Ah, vacation. Those three syllables that once a year symbolize escape. Escape from our lives, escape from what we know to go look upon something as yet unseen by our own eyes. At least that’s what I like to do, and preferably in a foreign country. This year, as dictated by ticket price alone, it was Ireland: Land of the green pastures and hauntingly sad songs; land of Guinness, local pubs and rich in history and castle ruins from long ago. My fatherland.
My pockets not being large, it seemed prudent at the time to attempt to avoid large cities, and possibly find a place to stay that offered a kitchen. At first I dreamed of staying in a castle. I had Rapunzel fantasies brewing and castle after castle appeared before my eyes as Google lead me on my search for shelter. I forgot, however, that Rapunzel and the like were princesses and either owned their castles outright or had themselves a hefty inheritance to pay all the servants. And so I, peasant that I am, decided it wasn’t so bad to be one of the common people, look what happened to Marie Antoinette, after all, and abandoned my castle dreams. What I found next was charming enough; cottages. It turns out the Irish are nuts about renting cottages, particularly in a little area south of Galway called The Burren, and so I did.
Sounds stark, doesn’t it? It is. And then it isn’t. The Burren is partly a nature conservancy and mostly farm land. It’s identifying and unique feature is the limestone that covers absolutely everything. It has been eaten away by rain and, being porous and easily degraded, the rocks have become uniquely divided, yet smooth. It is common to see erratics; large boulders sitting atop small pedestals of limestone, the rock having protected the stone underneath from eroding and thus leaving itself on display and often mistaken by tourists…okay me…for some Paleolithic monument. “How did they do that?” It wouldn’t be Ireland if it wasn’t also green. The rocks are only visible thanks to the wind and the cows as otherwise grass and moss would cover everything and never let us know what lies beneath. The Paper King, my partner in crime this trip, was incredulous that something so large might graze on such difficult and craggy landscape.
“Cows can’t get up these hills,” he proclaimed as I watched, with glee, his foot descend dangerously close to evidence that they certainly can.
I live in a city, and so remote sounded just perfect to me. No car alarms, no horns, no people shouting, and no construction equipment backing up at 6 AM right outside my window. Heaven! As we drove into The Burren, I was ecstatic. It seemed I would, indeed, be getting away from it all. The directions to the main house for key pick-up were: Turn right into Bell Harbor and I’m the second house in next to the pub. She was. A smaller town there never was. Three houses in town and all the same, there was a pub. Our landlord led the way to our rented cottage another mile or so away. We turned right up a dirt road and bounced our rented Nissan Micra up over stone and dirt to come upon home for the coming week. She took our money, cash only, and turned to go leaving us with these parting words:
“They’ll be doin’ a bit o’ work on the road here. Sorry ‘bout that, but they just told me. They’ll be done in a day anyhow. Enjoy!”
Damn! Well okay, one day, I guess that’s not so bad. And the road did really need to be smoothed out. With The Burren laid out in front of me, I was ready to let it go and get my walking shoes on.
“Let’s walk to the Abby!” I proclaimed. One of the reasons I chose The Burren was the plethora of ruins available in the area dating all the way back to the 4th century B.C. The Abby was a medieval ruin visible from the cottage, and I was hot to get to my first historical site. My parents, I’m sure, are incredulously shaking their heads as I did nothing but complain about such adventures as a child. Well, you are vindicated. It rubbed off and now I drag other unsuspecting souls to stare amorously at large piles of rock. We set off down our beat up driveway avoiding cow dropping after cow dropping along the way. I had truly escaped! We’d asked our hostess how to get to the Abby and she’d given directions that seemed straight forward enough. But as we continued up the road looking and looking for the correct turn off, it became clear we’d misunderstood something. Not so hard to do when taking directions given in such a manner as this:
“You’ll come to a road on the right. You don’t take that one. Keep going and you’ll see a road on the left. You don’t want that one either. Not the second but the third right. You’ll come to some land with cows in it and it’s my pasture, so don’t worry yourself about it. Cross over that and you’ll come to The Green Road. Take that a ways and you’ll find the Abby.”
