Saturday, July 31, 2010

Walking in Wales

By Claire
Our ferry from Dublin arrived right on time, after the smoothest of trips, at 4:30 pm. We were visiting Denise and Gino, who we met way back in Sicily last November. As we pulled out of the ferry terminal, there was Gino, standing by the side of the road waiting for us. He was such a welcome sight and looked so good! He directed us to a parking lot where excited hugging commenced; then we segregated by gender and I rode to their house with Denise and Gino went with Chuck. They live on The Mountain, in Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales, up a very narrow road. Gino guided Homer, with assistance from Chuck, into a parking space with only inches to spare.

We chatted for awhile, drank wine and tea, then followed them out the door for a lovely walk down the mountain toward the port. The view from their historic cottage, Snowdon View, is spectacular.

Many different artists have painted Denise's house. I took a photo of a one artist's work.

Our walk took us to a nearby park. The sun was out (a welcome change!) and it was warm--what a great way to start a visit.

When we first met them, they had only known each other for about five months and had been traveling together in his small camper for three. Clearly, they are made for each other; they decided to get married in April. In fact, they had two celebrations--one in Wales, and another two months later, in Italy. The second celebration took place at a campground Gino has frequented for years; they dressed for the party inside their new, larger camper. We were so glad to see them and to see them so happy!

Gino, a gourmet Italian, loves to cook; he prepared an incredible dinner while Denise showed us around the cottage, which was a former miner’s cottage from 1860. It is a listed house for historic preservation. We started with pasta carbonara—I am so annoyed with myself for not taking a picture. It was delicious and I plan to try it at home. Our second course was aubergine (worldspeak for eggplant) with tomatoes, garlic and mozzarella cheese.

For dessert, Denise served strawberries with lemon juice, sugar and vanilla ice cream. We were stuffed! We got partially caught up during the meal and made plans for a hike the next day.

They are lucky enough to live in a gorgeous area, on the Gulf Stream, with hiking trails all around them. We drove a short way to the start of a coastal walk, taking Lucy, Denise’s loyal dog.

They even have their very own passage grave in the area.

One of several sandy beaches

It was cloudy and breezy, but a perfect day for hiking. We passed through several kissing gates along the way, and a ladder for climbing over the rock wall bordering the military reservation.

I was very excited by the Oystercatchers. Gino assisted with getting one of them in flight for this picture by clapping his hands; when it wouldn't budge, he threw a stone against the rocks and it soared away.

Remember those resting cows in Ireland? They have them in Wales, too. According to Gino, this means it’s going to rain. So what’s up with the sun shining now?

This is how the cow gets back up—a lot like a camel unfolding.

We stopped for cones at the ice cream van on the beach. Lucy greatly enjoyed the last bit of all of our cones.

Home again, Denise made the best lamb I have ever tasted, with perfectly cooked carrots and potatoes. Did I mention that this visit was about food and walking?

Not long after we finished dinner, Denise's son Craig, his wife Marie, their daughter Emily and dogs Oscar and Scampi arrived from England. They stopped by for a couple of days on their way to Ireland, where Marie is from. We really enjoyed getting to know them. What a very nice family!

I guess the cows were right--The next day was quite rainy; so all seven of us drove to an art gallery/museum and out to lunch. We found several watercolors and one oil painting of Denise's house. Along the way, we stopped at a village with the longest name in Wales; as a publicity stunt, it has been highly successful. That night, Gino produced another incredible meal of lamb and pork with rosemary and lots of garlic.

Longest name

Emily and her dog Oscar

Today, the sun came out and we headed up The Mountain. What a wonderful final day together. Sadly, Craig, Marie and Emily left on the 5 pm ferry for their vacation.

Hiking up The Mountain

Gino getting to the top

At the top!

Denise and Gino have some charming friends, John and Pauline. We stopped by their place along the way. It is gorgeous, with spectacular views of the water and town below. We all drank tea and visited before we headed out again. Craig and Gino hiked back home to make lunch, while the rest of us made our way to the lighthouse.

