home has been in progress for some six hours already, as I had to wake at 5 freakin' o'clock to leave at 6:00 a.m. for my flight out of Dublin.  My folks and I were on the same flight to Heathrow, and we parted company at the "Flight Connections center" as we were off on shuttle busses to different terminals for our flights back to the States.

(People in Ireland get huffy about Heathrow, saying what a horrible place it is and that you're much better with a direct flight out of Dublin.  I like Heathrow  Always have.  Now, sure, maybe that's because I haven't had to deal with a tight connection or lost luggage, but the place has generally worked according to plan for me.  I actually found myself defending it a bit on this trip.)

Yesterday was our last day.  It was to begin with a city tour (on the bus) of Dublin, ending with a tour of Dublin castle.  The whole procedure ended around 1:00, at which time we were free until something like 6:30 for our farewell dinner.  I had no interest in the city tour of Dublin and begged off, on the basis that I'd been to Dublin twice before.  This was both a truth and a lie.  I have been to Dublin twice, but I've never actually done a city tour.  I just couldn't bring myself to do this one at this time.  I'd been on the damn tour bus for about two weeks straight, and couldn't imagine one more morning sitting on it.  Cabin fever, big time.  Giant's Causeway had reminded me how much I liked being outdoors on vacations, and I needed me some open spaces pronto.

The day before (I realize I didn't write about the day before.  It started off at St. Patrick's grave and the visitors' center nearby -- the only place on this entire tour where I felt like I was getting a sales pitch for Catholicism -- followed up with a two hour bus ride from Northern Ireland down to Dublin, and ended with a visit to Trinity College and the Book of Kells.  OK, now you're caught up.)  ANYWAY, the day before, after the Book of Kells (see?) we were at liberty in Dublin and they had shuttles back to the hotel every hour.  I did some shopping (actually, some attempted shopping -- they didn't have what I wanted), had some yummy dark sippin' chocolate, and took the shuttle, which was really just some dude in a car, hired for the occasion.  I asked the dude for advice on what to do the next day, assuming I ditched the tour.  It would be my one day in the Dublin area, the weather looked to be (mostly) nice (for Dublin) and I wanted to do something active.  Walk a bit, ride a horse, shoot at something (not the horse), kayak someplace ... just something that wasn't sitting around looking at the sights.  Dude in the car said he could recommend a pub where I could sit and listen to good Irish music.

Not quite what I was looking for.  He suggested I talk to the hotel concierge.  By luck of the draw, I got the new trainee concierge, who also didn't have many ideas.  I went back to my room and spent two hours on Google and TripAdvisor.

Look, I don't want to make broad generalizations about the entire city or anything, but holy cow, nobody has anything active to do in this place.  The Phoenix Park website said you could rent a Segway and tour Phoenix Park that way ... but the business that rented Segways in Phoenix Park was closed.  Various other tourism suggestions for kayaking, sailing, Segway rental, and other outdoor activities all sent you to the same business ... and that one only did kayaking, and had nothing available for the day I wanted.  I stumbled upon a website for an activity company in Dun Laoghaire, a little seaside village near the city.  The Trainee Concierge had recommended Dun Laoghaire (hell, he'd actually known how to pronounce it) as a possible destination and this company had Segways (again with the Segways), archery, a climbing wall, kayaks ... pretty much everything outdoorsy.  Hell, their website didn't give an address, just gps coordinates.  I sent them off an email to see what sorts of activities would be available for me the next day, and figured that I'd hear back around breakfast.

I didn't.  I waited until about 10:30 and figured I'd just hop the train (it was only 15 minutes away and the views of Dublin Bay were quite nice on the way) and see what I could see in Dun Laoghaire once I got there.  (And I'd check my email all along the journey.  They never wrote back.  Never.  It's today.  Still haven't heard from them.)

Mastered the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) system pretty easily, although they could do with a little more signage at the stations.  Found my way to Dun Laoghaire.  Got off the train.  Now what?

I was in a lovely little harbor.  Walked from one of the harbor to the other and saw no signs -- not one -- advertising sailboat rides or kayak hires or any way at all that a tourist could give them money to have form of pleasant journey on the water.  It was all "yacht club" here and "sailing club" there, and if you're not a member, up yours.

I did find a pier.  Two of them.  One on each side of the harbor, going out and forming something of a horsehoe shape.  And there were lots and lots of people walking on the piers.  This seemed to be the thing to do.

OK, I'd been looking to do some scenic walking.  When in Dun Laoghaire, walk the pier.