Well I’ve got news for you. Everything is a pasture, they all have cows in them, and there’s no such thing as The Green Road. And so it happened that we walked two miles up the road, and not anywhere near my desired destination. We did, however, find a road people seemed to be using as a walking path over the mountain and took that. It was beautiful. Views of Galway Bay lay beneath us and rocky green in front. The sky was perfect and the air cool. You couldn’t have painted it better.
Until, of course, around mile 4 when my blood sugar gave out. We’d not planned on such a hike, you see, and thus had neglected to pack food or water. My close friends know that I am two people. My every day self is rather happy and easy to get along with. My hypoglycemic, evil twin is a real bitch. I do everything I can to keep her under wraps, but after 4 miles of hiking on craggy rocks with no food or water, my inner soul was crying out “Danger Will Robins! Danger!” And poof, there she was. The Paper King, in a valiant effort to save himself, made rash promises of dinner at the pub as we’d have to walk past it to get home.
“I have money! It’s only another mile, you’ll make it. Just around that corner and we’re there.”
We weren’t there, of course. It was another two miles to the pub but it lay like a beacon in the night and it brought me ever forward. Finally we rounded the turn. I all but ran to the door, pulled on the handle and nearly sat down to cry as it held fast. The door was locked, the pub was closed, and my boyfriend nearly lost an arm in the aftermath.
Let me make the bold proclamation to vegetarians everywhere…stay away! There’s nothing for you. One might imagine that with Europe so close at hand, you would find a selection of international cuisine and that large portions of it might be prepared by people of it’s origin. It seems, however, that the French, Italian, and German folk have rejected Ireland as a place to put down roots, thus leaving the indigenous people to recreate regional dishes on their own. Not a good plan. Not a good plan at all. Largely, the Irish seem to have decided not to try, which may actually be better for the ethnic food lovers of the world. Of the non-Irish food we had, the best was the Thai dinner we ate in Dublin, and of that, I can only speak highly of the soup. We tried one Italian spot and the pasta may well have been Stouffers. The pub food was admirable, as pub food goes. You really can’t go wrong with fried potatoes. Ordering a salad, however, can be harrowing. I ordered a vegetable plate, looking desperately for something green and healthy, and was brought a plate with cole slaw, cheese, and carrots drenched in vinaigrette. Breakfast was equally daunting as runny eggs shared a plate with baked beans and something called black and white pudding. Said puddings I believe to have parts in them and, while parts is parts, I like to know from whence my parts come and preferably they come from a plant. I was fairly sure these didn’t, although no one was certain what comprised pudding after all. Lunch and dinner didn’t look much better. At a local bistro, one could order the following: “The Peelers Plight: Local Potatoes, hung drawn and quartered, tarred with Sour Cream and feathered with chives.” or “The Dolmen: A quarter pound of Burren Mionain Burger embalmed with relish, buried with Tomato and Onion under a slab of Savory Bun, standing in a field of salad.” Now do we really need to turn potato skins into a bloody massacre? And if I did eat meat, I’m certain I wouldn’t want it to be embalmed with anything! It’s a wonder anybody eats out.
I must take a quick moment for the poop. It was truly everywhere. There was no escaping it. The cow patty didn’t seem to exist. All the cows have chronic diarrhea or parasites or something because it was drizzled over every patch of ground and made me long for the round, disc shaped piles of crap found in our own fields. It must be the extra chloroform in the grass. Not only was it runny, it almost fluoresced. Yet another reason Ireland is called the Emerald Isle. Who knew?
Rip off #1: Car rental. Since we were staying is such a remote area, it seemed prudent to rent a car for getting around. I did a little search on the web and found a real steal of a deal through Budget.ie; 88 Euro for the week! Who’d ever heard of such a thing? With taxes and insurance, I really expected it to come to a about 150 Euro but still, very reasonable. We arrived in Galway and low and behold the Budget office sat right there across the square from the train station. How convenient! This was going well already. Sitting down at the desk, I pulled out my information happily, knowing I was getting such a bargain. Living in New York, I don’t have a car and thus don’t have my own auto insurance. I know Visa covers the basics but as I was to be driving on the left for the first time and as the round about system is treacherous, I wanted coverage for damage to the car and any persons I may inadvertently hit. Bad idea, as I didn’t hit anyone, although I wanted to by the end of the trip, and the vehicle came out if it all smelling like a rose…okay, not like a rose, more like cow shit, but still, without damage. With insurance and tax my charges came out to just over $300! A far cry from the 88 Euro I was quoted. I argued and put on my best Brooklyn accent to no avail. Batting the baby blues went over like a wet sock and thus it was that this tiny little Nissan Micra more than doubled itself in cost.
