After picking up the car at Dublin airport bright and early Saturday morning, we were off, and I was getting used to driving on the left side of the road again. It came back pretty quickly, and fortunately, from the Dublin airport, there is direct access to a loop highway that bypasses the city (meaning I didn't have to deal with downtown Dublin traffic). Another benefit was that the windshield wipers and turn signals were on the sides of the wheel that I am used to, saving me from the mild aggravation of wiping a perfectly dry windshield every time I wanted to turn or shift lanes! Anyway, Missy and I were quite hungry and decided to stop for breakfast outside of the city. We stopped in Enniskerry, since it was along our route. This quaint little town was our first glimpse at the amazingly pleasant Irish towns and villages that we would grow to love along our journey, and the breakfast was phenomenal. So, moving on, our planned route on the way to Kilkenny took us through Glendalough and Wicklow Mountains National Park. The picture above was one of our first sights at Glendalough.
Glendalough is a glacial valley containing two lakes, and it is beautiful (even in dreary, overcast weather). A monastery was founded here in the 6th century by St. Kevin, who wanted to find a place of solitude to pray. He didn't exactly find what he wanted however. Many other followed him to the site, and it became a great monastery of learning. It was raided by vikings, and eventually pilgrimages to it were banned as, in good Irish fashion, most of the pilgrims partied a bit too hard after their long days of pilgrimaging, particularly each 3rd of June, St. Kevin's Day.
The modern Glendalough site still boasts large round tower (rising over 30 meters and seen in the first and second pictures on the right), St. Kevin's Church (which is in amazing condition and is seen in the second picture), a Priests' House (a little, tiny stone structure not shown here), a massive roofless cathedral (seen above), and a graveyard with many a beautiful Celtic cross. With all of these old sites in such a lovely setting, it is no wonder that it comes with a visitor's center and, of course, tour buses. It took some time to wait for a shot without a hoard of either school children or elderly people in it, but it was worth it, and about every 20-30 minutes or so, there would be a calm between the buses.
One of the beautiful Celtic crosses and the Glendalough valley in behind. Missy and I were surprised to see that the cemetery was being used! I'm pretty sure a plot there would be quite expensive though.
Old round towers like this are supposedly found only in Ireland, and they were probably used for many things like watchtowers, bell towers, and places of safekeeping for both people and treasure.
The site also has several trails connecting the monastic site to the lakes and beyond along St. Kevin's Way, which follows the old pilgrimage route. This was also where Missy and really started to appreciate how beautifully green the aptly nicknamed Emerald Isle is. We were also very fortunate to be surrounded by a ton of bushes with bright yellow flowers throughout most of the trip (seen in the mid-lower-right in the first picture).
Skipping ahead now: after a very beautiful and pleasant drive through the rest of the national park, we headed south and ended up in Kilkenny after only getting lost once (I'll discuss Irish roads in detail below). Kilkenny (the name is pronounced Kill-kenny, and always brings South Park to my mind) is an incredibly well maintained medieval town with a plethora of old churches and buildings and even a castle. I had heard many a good thing about it, so we decided to spend the night there. The cathedral seen here is St. Canices, and it shares its site with another round tower. Missy and I decided to skip going into the cathedral since they charged and went up the tower instead to get a good, bird's eye view of Kilkenny.
The round tower had seven steep staircases inside, which got progressively narrower and steeper as one approached the top. It was a fun climb but definitely not a place you wanted to be sharing with a large group of people, especially in the case of an emergency warranting everyone to rush out. Fortunately, we had no such emergency, and other than the Italian couple coming up on our way down, Missy and I had the top of the tower all to ourselves.
From the tower, we could see the major landmarks of Kilkenny, including St. Francis' Abbey (the roofless structure seen here) and the Kilkenny Brewery (all around the abbey), which is famous (to me at least) for making a delicious creamy draught ale called Kilkenny. Unfortunately, the massive corporation Diageo (AKA DIabolic And Gigantic Evil cOrporation) bought the brewery and is shutting it down (as well as several others around Ireland) since it is apparently more economic to them to brew all their beer in Dublin. This, of course, is somewhat devastating to the people of Kilkenny, especially those working at the brewery, and somewhat devastating to anyone that cares at all for small, local businesses, of which people, both local and from abroad, can be proud.
Kilkenny's maze of streets, alleys, lanes, and walkways are littered with various medieval buildings.
The Black Abbey. Supposedly, this abbey got its name from the color of its monks habits. All I do know is that it dates from the 1200's, is free to enter, and is by far one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen inside.