I walked.  Damn thing wasn't so much paved as gravelled, and, with each step making the rocks known through the soles of my shoes, I started thinking maybe I should turn back.  I also thought it didn't look all too far to the end, so I might as well finish.  (Here's a fun fact:  I have no depth perception.  I have no damn idea how far away the end of the pier actually is -- or the length of any walk on which I embark, for that matter.  I judge distances really poorly.)  I did, in fact, make it to the end of the pier.  Here's what the cute seaside city looked like from the pier.

Also, for a brief moment, the sun was shining at that cool angle where you get glittery ripples in the water.  I like glittery ripples in the water.

Yes, I do.  Like 'em a lot.

Walked back into the city center and found a "Tourist Information" map, which cheerfully informed me that the West Pier (which I had walked) was actually the lesser-walked of the two, and also the longer.  It was 1500 meters; I made google do the math ... up and back on that thing was nearly 2 miles.  Indeed, with all the walking I did around town that afternoon (found a place for lunch; found two shopping centers with a lot of depressing vacancies; found the "high street" which had an odd mixture of jewelry shops and charity shops), it was probably more like 2.5.  (I guess all that pre-trip time on the elliptical helped.)

I did feel bad for the town, with the mall vacancies and the charity shops.  I also thought it was really kind of sad that they were trying to position the town as a good place for visitors (with the tourist maps and the Trainee Concierge suggesting it as a day trip destination), but there was an utter disconnect between the tourist (that would be me) and the tourist activities.  (OK, yes, in retrospect, I probably should have spent the $1.50 a minute to call them; and it does appear that I, in fact, walked right by the adventure place on the West Pier, but dude, not one sign, not one.  I was looking.) 

Still, I had a lovely walk, and it was great to spend a day nowhere near the tour bus.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Giant's Causeway

(As I write, I'm listening to Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.  You can sort of see how it's going to go from the start -- the restaurant has no customers and they blame the community:  apparently, the public doesn't know what good cooking tastes like.)

Yesterday, we went to Giant's Causeway.  This is a cool volcanic, er, thingy in Northern Ireland.  Geological feature.  Honestly, the only things I remembered that the tour director told us about the place is that it was developed between 45 and 10 million years ago and that the features are polygonal in appearance.  Our tour director, in the mis-speak of the day, said that we'd see "five-, six-, or seven-sided hexagons," and maybe even some "eight-sided hexagons."  At this point, I actually heard murmurs of "eight-sided hexagons?" up and down the bus.  As Inigo Montoya famously said, "You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means."

Kidding aside, though, it's actually pretty effin' impressive.

It was largely impossible to get pictures without people in them because there were people (damn near literally) crawling all over this.  The (mostly) hexagonal posts of differing heights sort of create a natural walkway or staircase.  I was kind of entranced by this particular section of it because of its two-tone nature.

Now, see that little flow of water on the left over there?  If you step out beyond it (which I was able to do on the left, out of the picture) and look back, you can see some really cool, well, balls.

Here they are up close.

I was able to get fairly near them.  I just walked a path of stones (of varying, but similar) column heights, over towards the edge, where they abruptly ended.  Here's one of those standard pictures of one of my shoes ... this one is a few hexagons from the edge.

It was really pretty impressive.  It's located at the bottom of a half-mile road -- we took a shuttle out there (in the rain) and then, when it dumped us off, I just climbed out onto the stones and saw all that.  I then went back to the road where the shuttle stop was and continued along the path.  I stumbled upon a much less crowded area, with some really tall columns.  (I actually took this picture of someone taking a picture of someone else standing next to the columns, but I think it helps for scale.)

I then walked back to catch the shuttle, and the line was long.  I did a little math and decided I would be better off just walking back, rather than waiting in the rain and the wind for the next shuttle.  On my way back up the hill, I got this pretty view of the next cove over.

Last (and totally unrelated) picture was from before Giant's Causeway -- our tour group had a lunch reservation at noon, and we were a little early getting there, so the tour director took us on a detour over to Castle Timekiller for a photo stop.

Obviously, it has a real name, and a story (which involved the kitchen collapsing -- probably into the sea -- and a haunting), but it was basically a really nifty photo. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Troubles

(I had intended to make a single post on Northern Ireland, but I couldn't quite put this after all the Titanic stuff.)

Here's the thing.  I was really freakin' excited to come to Northern Ireland for the simple reason that I never thought I would come to Northern Ireland.  When I was growing up, it hadn't been particularly safe.  And only recently has it become, y'know, a tourist destination.

