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Monday, June 13, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP: England, Ireland, Belgium 2005 - Part 2

Blarney Castle

Previously, terrorists had bombed London and transportation was in a chaotic state..

On to Ireland. From our hotel, it’s a quick bus ride to Fullham-Broaday Underground station. The District Line takes us two stops to Earl’s Court station where we change to the Picadilly Line to Heathrow.

At the airport, we just change to the Heathrow Express train to get to Terminal 4, home of Aer Lingus. Everything at Heathrow involves a very long walk and this is no exception. On top of that, security barriers placed about 24 inches apart block entrance to the train platform. There is no signage for wheelchairs as to how to proceed.

We find an employee who uses a key to remove a security barrier allowing us to proceed to the train platform. A quick ride and we’re at Terminal 4.

Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest airports. This is made obvious when you enter the check in area and thousands of people are milling about. We find the Aer Lingus check-in counter and proceed through the process. After this, we head to security to go to the departure hall.

One thing I don’t like about Heathrow is that you are not told what gate you will be departing from. You must watch the departure monitors and about a hour before your flight, the gate number will be posted there. Until then, you wait in the departure hall.

At Heathrow, this is really just a very crowded shopping mall with very limited seating. If you want to shop, I guess it’s ok. If you just want to rest until your flight, you’re pretty much out of luck.

As our luck would have it, our flight was delayed. It wasn’t until two hours later that the departure gate was listed and then it was another very long walk to the gate (forty minutes). By the time we arrived, boarding was commencing and the helpers were no where to be found. Of course, this made us last to be boarded and the crew insisted that our son Tim have a window seat (in the back of the plane) which turned out to be just impossible to accomplish due to the very limited room between the seats and his weight (145 lbs.)

A stalemate developed between the crew and us. They wanted us to take another flight that wasn’t so full where the seating could be more properly arranged. We didn’t. This flight was already two hours late and counting. The captain had to come out and give his ok that Tim could have an aisle seat instead.

Once we pushed back and took off, it was about forty minutes to Cork in southern Ireland. Cork, at this point in time, has no jetways (construction is under way so this will change soon). Instead, we had to wait on board until the food service truck arrived. We were deplaned on the food service truck.

This was one of the worst flights, with matching service, that I’ve ever encountered. In addition to the previous, everything on board…from peanuts and soda to wine and beer…has to be purchased at high prices. Luckily, it’s a short flight.

Everybody has a bad day, and I’m hoping that’s the case this time, but this whole experience will be repeated almost exactly in three more days.

Finally, off of the plane. The airport personnel, including customs and immigration, are very competent and friendly. We quickly clear the passport control (Ireland uses a cool green ink for their stamp) and pick up our rental car from Hertz. It’s a nice SEAT wagon with room in the back for the chair, CD, radio, and A/C. It has a manual transmission which means that I will be doing all the driving (auto costs an extra $100)

For this portion of our trip, we’ll be staying in Limerick, about an hour’s drive north of Cork. More on that later.

After leaving the airport and finding our route with only one minor misdirection, we head north on the motorway to our first stop, Blarney.

The motorway to Blarney is a modern superhighway but once we exit, we get our first taste of typical Irish roads. Wow! It must be a real adventure to be a passenger while driving on these roads. I wouldn’t know because for a driver used to American roads, it’s just terrifying.
Most of the roads here are very narrow, maybe one to one-and-a-half of a lane wide when compare to U.S. roads. About 90% of these roads have no shoulders, only tall hedges or stone walls block all view around turns. Oh yeah, they are two-way roads that have many large trucks, tourist buses, and farm equipment using them. When arriving in a town, the hedges and walls are replaced by vehicles parked on both sides. Usually, these vehicles are parked half on the sidewalk with the other half in the road. Some towns we encountered also had festivals or flea markets that also took place in these still open roads.

So, for the remainder of this report, we’ll just boil the above paragraph to the above code when encountering the Irish roads: Irish road…AAHHH!

Blarney is our first Irish village (Cork is a large and modern city). It’s a pretty as you’d expect. Once through the town, you drive down a small driveway to the car park for Blarney Castle. The castle is located in a large park, which has a nominal entry fee of 7 Euros. There are not a lot of facilities here for wheelchair users. Consequently, disabled and one care giver (carer) are free so we ended up only paying one admission.

From studying up on the castle’s web site, it seemed that the famous Blarney Stone was up on the second story. Just maybe, I thought, I could man-handle Tim up there so he could kiss it but reality is much different.

Actually, it’s about ten stories to the top of the castle…a long, arduous climb up worn, slippery, small, narrow, circular stone staircases with only a rope dropped down the center to steady yourself. There is no way to get someone who cannot walk up ot the top.