Once on the road, I began to feel confident fairly quickly. Not true of my passenger. Heads turned in our direction from other cars as he shouted “LEFT!!! Stay left!” while gripping any part of the car he could hang on to. Got news for you bud. That handle isn’t going to stop the truck from coming through the door if he wants to. But it made him feel better anyway. It made me nervous but he learned to control his outbursts.
“You want to drive? Think you can do better. Then you should have renewed your license, shouldn’t you. Leave me alone!” Ah, we were off to a great start.
Part of the frustration stemmed from the stellar signage. Signs in the city were numerous but confusing and small, pointing in directions that seemed to make no sense. They were small and scarce, leaving one to guess at the correct turn off. If they were there, they were not easily read, particularly at night as they didn’t have reflectors, and most often they appeared out of no where with no warning in such a way that I spent a lot of time making k-turns on tiny roads to get us back to the road I’d blown right past. I suggest using your odometer to count kilometers and turning when you’ve gone the recommended distance, sign or no sign. It would have saved us a lot of grief.
The roads were no little cause for concern. Everything in America is bigger, it’s true. Most of the time I scoff at our need to be the biggest and the best, but these days abroad found me praying we’d drive down a road actually big enough to fit two cars. All roads are two way. However, not all roads can accommodate two cars coming in opposite directions. The biggest we drove on would allow us to pass by another small vehicle without pulling over although it left no shoulder and no room for mistakes. They only got smaller from there. Many roads had pull-offs carved into them so that one could park on the side to allow another to pass. The smallest required one car to back up if another was coming, the rule of thumb being the car closest to the next cross section did the reversing. And the speed limits…can we talk about the speed limits? You might think that on roads such as these there would be a need to go a little slower. Seems reasonable, and I, for one, did. But I was shocked to see signs urging me to drive up to 100 kph. Ah…hell no. Our first night there we heard a report of three killed on a road not so far from our cottage. Well duh! I resolved to restrict night driving to “big” roads only.
The Burren is coastal and boy howdy, it was. Day one was lovely and every day thereafter was rain, rain, and rain followed by some rain. There were moments the sun tried valiantly to peek through the clouds and twice it rained on one side of the house while the sun shone on another. The wind was intense, ripping off the ocean creating beautiful caps and strong enough to blow me straight into a pile a sheit. Delicious.
Rainbows were abundant, although they didn’t come with pots of gold. What they did come with was construction equipment. Not what one hopes to find at the end of their rainbow. Yes, the workers arrived on day two and contrary to the promise made to us of one day’s work, I woke each morning to the sounds of a backhoe reversing in my driveway. Just what I’d left the city for. You can imagine my joy the first morning I woke ready to jet to the nearest pile of old rocks I had yet to discover I couldn’t find or get to and found myself blocked in by a dump truck.
“So…um…how long you guys think you’re going to be here today? Any chance of letting us out?”
“Ah, sorry lass, the roads not passable, but should be long ‘bout 2 PM.”
Another lie, I might interject. They left long about 5, possibly scared off by the steam jetting out my ears. Did I mention we had no food in the house? We had no food in the house.
“You might want to park at the end of the road tomorrow so you don’t get blocked in again.”
“What? Caroline told us you’d be a day.”
“A day? No, sorry. We’ll be here all week. We told her not to rent the cottage this week.”
What color is my rainbow? My rainbow is colored PISSED OFF! Only because there was large construction equipment blocking my drive and a field full of cow shit separating me from her did Caroline survive the day. Second house on the left, lady. I know where you live!