We had a tour guide who told us there are four top tourist destinations in Northern Ireland.  They are:  (1)  Giant's Causeway; (2) Titanic Exhibition; (3) Ulster American Folk Park; and (4) Belleek Pottery Factory.  We're hitting Giant's Causeway tomorrow, but have covered the other three already.  And let me honestly say:  these three things are not worth flying across the Atlantic for.  I've already covered the Titanic Exhibition; the Folk Park is a school field trip at best; and the Belleek Factory is, well, a mildly interesting education in a design of pottery I'd never freakin' heard of before I got here.

What is worth flying across the Atlantic for is actually just, y'know, being in Northern Ireland.  Our tour director has not been guiding us in Northern Ireland -- we've had local guides showing us around here -- one for a bus trip out to Derry; one for a walk through a bit of Derry; and a third for Belfast.  And they've each given us their own take on the Troubles; and, rather more importantly, the peace.

It isn't unbiased.  It's very clear that each of these folks works in the tourism industry, and they all are emphasizing how it's quite peaceful now, nobody has so much has thrown a rock at a march in the past year, please pay no attention to that bomb they found under a car in Derry last month.  It's all Protestants and Catholics going to the same schools, and the Queen and the Sinn Fein guy shaking hands, and the posters that used to provoke people to violent action have been changed to promote peace.

Like this one in Derry:

(Note how the gun on the side is broken in half.  And the butterly is all bright and colorful.)

Or this one in Belfast:

It's historic handshakes that took place here, at the Bloody Sunday Memorial:

And the Peace Bridge in Derry or the rather beautiful sculpture in Derry of a Protestant and a Catholic reaching out toward each other but not actually touching.

Of course, I don't actually have photos of those because they didn't let us out of the bus anywhere near them.  We actually had only a very brief walk in Derry proper -- we had a short guided tour upon the city's old walls (which were impressive from a historical point of view), but it couldn't escape attention that they didn't exactly, y'know, give us free time to wander the streets.

We have genuine free time in Belfast -- a few hours today and more tomorrow -- but this is following a bus tour in which we saw some posters that are not, as the guide put it, "moderate."

And we were assured that our part of town is a nice, safe part of town.  We were also assured that things like the "Peace Walls" -- which were, in places, higher than the Berlin Wall -- are simply just historical relics (but they're still, y'know, there).

Look.  I live in the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.  I know there are areas of any town that it's best to avoid; and that, in many many places, there is hatred and distrust and you shouldn't expect everyone to make nice-nice with each other.  I know all that.

And I know Belfast in particular and Northern Ireland in general have made massive, massive strides toward peace and normalcy, and these things are rightly celebrated.  But the peace hasn't been around for very long, and the hatred is still on display.  And seeing this country try to work past the seemingly unbridgeable divide -- that's the real attraction here.  

It's tough -- you can see it in something as basic as whether the city is properly called "Derry" (say the Catholics/Republicans) or "Londonderry" (the Protestants/Unionists).  You see it in the flags flying (or not flying) at any particular location.  But they're trying.  Really genuinely trying.

A little quirk of the political speech out here is that the Protestants/Unionists sometimes fly Israeli flags while the Catholics/Republicans fly Palestinian flags.  Indeed, some of the less moderate posters we saw spoke rather directly to the conflict in Gaza, with the Republicans drawing parallels between the situation faced by the Palestinians in Gaza to their own struggle for independence from the UK.

This depresses me.  I would rather think that if peace is possible here, perhaps it would be possible there.  Northern Ireland is trying (perhaps its tourism industry is trying harder) to position itself as a place that has accepted forgiveness over endless retaliation; disarming over attacks; and hope over hatred.  It can act as a model for those wanting to move forward; it shouldn't be taking sides. 


Spent this morning at the (new, multi-million dollar) Titanic Exhibition in Belfast.

I'll admit to a certain amount of confusion over the existence of a Titanic Exhibition in Belfast.  After all, do you really want to celebrate your part in building the ship which rather famously sank, killing over a thousand people?

I imagine that the exhibit was the product of a committee meeting.  The Visit Belfast people were sitting around thinking about how to increase tourism.  Someone opens it up for discussion with, "What is Belfast known for?"  Someone replies, "IRA bombings and building the Titanic."  The first guy says, "What was the second one again?"

