Monday, March 31, 2008

The Cliffs of Moher

The final stop of the day was the venerable Cliffs of Moher, one of the classical stops on any driving tour of Ireland. The view is truly remarkable, bolstered by the wonderful job they have done with the interpretive center that is built into the side of the hill, looking like a giant hobbit hole. Once concessionaire with a sense of humor named his shop The Gifts of Moher.

Perhaps you recall a previous visit when I got so mad at some guy driving a tour bus who could not manage to pay the parking fee without getting out of his boat that I in turn drove off in a snit. Well this time we had the problem with the parking fee as the auto-pay kiosk didn't seem to work judging from the hand printed sign taped on the front announcing as much. But we got through and headed across the road with a gale force wind at our backs. Thankfully it had stopped raining, a nice touch given the sub zero temperatures accompanying the stiff breeze.

We walked up and around, peering over the cliffs. The walks were composed of Liscannor limestone, a rock popular for its durability and the fossilized sea creatures covering its surface. It was a nice bit of environmental design. Sea birds wheeled about the faces of the cliffs. I stopped to talk to a birdwatching and chatted about the gulls, Kittiwakes and Fulmars easily spotted. No Puffins, sadly.

Up until a few years ago, people were allowed to wander right up to the edge, something now discouraged by the stone guard walls. The walls were a good idea, given the nature of many of the people I encounter in these places.

Once my hands had frozen into the shape of my binoculars, I figured it was time to head into the visitors center for some coffee and a cookie. Didn't take long to thaw after that.

Hore Abbey

Hore Abbey is located just below The Rock, across the road and in the middle of a large green field. It is an 11th century Cistercian monastery, originally founded by the Benedictines but handed over by the Bishop when he alienated the local brewers by demanding a tax of two flagons from each batch of brew. Two of his monks were murdered in town and so the message was clear - beer tax does not make for an open-armed welcome.

Finding our way here was far easier because it was right out there in the open. Parking was another story, because there was none so we bailed out of the car while Scott parked it in a tiny scrape in front of a stone wall.

The abbey was great - nice carvings and details and a grand main transept. I wandered around the associated graveyard a bit and found one touching internment. Pvt. M. Dwyer, killed during the early part of World War I and laid here to rest among the ancient stones.

The abbey is unique in that the cloister is on the north side, odd that normally the residence was on the south to take advantage of what little warmth the sun could provide in these climes. It is supposed that it was done to provide a better view of The Rock across the fields.
One might suppose that it could get boring stopping at these old piles of rocks, but for me, the connection to the deep past makes every stop unique and worthwhile. Placing your hands on the cold, intricately carved stone gives you an instant connection to some nameless craftsman working far in the dark past. It's a great way to feel.

Lunch and a Word About Thatched Roofs

We wandered down the hill and into a little cafe that we'd noticed on our way up. I ordered a chicken sandwich and chips which turned out to be the neatest little sandwich cut into fourths on the bias and served on white bread with fresh Irish butter. The chips were hot, fresh steak fries. I had a nice chat with the owner about Ireland and China and she told me to "be careful" on my journeys. She was very sweet and genuinely interested in my tales of adventure. From there it was on to Hore Abbey, the ruin across the street from Cashel. More on that in a subsequent blog, but for now I wanted to talk about Thatched Roofs.

I've tried numerous times in the past to get a good shot of these uniquely Irish homes, but given that it's so hard to get a photo from a country road with no shoulder and cars whizzing past at 100 KPH, I've never managed to squeeze one off. On this trip though, I got lucky and have added a few examples below. The construction is quite remarkable - the roof is extraordinarily thick - and rain just rolls right off. I imagine though that they are stuffed with mice and snakes and that bugs almost certainly fall on your face while sleeping, which makes me grateful for good old tar and gravel. These are considerably more quaint however.

The Rock of Cashel

Our primary objective for the day was The Rock of Cashel, a medieval fortress located outside Tipperary. It is said to be one of the best sites in all of Europe due to the condition and the various styles of buildings. It was originally the fortress of the Kings of Munster and it is rumored that the last pagan king was converted to Christianity on the site in the 5th century, by St. Patrick himself. The buildings range in age from the 11th through the 18th centuries when it was abandoned because the current Bishop felt the site was too cold for his liking. He moved down the hill and into town, building another church and a palace that is now the Cashel Hotel.