My wife and I took turns going up while the other kept Tim company at the bottom. If you can get to the top, what you’re rewarded with is a grand view of the park and countryside and, of course, the right to kiss the stone.

Darryl Kissing the Blarney Stone

Legend has it that this stone was the pillow that Jacob layed his head on when he had his dream of the ladder going to heaven. It is supposed to impart magical powers upon those who kiss it. Specifically, you’re granted the gift of eloquence, or the “gift of gab.”

You cannot just go up and kiss it. You must do it properly. This involves laying on your back, staring up to the sky, and bending your head back to kiss it upside down. There is about a one foot gap (protected by iron bars) to stretch across the void to the ground far below. A gentleman there will steady you. It is good form to leave him a Euro or two for a tip. A photographer will snap that instant of the kiss and you can buy a copy on your way out. You can also bring your own camera for free.

Almost as daunting as the climb up is the climb down, against traffic. I really felt for the dad whose son got to afraid to continue and had to carry him down.

We also noticed about this time that it was really warm here. No, not just warm, hot.

Accompanying this was heavy humidity. It really felt like Charleston in August. I have been assured that this is very rare for Ireland and we just happen to hit it during this heat wave.

Gingerly, I drive back toward the motorway to continue to Limerick. Maybe ten miles later, the motorway fades into a two lane road for the rest of the way.

Following the hotel’s directions, we end up on the west side of town driving along the River Shannon into the city. We eventually found our hotel but with difficulty. I think the directions could have basically said the hotel was in the heart of the city next to the bridge and it would have been easier.

We are at another Jury’s Inn. This room is not as big or luxurious as the one in London. The accessible room could only sleep two but, to their credit, the management gave us an adjoining room for no extra charge so it was like having a suite. The only amenity missing from this room as compared to London was air conditioning. I’m told this usually isn’t a problem here but there is that pesky matter of the hot and humid heat wave we’re currently experiencing.

Location is great, right in the middle of the city, across the street from the river. There’s a nice pub, Schooner’s, next to an excellent Italian restaurant right on the river, across from the hotel.

Having Drinks at Schooners

In the summer, the day ends after 10:00pm so sundown drinks at the pub last well into the night. We had dinner, drinks, and came back to bed. At 11:30pm on this Sunday night…right outside our open (due to no A/C) window…road workers commenced jack hammering in the street. Oy, what a racket. They finished around 2:00am. At 4:00am, a group of drunks started singing very loudly on the sidewalk.

With but a few hours of sleep under our belt, we make our way north heading for the Cliffs of Moher along the coast south of Galway. Along the way, we get into a big traffic jam in the town of Ennis. The bad thing about traffic jams here is that there is usually no alternat route. There is one road through town. In it’s defense, it appears that Ennis is building a bypass that will alleviate this in the future.

The reason for the traffic today is because there is a big hurling match going on. What is hurling? Haven’t got a clue, but a bit more on that later.

After we edge through the jam, we make a stop at Knappogue Castle. According to my pre-trip research, this is the most accessible castle I could find in Ireland that allows visitors. We pass through the very pretty village of Quinn, home to some impressive church ruins, and pull into the castle’s grounds just beyond.

It’s a quiet day here, I think only two other groups of visitors are here. We pay the entrance fee and a groundskeeper deploys a ramp so we can get in the front door. Being over 500 years old, access wasn’t included in the original build out so only the first floor is accessible. On this floor, you get to see the main hall with it’s large fireplace, the large banquet room, and a view of the chapel. Upstairs, there is a personal chapel and another ballroom.

Knappogue Castle

It is dark and smoky smelling in the main entry hall. Eerily, my camera won’t work in flash mode and I can’t get a good picture. As soon as I’m out of the castle, it works. Take it back inside, no flash. I have no explanation as to why this is.

The groundskeeper takes us on a little tour of the first floor and then accompanies me up to the top of the castle to show me some of the features up there. There are picture-postcard perfect views from the top of the surrounding Irish countryside with emerald green rolling hills dotted with cows.

After spending an hour or two here, we hop back in our little rental car and continue on arriving at the seaside village of Lahinch.

Due to the unrelenting heat wave, it seems that everybody in Ireland does just what we’d do in America on a hot, humid day…head to the beach. There is jammed traffic with cars parked everywhere restricting the already narrow roads. Gingerly, we make our way through it and continue on the short drive to the Cliffs of Moher. Massive crowds, many tour buses and not a parking spot to be found greet us. We also note the long, unpaved trail up to the top of the cliffs and reluctantly come to the conclusion that this just won’t be possible to see. It takes another five miles until we can find a spot wide enough for us to turn around.