So, yeah, huge exhibition about Titanic.  Don't get me wrong, it's also an exhibit about Belfast.  It spends quite bit of time (there's even a ride) on the Belfast shipyards and the actual accomplishment involved in building the damn thing.  (As our tour guide later put it, "It worked when it left.")  The exhibition even ends with stuff about how Belfast is a great city poised to take its place on the world stage.  There is, to put it politely, a not-entirely-subtle amount of Belfast propaganda going on here.  Well, good for them.

I didn't really like the exhibition.  Well, no -- I didn't really like most of it.  It had two bits I quite liked -- you could see the film taken of the Titanic wreckage and the debris field (that was cool), and they had a section of the exhibition setting out the pre- and post- iceberg telegraph messages, which were both pitiful and chilling.  But, mostly, I didn't like the exhibition because the folks involved had made a conscious decision to not include any actual Titanic artifacts.  It was all films and models and recreations -- and while some of these were obviously expensive and quite detailed, I'm the sort of person that prefers to see the actual real stuff.  They had some real stuff from the shipyards (like pay ledgers) and that was cooler to me than any multi-camera "tour of Titanic" which was all movie magic.

Outside the exhibition, on the streets of Belfast, they have a memorial to the workers who were killed in the construction of Titanic.  You can see the cranes of the shipyard in the distance behind them.  This seemed right and appropriate -- and way better than the whole exhibition itself.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

I Miss My Cat

Today's post brought to you by the Jasmine Appreciation Society.

O.M.G., observe the cuteness.  With the warm little paw wrapped around my leg, the widdle head snuggling against me, and the deep green eyes looking at me with affection (or thinking how tasty I'd be if she successfully murders me in my sleep -- sometimes, it's hard to tell what's going on in there).  But, oh, I do miss her furry little self.  Morning tea is awfully nice when served in pretty china by a professional, but that can't compare with a home-brewed mug and kitty cuddles.

I've been forgetting our tour guide's daily little reading/pronunciation errors by posting time, so I started taking notes.  (Don't me get wrong -- I genuinely like our tour guide.  She's friendly and competent and is doing a really good job being informative, entertaining, and keeping us on schedule.  But some of the entertainment value comes from the mistakes.)  Today's little misspoken bits include:  "say-tir" (satire), "Sa-loam" (Salome), and that very famous leader in India, "Mohammad" Gandhi.  Cracked me the hell up.

Not much happened today.  We woke up damned early and took the bus to ... um ... the village of Knock, which was notable for having really big restrooms with no waiting.  Then we went to see the grave of W.B. Yeats, which would have been more moving had I really been a fan of his work.  (We also stopped for tea and coffee at a little tea shop nearby -- actually, it was billed as a "charming" tea shop.  Said so on the sign.  Unlike Knock, it had only one stall per gender.  I left the graveyard early to be first to the ladies' room.  Opened the door and found:  (1)  a cocktail napkin in the sink; (2)  a poo in the toilet; and (3)  no toilet paper in the dispenser.  (It's the trifecta!)  I took one for the team and resolved issues 1 and 2 myself, and went in search of an employee of the place to take care of issue 3.  Once this was resolved, the tour had caught up with me and there was a long line.  My tour-mates rather graciously let me return to the front of the line to finish what I'd been unable to start.  So, yay for my travelling companions; boo for the tea shop being somewhat less than charming.)

Back on the bus and on into Northern Ireland.  (Our tour guide commented that people are less friendly here.  This is probably true -- folks we've met in the Republic of Ireland have been just crazy nice.  And it seems genuine, too.  Actually threw me; I'm not used to that kind of nice on a regular basis.  Still, despite the possible less-friendliness, I felt nice and comfortable being back in the UK.  Street signs aren't in Irish; distances are in miles; prices are in pounds -- it's familiar to me.)  Once in Northern Ireland -- and, that's literal, it was about 10 seconds after we'd crossed the bridge that marked the dividing line -- we went to the Belleek pottery factory for a tour.  (Which, of course, ended in the gift shop.)  Some of the stuff (particularly the basket-style stuff) was genuinely beautiful.  It is also expensive and breakable and I have a cat.  Mine is not the sort of house to decorate with expensive, easily-breakable things.  (I have limited space for displaying stuff you can't touch.)  So, no baskety-style Belleek for me.  Pretty, though.

From there (after a brief stop at the pharmacy because my damn deodorant stick broke in two and fell on the floor at the last hotel), we went to the next hotel -- we're at Lough Erne (which you'd pronounce Lock Erin); it's a golf resort on a lake.  Here is the view from my window:

Actually, that was the view from my window.  Now the clouds are grey and it's a lot wetter.  

