Sunday, January 27, 2008

Wicklow and the East

I know that his will come as a complete shock to many of you, but I have some travel phobias.
The first one is buying gasoline outside the US. At home, fueling the car has become a completely solitary, private event. You pop the credit card in the pump, enter your zip code and fill away. You no longer have to interact with anyone. Even when the pump tells you that “clerk has your receipt” you can elect to just get in the car and drive away, imagining all those little slips of paper being saved for you inside. Over here though, you have to go inside and talk to a real person. You never know if they want the credit card first, or if you can just fill the car and then pay. Or when they’re going to release the pump for your use. It’s daunting.

And then there’s the gym at the hotel. I have finally become comfortable with putting on my gear and going into the little, stinky exercise rooms at US hotels. In China and at the hotels I use in Ireland, the facilities are more like health clubs and so different behavior is called for. Like no riding up and down the elevators in your workout clothes.

The last thing that gets me is eating alone in a restaurant. I don’t have any problem doing this in the lounge that I eat in at the hotels in Dalian and Shanghai or even here, but that’s a tiny bit different. No money changes hands, no orders are taken, people do not sit there staring at you and murmuring and you’re a bit less conspicuous as it’s more of a traveler’s feed station than an actual restaurant.

On this day, I decided to test each of these in a veritable orgy of self-punishment.

After a great breakfast (alone) down in the Atrium, I packed up and made a plan for today. Last night I was churning about where to go, having pretty much exhausted my interest in driving by knocking off 479 kilometers. There were places out there in the west that I’d missed, but the thought of 150K just to get to them was off-putting. I also was tired of bull-riding my car up and down those crazy roads, so I was at a bit of a loss. So I got out my map and my trusty copy of “Ireland’s Best Loved Driving Tours” and plotted my day.

The ocean again beckoned, so I took at look at the routes to the east coast and found that I could pretty much design an outing that was heavy on motorways and light on little roads. Between the south coast and the north coast, it came down to familiarity – I’d been close to the north, so the south it was.

I grabbed my gear and dropped it in the car so I would not have to lug it while I did a little birding. Same things as yesterday plus a Hawfinch made it a worthwhile 15 minutes. Before leaving, I made a detailed inspection of the car in order to locate the position of the gas cap (didn’t want to have to do a u-turn during the terror of gas buying), whether or not it was internally controlled (it was) and if so where the release button was. This last item proved dchallenging – it was in none of the traditional spots. After working myself into a light sweat, I finally found it – in the center of the side of the driver’s side armrest. Glad I didn’t leave that to the last minute!

On the road and through the first toll where the woman taking payments made goo-goo eyes at me. I imagine it was due to my obvious air of distracted American.

I plowed along through the “major road works” that the M50 has been offering for at least the last year, keeping a watchful eye on my ever dwindling petrol supply. Of course, given that I had steeled my will and made a plan to hit the first place I saw, no places appeared. When one finally did, I jammed on the brakes and did a power turn into the lot.

Of course, there was no pump available that lined up with the correct side of my car. So I had to do a u-turn after all which was made difficult by the lorry that was about half blocking the small space between the building and the pumps. I got halfway around it only to be blocked by some guy in an SUV who was not about to let be go unscathed so I backed up and let him by. He didn’t even wave.

I finally positioned the car at the pump and climbed out. Three options and two of them were diesel. In the US, diesel is universally marked green, over here, unleaded is marked green and that took my brain a few seconds to get used to. Once past that, I pulled the pump and looked for the means to turn it on. There was none. I stared at the set-up for a few seconds, played with things that in a more perfect universe would have turned it on and finally gave up and went inside.

I asked the guy, who happened to be Chinese and with the name Colin if he wanted my credit card as insurance. He said no, just go ahead and pump. So I asked him how the pump worked and he laughed and said he would turn it on from there.

The tank filled up without incident and once done, I went inside to pay. I grabbed a couple Diet Cokes and handed them with my card to Colin. As he was about to hit the total key, I told him to hang on and I added a bag of potato chips to the pile. With a bit of a smirk he asked me, “Got everything now?” and I told him “Yes” and he handed me the slip. By now, it was clear he thought I was some sort of half-wit, an impression I could not let go so I figured I would even the score. I thanked him for the receipt, turned to leave, paused exactly 3 seconds and turned back, looked him straight in the eye and in my best Beijingese accent and said, “Zaijian”, “goodbye” in Chinese.