Not wanting to completely waste the trip, lunch is had at the village of Kilconnel, overlooking Liscannor Bay and Lahinch. The food, pasta mainly, is very good.

Remembering the intense traffic in Ennis for the hurling match, I opt to take the coastal route instead. Lazily, we wind around the western Irish coast until we make it to the River Shannon. It’s not long until we reach the ferry crossing at Killimer. A twenty-minute cruise across this beautiful waterway and we alight in Tarbert, just a short drive along the river’s south bank back to Limerick.

Adare proclaims itself the “prettiest village in Ireland.” That’s quite a claim considering the many charms of every Irish village we’ve been to. We have to take a look and it’s only about an hour’s drive from Limerick.

It’s an early start today and we decide we’ll get breakfast when we get there. Just after the massive Adare Manor hotel (looks like an awesome place to stay), we cross the river next to the castle ruins, and – just like that – we’re in the heart of Adare.

It is indeed beautiful with its block of preserved thatch-roofed houses and pretty park with the creek running through it. It seems we’re about half-an-hour early for anything to be open though.

The only place we find for breakfast is a little counter inside the visitor’s center that serves good food but not with the smiles we’ve so far encountered on our visit.

After eating, we walk through the town shopping and snapping pictures. That’s about the gist of it. Once the place opened up, it was pretty much taken over by the tour buses and the hoards they dispensed. We were now two for three with major Irish sites we wanted to see; loved Castle Blarney, disappointed in Cliffs of Moher and Adare.

We continued on to drive through the nearby countryside with a minor goal or reaching Tipperary. It’s not so much we wanted to see the small city of Tipperary, just that on the map it seemed like there was much Irish countryside to go through along the way. Indeed, in this case it was not the destination that mattered but the journey.

This was the best decision of the Irish leg of our trip. As soon as we let go of the recommendations of friends, guidebooks, and travel web sites, Ireland opened up to us as it had so far eluded us.

Village upon beautiful village greeted us as we went along. Castles, ruins of castles, ruins of abbeys, and little Irish rivers greeted us around every turn devoid of other tourists. A stop in a random pub was an invitation to make a new Irish friend. Finally, we’d found the Ireland we’d come to see.

Bruree, Ireland

Not long before we’d reach Tipperary, we crested a hill and had to pull over at the absolutely breathtaking vista that greeted us. Thankfully, the townsfolk here had built a small parking area and picnic tables at this very spot.

Words cannot describe this but I’ll give it a try. Black draft horses with shiny coats grazed on the grassy hillside in front of a sparkling river full of rapids and a tiny little canyon (maybe fifty feet long) full of little waterfalls. On the far bank, small houses painted in many colors faced us. At the east end of this village was the remains of an ancient castle, a turret covered in vines. At the other end was an old stone millhouse, its large water wheel long since retired but resting peacefully on the side of the building. The river makes a lazy, horseshoe turn around the old mill, cascading over the rocks as a local boy dips a line in to see if he can catch a fish.  This is the village of Bruree.

Idyllic Scene at Bruree

I just wanted to stop and stay here the rest of the day. As we were sitting in our little grassy spot, a local stopped by and invited us to the town’s little museum. We didn’t make it there but whiled away the time talking to the local gentleman before moving along.

In Tipperary, a pretty large city by Irish standards, lunch is gathered up at a collection of stands surrounding a parkling lot just off of the main street. Our plan is to head generally back toward the direction of Limerick and find a lonely castle to picnic at. It’s not long before we find it along the side of the road sitting in a small, grassy field net to a cow pasture.

Our Picnic Spot

This is the Ireland we’ve come to find. Picture postcard villages and ruined castles to lazily snack in front of. Friendly locals and lively pubs. All devoid of tour buses and hordes of people.

Back in Limerick, we visit St. John’s castle, an imposing fortress over the River Shannon. About half of the castle, really more of a fort, is accessible for wheelers but a major obstacle is the large courtyard which is covered in loose gravel. A lift takes you to the museum on the second floor and docents bring inaccessible exhibits out to disabled patrons. In our case, a docent brought out the exhibit on minting coins which is located in the basement of one of the turrets.
The evening is spent again having drinks at schooners while a local band entertains the pub crowd. This was our perfect day in Ireland, and also our last

It's not over yet, come back and have a beer with us as we travel to Belgium for part 3.

Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved


  1. Fortunately it is a good posting. I like it. It's pretty much impressive.

  2. So nice and good posting. i liked it. keep going. :)

  3. Ah, Heathrow sounded like a nightmare! But you bravely charged through.

    Those look like beautiful places. :)

  4. Heathrow's hectic but OK, it's Aer Lingus that drove me nuts on this trip. One of the best airport restaurants ever is at Heathrow, Cafe Rouge in Terminal 1.