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Afternoon at the Castle

We returned to the castle in time for afternoon activities.  I had signed up for some horseback riding on the grounds.

I hadn't personally signed up for horseback riding.  I'd asked the desk to call down to the equestrian center (as we were on the road to the abbey at the time it opened) and they did that.  They made an appointment and attached it to my room.

This was important because, er, there'd been a small mistake in the reservation, and my room was in the name of "Mr. [my name]" rather than "Ms. [my name]."  I'd never bothered correcting it, thinking it wouldn't matter.  It mattered.  The equestrian center had just sent out a group riding and saved one horse for "the gentleman" from my room.  The horse was so damn tall, I had to stand on two stacked blocks to get up on it.

I had seen the group go out, and, while some of those folks were riding their horses, others were on the horses, while the horses were led by ropes.  That happened to me once before (in Poland) and I'd hated it -- the experience caused me to take a few riding lessons, so that I could avoid that humiliation in the future.  So, when I approached the equestrian center, and the dude asked me my experience with horses, I responded, "How much do I have to admit to in order to not have my horse on a lead?"  And that's when the dude said, "Not much," and added that he was sort of hoping I'd have had enough experience to handle, y'know, a bit of extra height.  

Apollo, actually.  My horse was Apollo.  And I had a lovely ride with my guide Fiona, and her horse, Bramble.  It had rained in the morning, but it had cleared by then, and was downright beautiful.  We had a nice ride, and when we returned to the stables, Fiona put Bramble back, and stood next to Apollo and me for a picture.

I walked back over to the castle.  This hotel actually charges admission -- costs something like five Euros to just walk around the grounds.  Given that the day was so nice and the place was nice enough to charge, I had a little walk behind the castle and took some postcards, I mean, pictures.

I'm not much of a photographer; I know one thing about photo composition (put something in the foreground) and I do it all the damn time.  (Example from this morning I forgot to put in the other post...)

(It works though, doesn't it?  Those flowers down in front give the lake more depth, and the greenery to the right sort of frames it.)

ANYWAY, I tried to take this next shot six different times.  I don't know why, but I thought this particular angle on the lake behind the hotel would work. 

It didn't quite work.  I couldn't put anything in the foreground -- there were some ugly pipes visible, so I needed to start beyond them -- but I really wanted to capture the calmness of the water and the blue of the sky and it just isn't there.  Trust me, though, it was really beautiful.

Aw damn.  I gotta log off and pack.  I need to wake up in about 8 hours to get going tomorrow, and I haven't even started tonight's repacking.

Morning at the Abbey

I couldn't help myself.  This morning, when I saw the tour director, I said, "You know Bono and Jon Bon Jovi are two different dudes, right?"  She did, and asked if she got it wrong yesterday.  (Er, yeah.)  All very casual and laughing and stuff.  Good.

Then, later, she talked about an Irish play that won some "Oliver" awards in London.  You know, those acting awards named after that great British Actor, Laurence Oliver.  :::facepalm:::

OK, so, this morning, we drove off to one Kylemore Abbey.  Benedictine Abbey, run as a girls' school by the local nuns for a number of years.  Interesting, but not really impressive.  I was actually most impressed by the mini-cathedral on the premises.

See, in the pre-Abbey days, the place was owned by some ... let's just say rich dude.  And when his wife passed away at a relatively young age, he was devastated, and wanted to build a cathedral to honor her memory.  By cathedral standards, it is pretty tiny.  By memorial standards, it's quite impressive.

Now, you have to realize that I'm coming at this from a non-Catholic, indeed, non-Christian perspective.  Which is to say that, as a general rule, I can appreciate cathedrals from an architectural or artistic standpoint, but they don't do much for me from a religious point of view.  I mean, I have respect for the faith and the practitioners thereof, but a deeply religious place for a faith that isn't mine doesn't really move me spiritually -- if anything, I feel a little uncomfortable in there, in that the place wasn't meant to speak to me.

That said, I really dug this little cathedral.  While it is definitely a house of prayer, it is also a celebration a man's love for his wife, and that really comes through.  It's very light in there.

The marble columns, by the way, are gorgeous.

There's only one stained-glass window in the place, and it's the Virtues.

Instead of gargoyles on the outside, the figures are all angels.

It doesn't emphasize the darker elements of religion.  It isn't about saints who were martyred for their faith or Jesus' suffering (although, yes, there's a crucifix).  It's more of a beautiful tribute to someone's life and the gentler elements of faith, cherishing and celebrating the happiness of a life too short.  It was a very sweet, special place.  Glad I saw it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Yeah, it's a castle

Our hotel tonight is a castle.  And, when I say "I'm staying in a castle," it looks exactly like what I expect it to look like.