He looked like he had been hit across the face with a shovel. The sheer absurdity of the moment was too much for him to absorb and so he smiled a dazed smile and said “Yea, seen you again.” I’m sure I made his day, a dimwitted, indecisive, gas pump technology challenged American stumbles into his gas station located on the side of the M50 motorway outside Dublin, Ireland and says “goodbye” to him in his native tongue. Take that, I got to shock the heck out of someone while putting a bullet into Phobia Number One.

My plan from here was to take the M50 to where it ended by the town of Bray and to pick up the E1 for a cruise some reasonable distance down the coast. That would have been great except the E1 is now the M11 which in turn becomes the N11, contrary to what the map I just recently bought was telling me. Not to bother, I was headed in the correct direction.

The day was clearing and as I topped a big rise, off to the left I could see the rising sun glinting across the surface of the Irish Sea. It was quite beautiful and it immediately brought to mind the fact that I had really not seen more than a few minutes of sun since I left home, almost 2 weeks ago. Dalian was overcast every day, and Shanghai offered nothing more than an hour or so on two mornings. The rest of the time was gray as well and my first day here was also almost entirely overcast, the sun trying but failing to completely break though the west coast overcast.

Here it was though and it was grand. A line of 7 or 8 wind turbines presented themselves off shore and the green of the fields to my right was tremendously enhanced by the angular light.

Judging from the number of one and two horse trailers I passed, This area appears to be extensively used for horseback riding. It was really nice to see a couple of horses fencing in the back of their trailer, blankets still on for the cold. No big Featherlights or Sooners here, Brenderup is the trailer of choice in these parts, I imagine due to size and maneuverability.

One thing that was really different were the hills – big ones, wearing a patchwork of woodlots and fields that brought to mind the drive out on Route 26 from Hillsboro to Tillamook in Oregon. Everywhere else I've been in Ireland has been flat or rolling. Here, the hills gave a distinctly different geography.

My plan at this point was to exit at the town of Arklow, head down to the water and catch little road 750 and follow it along the water back up to the town of Wicklow. I did get down into town, dead-ended along a waterway and turned around and headed back the way I came. There were no markers for 750 to be seen, so I simply kept taking right turns in the direction of the ocean until at last I ended up on something that was heading in the correct direction and was close to the coastline.

It would have been nice to stay in Arklow a bit longer – it appears worthy of exploration – but I was on a deadline to hit the beach so out I went past neat little rows of brightly painted houses houses and the occasional person starting their Sunday.







I wound my way along past farms and vacation homes and came at last to a beach access car park. I pulled in, climbed out and went for a stroll on the strand. It was a really wonderful spot, called Enereilly Beach, its sign claimed to offer fishing for Codling, Bass, Whiting, Flounder and Dogfish. Sure enough, a father and son had set up poles and were busy surf fishing.

I headed down the way stopping to take pictures here and there. The beach was composed of sand and gravel and more Oyster shells than I have ever seen in any one place. The rocks were similar to the agates you find on Oregon beaches and the place reminded me strongly of our own northwest coast.

Big dunes covered with swirls of brown and green beach grasses held their own against the tides. A bit down the way I found a small beached shark, splotchy red in color lying its back. I turned it over to take a photo and it showed life so I picked it up by the tail and pitch it back into the surf. Not sure if it made it or not, but it didn’t wash up again while I was there.

A wrack of black granite stuck up out of the sand breaking the waves a bit further on. One lone red fishing boat was working the sea just off shore and the view of the wind generators was even better than up on the road.

The combination of rocks and flotsam and shells made for some interesting pictures down on the ground. A few couples out for a morning walk greeted me and went on there way. I could have spent hours there wandering about but I had more on my agenda so after taking many photographs I headed back to the car.













The road continued winding along on its way, hugging the coast on the top of the bluff. Here and there I stopped at access points and took a few more shots but none of these places was as nice as the first. I pulled over to capture a flock of sheep lolling about in a big green field that fell down towards the sea. I passed many small groups of road bikes out for a Sunday ride. The road was perfect for it - not well-traveled, a nice combination of flats, curves and climbs and it made me very envious to see them togged up and riding along in such a beautiful place and on such a gorgeous morning.