John and Pauline's side "yard"

Pauline and John

Beautiful heather and gorse, which is growing in abundance everywhere.

View along the way


Mountain climbers practicing

We loved these poems, written by Gino and Denise for their wedding:

A Dream Come True, by Gino
You appeared to me,

Like a sweet song in a green valley,
I was miserable, lost, alone,
An island in the ocean.

But you made me a man of better times,
Gentle, sentimental and romantic.

The man I was is no longer,
Now that your beautiful, loving lips have said
I swear.

I Found Him, By Denise
I dreamt of castles in the air
And here I found my soul mate.
So different, yet so together
In him I see myself as in a mirror.

So new, so unexpected,
He smiles, I melt.
My world spins around my head
Turns upside down and is reborn in him.

We met a thousand years ago
Yet life is only at its start.
As though it was meant to be this way;
In him I found happiness and joy.

Tears of laughter and sadness
As we learn a new way of living.
Walking hand in hand serenely
Through this beautiful world.

Planning a route
For our future together
The meaning of my life
I found in him.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reflections and Observations on Ireland

By Claire and Chuck

Ireland's Coat of Arms, the Harp of Ireland, is the obverse of the Guinness harp—the brewery owns the copyright. When Ireland tried to adopt the harp, they were taken to court. The legal decision was that Ireland could only use the mirror image of the harp.

The harp coat of arms is also found on some of the €1 coins--probably those minted in Ireland.

The people, for the most part, are friendly, always acknowledging with a hand up as you pass them on the road.

We saw lots of cyclists. It seemed downright crazy to us with high hedges, blind curves and no shoulder whatsoever. Nor did it look like fun with cars zooming past and rain pouring down. The drivers are fast here.

A funny thing we’ve observed is the resting cows. I have never before seen so many cows lounging in fields. Some even look dead, lying on their sides. It was interesting to see that they unfold themselves into a standing position somewhat like camels.

We’ve gotten used to buying what we call “shelf milk”. This is milk that has been heat treated and lasts for months on the shelf until you open it. The taste is the same. It’s great to have a couple as backup since our fridge is quite small. However, it has disappeared off the shelves in southern Ireland. When I asked about it at one of our campgrounds, the man crinkled his nose and said “milk should expire.”

We have informally observed a higher per cent of people smoking here than in any other country. This seems to hold across age levels.

Ireland and Scotland may tie for the proportion of redheads in the population; they far outdistance all other countries we have visited.

They may also tie for the number of sheep. They are literally everywhere.

It goes without saying that Ireland is WET. I think we had two days in a row without any real rain but it always sprinkled for a at least few minutes. We felt oppressed by the gloomy, gray days and lack of sunshine. In fact, I think we’re experiencing SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s strange how just a burst of sunshine can completely change our mood.

We’ve seen far more tent campers here than anywhere else. Ironic when you consider the weather. We see them huddled inside, all bundled up and have to ask ourselves, why?

The gravestones we’ve examined are almost impossible to read even though many of them are from the 20th century. It just goes to show you what rain can do. Most are just worn away.

Apparently you can’t buy alcohol at a supermarket until after 10:30 in the morning. We stopped by a big supermarket, Tesco, one morning at 8:30, and couldn’t buy a bottle of wine.

However, you CAN buy strawberries and something we've never seen before, fresh cream, already whipped and ready to go. Below is one of Chuck's favorite dinners. I kid you not.

The crowds in several places really got to us. But, that isn’t anything unique to Ireland. I’m sure it’s packed all over Europe at this time of year.

The highlights for us were The Giant’s Causeway, Connemara, Dingle Peninsula and Kinsale.

Quite frankly, Ireland has lost its charm. There is a sense of commercialism that wasn’t here 20 years ago. It is quite expensive, especially in Dublin. At least some Irish are aware of the danger of this as a deterrent to tourism; and the country is definitely suffering severely from economic contraction—the Celtic tiger has become the Celtic kitten; but, there does not seem to be any coherent plan to extricate themselves; this they have in common with the rest of the world. It is our fault for wanting things to stay the same with the old stone houses and thatched roofs and the quaintness of days long ago.