We also approached it from the water.  This wasn't strictly necessary, but it was kind of cool.

To be completely honest, that's pretty much all that happened today.  I think the tour company sneaked in the boat ride because, otherwise, today was just a travel day, and that kind of sucks.  I mean, we got on the bus pretty effin' early this morning, drove someplace to stop for morning tea, drove someplace else (Galway) to stop for lunch (and a very brief stroll-around-the-shopping-area stop), and... got out here to Ashford Castle.  So, really, the boat ride (with one free alcoholic beverage per person) was really it.  In retrospect, given that we had a couple hours at the hotel before dinner, one might wonder why we had to be on the bus so damn early this morning -- we could have slept in a bit before today started.

I've previously mentioned that our tour guide sometimes reads the wrong word.  Recent highlights include "the vice count" (viscount), the new king "disposing" (deposing) the old, and the "vessels" (vassals) of the king.  She means well, but this is kind of hilarious.

Kind of.

THIS was actually hilarious:  She was talking about Irish musical artists, and referred to "Bono, or Jon Bon Jovi."  Seriously.  She thought Jon Bon Jovi was Bono's real name.  (Even my 75-year-old mother knew this was wrong.)  Now, in addition to being laughably wrong, it did sort of make me feel old.  Because, I mean, anyone who listened to music in the eighties would not make this mistake.  Our tour guide was probably watching "Sesame Street" when I was listening to "Slippery When Wet" and "The Joshua Tree" (and, very easily, telling the two apart).  Geez, lady, it seems like you're reading half your speeches off Wikipedia anyway, the least you could do is look this shit up so you don't sound like a complete moron.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Mount Juliet

We're staying in the "Mount Juliet" hotel.  I can't help but think it's the set-up for a "Carnac the Magnificent" joke.  You can write your own; I'm sure it has something to do with Romeo's wedding night.

This morning was Medieval Day.  We started off visiting Jerpoint Abbey, which was a Cistercian Abbey.  We learned about the Cistercian order -- it was (is, actually -- they're still in business, although not at this site) a sort of break-off from the Benedictine order, who felt the Benedictine abbeys of the time were not sufficiently rigid.  It was one of those orders with a very regimented lifestyle -- they lived wholly apart from the local community, were self-sufficient (in terms of growing their own food and such), intentionally engaged in blood-letting to the point of near passing out, and did a lot of praying.  

The abbey lost its roof -- more accurately, had its roof forcibly removed -- when Henry VIII decided that the Catholic monasteries had a lot of land he'd rather have, which had the rather immediate effect of dissolving the order (as the abbey was now uninhabitable) and it had the somewhat longer-term effect of, y'know, destroying the building.  Rather large chunks of it still remain (and others have been reconstructed).  Looks like this:

I should also note that we had a really great tour guide there (Katriona, I think) who was just a great storyteller who brought the place alive.  

Then, back on the bus and out to Kilkenny.  I've been to Kilkenny before, but, this time, our tour guide was a historian (Rose) who focussed her commentary on the Medieval history.  We started in St. Canice's Catherdral, which I've visited before.  I had not photographed the place, though, as it was a working church (still is).  This time, though, we were encouraged to take photos, so I took a pic of the stained glass windows (knowing that, as with all stained glass window photos, it would never come out).

The windows (which really are impressive) are reconstructions of the 13th century originals -- the originals were destroyed (see the whole Henry VIII going after the Catholics thing), but were recreated from rather detailed drawings.  

We also visited the Black Abbey in Kilkenny (no photos because this was a very functioning church, and we were actually pretty lucky just to get in there, as it was between two Masses).  These folks are of the Dominican Order which, in contrast to the Cistercians, were more involved with the local populace, helping the poor and such.  The Abbey was actually pretty cool as it had a large traditional stained glass window (wikipedia tells me its the largest in Ireland) but it also had a new modern one in another part of the church.  I don't believe I've seen old and new windows like that in the same church before; thought it was pretty nifty to see that kind of respect for the past while still acknowledging and appreciating the art of today.  I tipped my hat to the Dominicans.

We had a bit of a tour through the rest of Kilkenny, about which not a whole lot was interesting, although I did snap this tattoo shop.  If you get your tattoo done here, you deserve what you get.

Can't say you haven't been warned.

Came back to my room at Mount Juliet, where I discovered the butterfly.