What I came for, my reason for choosing The Burren…the ruins. I had a guide book suggesting only a few possibilities, but I knew from reading that there was much more to be had in this area. As I’ve mentioned, there was much to be seen and our first day out we bought a map that detailed all the numerous possibilities for ruin sighting. I bustled us out the door at an earlyish hour on day two, anxious to get to my first castle. The boyfriend was in charge of directions and did an admirable job negotiating the unmarked roads as we drove on.
“It should be just around the corner here. Yes! Down there, see it!”
“Yes, yes! I see it! Where do I turn? How do we get there?”
“Well, it should be right here. Hmm…turn around, we must have missed it.”
We had not, in fact, missed it. We couldn’t get there. It was on the map. It was visible from the road, but it was not accessible by vehicle or even by foot as, once again, it was beyond a sea of cows, poop and pasture.
No matter, there were so many more who could be disappointed by one? We drove on looking for something called “The deserted village”.
“It should be right here. The map says it’s right here.”
“Are you sure? Could it be any further?”
“No, we’ve already gone too far. This is the right road, I know it is, I’ve checked.”
“Well what’s it supposed to look like?”
“I don’t know. Deserted and villagey. What about that pile of rocks over there. It looks sort of like it might have been something, doesn’t it? Is that it?”
And so on to the next we went. Unfortunately, it didn’t get much better from there. We drove up to a castle listed on the map only to find out we were trespassing on private property and people actually lived there. We drove up a road looking for an 11th century something-or-other and came upon a bewildered young woman going out to slop the hogs and wondering what the hell these stupid Americans were doing on her property. It was on the map, lady, I swear! But mostly, we spent a lot of time driving by things we could see from the road but had no visible way of approaching by car or otherwise. The resounding cry became, “Look! Ruins!” “Yeah, but you can’t get there from here.”
I finally decided to give up and spend time and money going to see the big tourist attractions. Things such as Ailwee Cave: Ireland’s premier show cave; rivaled only by Dolin Cave: Home of the Great Stalactite. What? And The Burren Perfumery where there was a lovely slide presentation of Burren flora and fauna and a large selection of soaps made from it. We did manage to see the High Crosses of Kilfenora, which were indeed worth seeing, Pulnabrone Portal Dolmen, a megalithic tomb housing, at one time, 65 ancient bodies, the famous Cliffs of Moher, well worth the visit and the crowds, and our little 12th century Abby across the way, Corcomroe. (We eventually found the road.) It was lovely and interesting and intricate, these places all oozing history and a time not documented such here at home. I was, at last, a bit sated in my quest for piles of old rocks.
The Final Blows
The week ended and back to Galway we drove. Used to the driving system and the car, the Paper King no longer gripped the seat in fear. We even drove into the city without mishap. Finding a hotel was another story, but we finally did although it cost a fortune. Heading up on the elevator I noticed a sign.
“We apologize for any inconvenience during our construction.” How apropos.
Returning the car was a nightmare.
“Go drop it at this garage and bring me back the keys.”
“Okay, can I leave my stuff here since my hotel is just across the way?”
Said garage was about 1.5 miles away from the key drop, so we found ourselves walking with numerous heavy bags through the streets and back to the Budget office where it took everything in my power not to throw the keys at the representative.
Galway itself is lovely and I could have spent another day or two there, perhaps should have, but we were out of time. Blessedly, there was a vegetarian restaurant and we even had a lovely, although expensive, dinner.
The following morning it was back to Dublin. Every hotel offers bed and breakfast and there’s no way to separate the charge. As we were being soaked already, I really wanted to take full advantage of the breakfast. We were both out of money, so I made sure we were up and in the lobby by 6:45 AM to catch breakfast at it’s advertised time, 7 AM, so we could catch the 7:45 bus to the airport. We waited. 7:15 came, then 7:20 and the dining room remained closed.
“Look, we really have to go and we’d counted on having breakfast here as it was included in the price. Could we be refunded for breakfast so we could have some at the airport?”
You can guess the answer.
As you may imagine, I was not sorry to be leaving Ireland behind. It was beautiful. It provided some good stories. But I cannot recommend it as a relaxing or economic vacation destination. If you, like I, desire to look amorously on large piles of rock, go to the Grand Canyon. It’s pretty, it’s cheap, and you can get there from here.