Unfortunately, it all looks like the Americanization of Ireland. This may all be related to an observation by Rick Steves, “Ireland is Europe’s youngest country, with 40 per cent of the population under the age of 25.” Perhaps the younger generation is so focused on improving its material condition they have lost their attachment to their cultural identity and traditions. Yet, at the same time, sections of Ireland are very serious about retaining their Celtic culture.

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand. ~ Irish blessing

Brú na Bóinne and The Hill of Tara

By Claire
We had a nice, leisurely day off from sightseeing yesterday; so this morning we were happily up and away by 8:10 am, planning to get to Brú na Bóinne the moment it opened to beat the tour buses that Rick Steves warned about. Not only did we beat them, we were the very first group to the sight and we numbered only 12. The groups after us were twice that size.

This famous archaeological site properly known as Brú na Bóinne (dwelling place of the Boyne) is also commonly referred to as "Newgrange" (actually one of the tombs). The very nice and well organized Visitors Center was impressive. We stepped into the doors and a young man came up to us immediately, asking us which place we wanted to see (we decided to visit only one tomb) and told us a tour would be starting at 9:30 and slapped a time sticker on each of us. He pointed the way to buy the tickets, €5, and explained where to go to find the shuttle bus to the site. Our timing was perfect. It's a 10 minute walk to the bus stop and we were off to visit one of two 5,000-year-old passage tombs.

View from the Visitors Center. That mound on the hill is where we were headed.

I was amused by these two posters. They had them in several languages; but I loved the contrast between the English man and the Gaelic woman. Rick Steves had advised good walking shoes for uneven, often muddy ground, and clothing for wind and rain. Isn't it odd that the poster with the man is advising the same thing. The poster with the woman, however, has her in sandals and a light shawl.

Our guide, Mary Ryan, was wonderful. She drew us in with the ancient story of this sacred spot. Dating from 3200 B.C., it is 500 years older than the pyramids at Giza and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge. Our small group squeezed down the narrow passage way to a cross-shaped central chamber located under a 20-foot high stone dome. 200,000 tons of earth and stone were above us. It has stood all this time and is water tight. She pointed out the graffiti from the Victorians and the fact that nothing above arm's reach has been reconstructed. The areas within reach were damaged, again by the Victorians, who took pieces of stone as souvenirs. When the state of Ireland wanted to open the tomb for tourists, their insurance company refused, until they used cement to reinforce those areas. It seems the Victorians were quite the grave robbers. We encountered their work in Egypt and Greece as well.

Brú na Bóinne

Entry to passage grave—it is surround by 32 megalithic stones including this beautifully carved entrance stone. The famous triple spiral is featured here and inside the chamber.

We were not allowed to take photos inside; so I took a picture of a postcard I found in the Visitors Center.

Mary continued with her story about this very spiritual place. She pointed out the three side rooms where bones and ashes of cremated bodies were found. As the sun rose on the shortest day of the year (winter solstice, December 21), a ray of light would creep slowly down the 60-foot long passageway. For 17 minutes it would light the center of the sacred chamber. One thought is that this is the moment when the souls of the dead would be transported to the afterlife via that beam of light. They don't know who the bodies were; but most likely they were very important people. It could also have been a temporary resting place with the bodies being replaced after every winter solstice.

Mary turned off the lights inside the tomb and gave us a demonstration of how the sun would come inside and light it up. It really was an excellent tour.

Brú na Bóinne was eventually abandoned. No one knows why, but they believe that the weather became quite harsh and perhaps the sun did not shine for several winter solstice ceremonies. Imagine the fear if you did not know whether or not the sun would come back.

Brú na Bóinne is part of a complex of monuments. The other two principal monuments are Knowth (the largest) and Dowth, but throughout the region there are as many as 35 smaller mounds. I thought this completely untouched, unexcavated passage tomb was really special. It's just sitting in the middle of a field.

We rode the bus back to the Visitors Center where we watched an excellent video about the site then spent some time in their very good museum. They had models showing the construction and completion of the site.