For the afternoon, the tour company arranged a variety of activities for us to choose from.  The crowd on this tour (many of whom are considerably older than me) is a particularly sedentary bunch, so most signed up for a massage, or the afternoon tea, or a little tour of the grounds.

I, on the other hand, went clay pigeon shooting.

This was a no-brainer for me, given that I'd wanted to go laser clay pigeon shooting when I went to the Bird of Prey Center last week.  This was real shotguns, though.  Only one other guy from the tour was interested -- he'd done this only once before, but had some hunting experience, whereas my own experience has been limited to non-moving targets.  (At least, though, I've had some shooting experience, so I wasn't starting completely from zero.)  We did a set of targets which were shot upward from beyond some trees -- they weren't that hard to hit, as they had some good hang time before they dropped.  He then did a set coming from one side and shooting across to the other.  I sucked at those (the other guy didn't do that well on them either, but at least he managed to hit a few).  Then some more from behind the trees, which seemed easier after we'd tried those fast suckers from the side.  And, finally, he did them in pairs -- two in sequence.  (I nailed the first two -- mostly from luck -- and felt insanely satisfied with myself.)  The guy who was running the shooting commented that when you first shoot, you want to get about 50%.  When all was said and done, I'd tried 24 targets and hit 12 of them, so I was pretty happy with the whole experience.  :)

(I had thought I would kind of suck at this because I have no damn depth perception, and figured depth perception might be required.  Not so.  In fact, you close one eye when you shoot, so nobody has any depth perception when shooting.)

We ended up talking guns and gun laws with the shooty guy, and the one thing that felt very culture shock to me was when I asked what law enforcement carried in Ireland, and he said nothing.  Not even a baton.  (Handcuffs, he said, and maybe mace.)  It seemed so, well, foreign to me to have an unarmed police force.  There are a whole bunch of other factors that contribute to that (like no licensed handguns larger than a .22) but I confess that it still just threw me.  Dude, I expect a cop to be carrying a Glock.  Different worlds.

"There are no bugs in Ireland."

Our tour guide cheerfully informed us that there are no screens on the windows because there are no bugs here -- no mosquitoes, no flying insects, no nothing.  (I idly wondered what the hell pollinated their flowers, but whatever.)

I left my hotel room early this morning on some bus tour (more on this later).

I came back to my room to find that housekeeping had left the windows open.  And I had a freakin' entomological exhibit in my room.  Three or four flying things around the window.  One on the floor on its back, struggling to right itself.  One buzzing loudly and bouncing back and forth across the ceiling.  A red-colored fly in the bathroom.  And a butterfly.  A freakin' butterfly. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

New hotel, New Wi-Fi

After that last experience, I start this post with some trepidation.  The Wi-Fi signal looks strong, but this, apparently, means nothing.

So, after our early start this morning, we went ... someplace.  (Long day.  Wait.  Wait.  I'll get it.  Oh!  Spending money!)  We went out to Blarney Castle for the traditional tourist Kissing Of the Germ-Riddled Piece of Rock.  Should we not wish to kiss said rock (at the top of a one-way winding, uneven 110-stair staircase), we could wander the grounds and appreciate the gardens.

Here's the problem:  I came to Blarney Castle before.  I had passed on the stone smooching then for the same reason I'm passing on it now -- my knee could not handle the walk down from the top of the staircase.  (It could probably handle the walk up, but I'm trying very hard to break my habit of spending vacations climbing to the top of things it hurts to climb back down from.)  And, when I skipped the stone that last time, I engaged in about as much garden-appreciation as the Blarney Castle grounds could provide.  So that was out today, too.

Conveniently, our tour guide offered up yet another option:  one big-ass store cheerfully providing All Things Irish.  (And blaring the "Riverdance" recording over the speakers -- probably 24/7.)  I had a few people on my gift list and about an hour to myself (before the rock-kissers made their way over to the shop) and I scouted every damn corner of that store, until such time as I'd found all necessary gifts (and :::cough::: a few items for myself as well).  I was actually buying small, easily-packable things ... until such time as I bought something for myself that totally put me over the "free shipping" minimum.  My purchases are now preparing to race me home via alternate channels.

After the Spending of the Cash, we drove over to Waterford for a tour of the Waterford Crystal factory.  (I asked about free samples, but there weren't any.)  Got some pictures, though.  This here is (duh) a crystal harp.  (The harp being the symbol of Ireland.  This explains its appearance on Guinness.)