The other side of the Black Abbey. Dominican monks still live (in the adjacent building seen to the right of the abbey here) and work here.
I couldn't get enough of these medieval buildings. This was the tourist information building, which meant that anyone was welcome to go walk around inside this old, 13th century structure! This may not be so spectacular for Europeans or Asians, but for North Americans, that is pretty cool.
Kilkenny Castle...made me feel like I was a kid again. There were a bunch of local children playing on the grounds. I can't deny a slight feeling of envy; to have a real castle available as a playground to enhance a child's already wild imagination would be truly awesome!
The front of the castle. Unfortunately, Missy and I missed the hours of operation for tours, but I hear they are most impressive.
A random building in a garden we wandered into across the street from the castle. Apparently, this was the Butler Gardens, named after one of the families that previously owned the castle.
Some pubs along the walk into city center from our hostel. One, the Anna Conda seen at far right, has pole dancers in the evenings, which apparently was not sitting well with the Tidy Towns Committee. For those of you familiar with the hilarity that is Hot Fuzz, Tidy Towns does indeed exist as a competition rating which town is tidiest of them all. Anyway, Kilkenny has won the award several times, and at night there were old women protesting with some very, very creative and humorous signs outside of the Anna Conda. How long, I wonder, will it be before they trade those signs in for semi-automatic weapons? Well, hopefully they haven't seen Hot Fuzz.
A typical Irish country road. Note the lack of lines or adequate width for two full size cars. This is also one of the rare stretches where there is a shoulder; most had the hedgerows right up to the edge of the road. The best part about these country roads is that the speed limits are 80 kph (50 mph). In the US and Canada, such a thing is ludicrous, but not so in Ireland, where the locals, being well familiar with their country roads, maintain that limit as a minimum speed, tearing around bends and barreling down head to head with me along the 1.2 lanes in a furious game of chicken that always left me just slowing immensely, hugging the edge, closing my eyes, praying, and then checking my pants after they miraculously passed by. And most of these encounters were with elderly drivers! However, by the end of the trip, I found myself fitting in quite well on the roads and even getting immensely impatient whenever I found myself stuck behind a "newby" foreigner with rental car stickers on the back of their vehicles who were obviously terrified and driving well below 80 kph.
After our night in Kilkenny, Missy and I made the drive to Killarney via Cashel. We decided to take the scenic drive between Kilkenny and Cashel, which started out well marked with large, arrowed signs, but after just one convoluted intersection with no signs to speak of, we became terribly lost. We eventually pulled over and broke out the map. As we were sitting there, we realized there was a beautiful old cottage directly next to us with this dog sleeping in a flower pot.
The owners of the cottage, a cute old and so stereotypically Irish couple, eventually wondered why there was a car sitting running out front and came out to see what was going on. The old man chatted with us for a while, figuring out where we were from and why we were lost. When Missy told him how cute she thought the dog in the flower pot was, he told us to just hold on a wee second, and he ran inside to grab a stool, chair, and another dog. Then he made the dogs do their little show (seen above), and I honestly wondered how many lost tourists they had done this for. Anyway, he ended up pointing us in the right direction (can't really say direction considering the spider web that is the network of roads in Ireland), and after a few more wrong turns and corrections, we were back on our way to Cashel.
Cashel, famous for the Rock of Cashel: a walled complex of old buildings and towers sitting atop of a prominent rocky hill that bursts out of the surrounding countryside.
Supposedly, there has been a fortress of one kind or another on this site since the fourth or fifth century. This makes sense as the Rock itself is the highpoint in the area, making for a great watchtower and defense position.
The ruins themselves are enormous and breathtaking. The major bulk of it is made up of a Gothic cathedral, but the site also has a round tower (the Rock's earliest, still-standing building), a chapel, a great hall and dormitory, and of course, a graveyard.
Me wandering around the graveyard beside the cathedral. The round tower is seen behind it at the left.
High cross, round tower, cathedral. All very old, all very atmospheric. The holes in the side of the cathedral was teaming with ravens too, which just added to the whole thing...as did the overcast weather.
These 11th and 12th century round towers are so impressive, and it is odd that Ireland is the only country that can claim such structures.
Inside the cathedral. This is one of the only Gothic cathedrals that I have seen in Europe that is not still in use (and in a perpetual state of restoration/preservation).
There were several doors and passages that were off limits to tourists, several of which led to staircases and more of the interior of the cathedral. I wanted so badly to do some exploring.