Eventually I made my way into Wicklow as planned. Watching the signs, I took a turn in the correct direction and headed back to the motorway, my next stop on the other side of it, up in the hills.

I learned a lesson on this segment of the trip, road signs don’t always give you the precise scoop here. Instead, they offer you only some of the information necessary to make a decision. In this case, I took a turn marked by a sign that said “Wexford.” Now since I was looking for the N11, one might expect a sign for it, but it’s never that simple. Instead of a sign for the N11, I was provided with a sign for a town that’s at one end of the N11, 80 kilometers away. So using your best inductive logic, you decide that the town mentioned is associated with the highway you want and therefore following that sign might actually take you to that highway. Occasionally it works that way, and in this case it did.

Back on the N11, it was my plan to head now to the town of Glendalough, the site of a well preserved cemetery tower according to the Beloved Tours book.

For some reason, the road signs on this side of the motorway were numerous and apparently accurate; I was actually able to follow them. Back to the frenzy of high speed small roads this time with the addition of steep climbs up the side of hills. No longer Oregon, it seemed like I was now in central Massachusetts. The deciduous woods gave way to stands of pine and where the pines were absent, the hills were covered with Bracken. I really felt at home in this landscape.

I passed many more cyclists and was passed by many boys on motorcycles pretending to be in a world cup grand prix. The road took a very steep turn upward, so bad that I had to drop into 1st gear to stop the engine from lugging. About halfway up that hill I was sorry to see a family trying to go down it with a horse trailer.




Eventually the road leveled off and ran parallel to the hills instead of climbing them. I crossed a river where a group of men stood by the road getting into their wet suits and helmets for a bout of whitewater kayaking. Around the bend, into a small village and there I was in Glendalough. It was a busy place, apparently it’s a popular thing to go trekking in these hills on Sunday. I immediately found the historical site and the last space in a big car park. More than just a well preserved tower, this turned out to be a the remains of a complete Monastery.

Located in a valley between two tall hills, the light gave the impression that it was late afternoon even though it was just past noon; the sun could not clear the ridge to the south, so everything was cast in deep shadows. I wandered around the grounds for a good spell – there was a lot to look at. In addition to the tower, there were the ruins of a cathedral, a small house and a complete tiny church all dating from around 1200 AD. Some areas on the site date back to St. Kevin who arrived here to live as a hermit around the year 600. His plan to escape the distractions of the modern world eventually came to an end as the monastery he founded became one of the most popular and hence busiest in Ireland. All of this amidst a cemetery with stones spanning the time from the 1700s to the present. Best of all was a cross carved in a block of stone just to the side of the dual arch entry gates. It was mentioned on a plaque explaining the site, and it was a bit hard to find. But once located, it was obvious, and amazing to think that it was carved by a monk in this very location more than 1000 years ago. It was a great place to spend the afternoon.











It was getting busier by the moment so I decided to head back so I left and easily found my way back to the motorway. For once, the signs worked and I was able to use them.

Back at the hotel, it was time for the second personal challenge – going to the gym. I grabbed my exercise kit and headed down to the spa where I received a towel, went into the changing room, put on my kit and tried to lock the locker. The key would neither turn nor pull out of the lock. I tried another, no such luck. Finally I broke down and asked a teenaged boy what the story was. He pointed out that I need to put a 1 Euro coin inside the lock in order to free the key. Sort of a key deposit system. One might think it foolish of me to head to the gym without a 1 Euro coin in hand, but honestly, I don’t. So I had to pull my clothes back on grab my towels and march back up the stairs and down the hall to my room where I grabbed a 1 Euro coin and retracing my steps for what was now the 3rd time returned to the gym, dumped my street clothes and went off to exercise. The rest of the story is boring so I won’t bother telling it.

By now it was 6 PM and thus time for my last personal challenge – sitting and eating alone in a restaurant. I decided to bring along my Sony eBook so that I would have something to read and arriving downstairs I chose the hotel pub instead of the main dining room, figuring I would be more comfortable in there. I went in, chose an inconspicuous table, sat down and read the menu, waiting for the server to arrive. She came, I ordered, I sat reading and nursing my pint until the food came at which point I put catsup on the fries and dug in. Once done, I signed the tab, read for a bit more and then got the heck out of there. Forty-five minutes in all, I don’t think I saw anyone staring or murmuring.

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