Since the average life span was 35 and it probably took 50 years to build this, the tombs needed the labor of a large number of people who would never be buried in them--laborers, architects, astronomers and stone-carvers all worked together to create the monuments.

This is clothing typical of the time, made from animal skins and fur. I really liked the carry bag; perfect for a Rick Steves guidebook.

This is a model of a typical hut. They also had models with long bows used to catch deer. This brought to mind Agincourt, a crucial battle in 1415 between France and England for the dominion of France. The English side used long bows and won. Symmetry.

Driving out, I was charmed by this gate. The Center really goes to a lot of trouble to make the place fit. The stone walkways are in a spiral design and the building has a mounded roof with grass on top.


Out of fairness, I felt I should visit the Hill of Tara (€2, senior discount. The site is free; the fee is for the optional movie and tour). We saw and loved the Rock of Cashel a few days back. That was the home of the ancient Kings of Munster (~300-1100 AD). More importantly, it was the setting for parts of the Sister Fidelma series about 7th century Ireland. Tara is the seat of the High King of Ireland. This position was akin to a local god-king and was not hereditary—a king was elected to his position after qualifying for the honor. One test was to drive a chariot over the Stone of Destiny (lying on its side and, hopefully, somewhat buried in the ground). Another test was to step on the special stone—if it roared, you should be king.

There was a wonderful, short movie about the place in the Visitors Center—which is also a former Church of Ireland building. When the movie starts, the electrified screen comes down in front while darkening shades come down over all the stained glass and plain windows. We saw this first and then took the tour, available upon request. Agnes, our guide, was excellent.

Visitors Center and former Church of Ireland

Parts of the Hill of Tara are approximately 4500 years old! It is still an active archeological site: [We saw a camera crew here today in the Mound of Hostages and a team working on a grid with an electronic geophysical instrument to acquire information without intrusive digging. It looked like a electrified aerator—a man would walk along the strings laid out in uniform rows and place the device into the ground every few feet. We were told that much of the site remains unexcavated.]

The Mound of Hostages, the oldest portion of the site, is purported to have been (surprise!) the holding place for hostages. Although this practice was common in England and Continental Europe in later times, their hostages were generally allowed more freedom than would be possible in this tiny passage tomb.

Mound of Hostages—side view

Mound of Hostages—front view

Panoramic view from the Hill of Tara

Much history has occurred here: St. Patrick took on the pagan high king and converted him by using a shamrock to explain the Trinity. In 1798, Irish Rebels fought the British here in the Battle of the Boyne; but they were trounced by the clever Brits, who were not only professional soldiers, but were also relatively sober: The British commander had sent a supply of booze near the rebels, anticipating that they would liberate—and drink—it. There is a monument on the site commemorating the fallen. Finally, Daniel O'Connell, the great Irish Liberator, spoke to 500,000 (or so) supporters of the repeal of the Act of Union in 1843; he was arrested and sentenced to six years imprisonment; in later years he wished to retire in Rome; but, he died in Genoa en route. Curiously, from 1899 to 1901, a group of British Israelites were convinced that the Ark of the Covenant was buried at this location and tore up the ground until the government stopped them. Fortunately, much of the land belonged to another private landowner; this one had the foresight to refuse the group admission to his land—preserving the majority of the site.

This is the Stone of Destiny—there may be phallic/fertility implications, too; duh.

The only complaint I have is the difficulty we had in finding the place. We arrived at the nearest town with Susan's help, but were unable to find any signage directing us to our destination. We finally gave up and were driving down a new highway—of which Susan, our GPS, was blissfully unaware—when we saw a sign to Tara! We were following these quite well when we came to an intersection; it did have a number of parked cars; we thought this might be our destination, despite the absolute lack of signage; but, we were unable to find a place to park in the lot; so, we drove down the road until we found a pullout large enough for Homer. It turned out this was the site.

A well on the Hill of Tara--a surprise between our parking spot and the official site.

Near the well: There was no explanation regarding who Jack is. I hypothesize it is either Jack The Giant Killer or our friend Jack Young.

Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice. ~ Will Durant