Also, had not expected to see my local racetrack (Santa Anita) hanging out there, but they had this one on display, and we saw a dude actually working on its twin.

After the tour (exit through the gift shop, natch), we piled back on the bus and made our way to the next hotel.  It's a stately home with acres of golf, equestrian, and other sports.  This is my room:

The room has a name (which I forget) but that's just as well, as the numbers are kind of useless.  My parents are in room 5.  I am in room 6.  They are not only not next to each other; they are on different floors.  (There's been something of a running joke here about the way they number hotel rooms in this country, as our last hotel had rooms which started with "2" on the first floor, and you had to hit "3" in the elevator to get up to the second floor.)

We were also told that tomorrow is a holiday.  That's all well and good, excepting it means that there's no laundry available -- and since this is pretty much the halfway point of my journey, I've been sort of counting on being about to do laundry tonight.  Ack. I just washed out some delicates in the hotel room sink, using whatever "bath and body soap" they provided.  If all goes well, my underthings will smell pleasantly of lavender.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ring of Kerry

My mother was excited that this trip included the Ring of Kerry, as everyone who goes to Ireland seems to speak highly of it.  I, on the other hand, was pretty sure I'd already been to the Ring of Kerry, but couldn't even remember what it was.

What it is:  a circular-ish ring road connecting various towns, views, and rest stops.  A tourist road, basically, covering a lot of ground.  

This morning, we got on it.  There were photo stops and a lunch stop and (I am pleased to say) a not-entirely awful picture I took out the window of the moving bus.  The pictures look like this.  Very Ireland.

(Argh.  I was just emailing someone about how my whole photo uploading system was going well ... and then I uploaded these five photos twice and only ended up with one of them each time.  The hell?)

OK, we're re-uploading.  Sooner or later, I have to give up, as I have to wake up damn early tomorrow.  (But I'm so close -- only one pic left to go.  With a "server error."  I'm starting to think the problem might not be the Wi-Fi, but perhaps google/picasa itself.)

ANYWAY, the folks on the tour with us seem pretty nice.  Most are retired (and there's a suspiciously large number of hearing aids on the bus) but, since several of them rather adorably think I recently graduated, it's hard to not like them.  There's one woman who can't quite stop herself (or doesn't try to) from reacting emotionally to, y'know, everything.  She's one of those Southern types who says things like, "Oh my stars" a lot, and is way too impressed by all the sheep.  I told her that, on my last trip to Ireland, everyone takes pictures of sheep on the first day, but, by the third day, we're all pretty immune to the charms of our woolly friends.  She looked at me with what was either disagreement or disbelief.  I guess she thinks of sheep the way I think of adorable kittens.  (But, y'know, kittens are cute!  Sheep are ... sheep.)

Eh, screw it.  I got two more of the pictures.  This next one was the one out the window of the moving bus.  I'm rather proud of it.  I was trying to catch the reflection of the sun on the water (it was very sun-dappled), but I think the sky turned out to be the real star of the photo.

And, that's basically it.  :)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Let's Try That Again

New hotel.  Better Wi-Fi.

Cliffs of Moher:

View toward O'Brien's Tower:

Proof I was at O'Brien's Tower:

And (yes!  thank you!) Portal Tomb at the Burren:

Today was nothing particularly photo-worthy.  We started out early, said our farewells to the Hotel Of the Crappy Wi-Fi, and drove off to a dairy farm where we met the local farmer, learned of his (and his family's) story (several generations of Irish farmers), and ate lunch in his house.  He was a great -- and amusing -- storyteller.  What was particularly funny about his storytelling was that it was absolutely word-for-word scripted, but he delivered it as though he was just recounting events.  But, every so often, someone would throw him off with a question or comment, and he'd ask, "Where was I?"  Then he'd just repeat the last line and move on.  Except, once, he thought he was earlier than he was, and actually repeated, like, a whole paragraph of story.  It was here when we realized he was totally scripted.  Still, it was a good script.  And he had neat visual aids preserved, like the old (very) manual Singer sewing machine on which his mom had made all his clothes, and the receipt for when his dad paid off the farm in 1961.  Cool.

Post farmer, we drove over to Killarney, and did a tour of Muckross House, an old stately home (some of the decor dated back to the Victorian era).  No photos were allowed in there (and it had seemed way too weird to take pictures in the farmer's house when it had been, y'know, his house -- he pointed out the bedroom in which he'd been born), so no pics from today's journeys.

We are, however, in a really lovely hotel & spa.  Here's a photo from my room -- I'm looking out the window to my balcony, and the view beyond.