Driving into town, you round a corner and there it is up on this formidable hill, overlooking a broad valley. It's immediately plain why it was built there - it is protected in all directions. So protected that as always, while we could see it, we couldn't necessarily get to it.

We went in on the main road and tried to find our way there by dumb luck. We ended up doing a series of left turns that forced us into a circle around the base of the hill. Thinking we'd found the way in, we turned into what turned out to be a little cul de sac neighborhood where we got to wave at Mom in her pajamas as she sent Daughter off to work. The Irish are very friendly.

Coming back around for the second pass we dropped the car in a car park and decided the easiest approach was on foot, just like the itinerant pilgrims used to do. Availing ourselves of a friendly woman in the local Tourism Office, we gained directions and walked up the hill through some tidy little neighborhoods and passed the Bishop's second church. The fortress loomed above while blindingly green meadows, naturalized with daffodils spread out below. Off to the west stood the ruins of Hore Abbey, our next destination.

Five Euros got us in the door and we spent a couple of hours wandering around the grounds, wandering in and out of a slow moving guided tour. As we did, our sunny weather slowly deteriorated, going gray, cold and windy.

The most significant structure on the site is the Cormac's Chapel, built around 1100 AD. It's sandstone as opposed to the more common limestone indicating that it was hauled into place in pieces from a distance of about 90 miles away. It's on of the finest examples of this style of architecture due to the detail work and the carvings, unique in Ireland and more commonly found on mainland Europe. It is said that a wealthy Archbishop from Germany sent his personal carpenters to oversee the construction, which explains it's uniqueness in these parts. It is quite amazing from the strange hippo carved over the door to the finely wrought Celtic tomb inside. Interestingly it was founded by one Cormac McCarthy.

These shots show some of the interesting elements of the site. The graveyard had headstones spanning from the mid 1600s to the present and the view of the green expanse of the Golden Vale from the hill was spectacular. The big rock below shows what happens with the corner of a castle falls off - it makes a dent in the ground and lies there, just as it fell. In this case, the parapet was blown off in a wind storm in the early 1900s. The cathedral has seen restoration limited to stabilization, and lots of the beautiful parts are still intact, soaring to the heavens just as they did when built in the 13th century. The round tower is one of the best in Ireland and is built in the "dry stone" style, which is to say with shaped rocks and no mortar. The entrance is about 12 feet above the ground, allowing the monks to remain safely ensconced until the Vikings got bored and wandered off to pillage something else.

Having made one pass through the main cathedral, I went back around to see if I could get some additional detail shots of the architectural elements. Right before my eyes, and having been missed on the first pass were all these small crypts tucked into niches off the main halls. I took some time with each of them and I've included two shots below to show some of the incredible carvings on the sides of the tombs. They ranged from religious imagery to traditional Celtic designs. Mostly from the early 16th century.

One last cool thing about Cashel - the place was loaded with Jackdaws. They are a corvid that more or less fills the same niche as our Crow. They're a bit more petite and are more of a blue-black with a lot of gray on the nape. They have a very interesting call, which they use frequently. Every nook and cranny had a bird or pair of birds claiming it for nesting. About every five minutes or so they would all burst out of their cubbies and wheel around the cathedral, returning whenever they were comfortable that whatever they were afraid of had passed.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Car Blogging

Today's entry breaks new ground, cell phone blogging from the N62 in the farmlands of Ireland.

The trip over was quick and simple. I was expecting it to be Dantean, given the hundreds of screaming, sugar charged children in the waiting area, a clamor that brought Chinese airports to mind. But they ended up in the middle of the plane and I was in the back. So it was a peaceful ride.

We arrived on time and my bag, as always, was the last off the plane. I exited the airport into a wind driven rain and the temperature drove me to think I had brought the wrong jacket. Found my tiny car, an automatic for a change, pulled out and ran into the curb at the exit booth, a tradition at this point.

Off to the hotel and following a brief clean up, back into Dublin.

The weather cleared up spectacularly and we had a nice afternoon strolling around looking at the sights. We stopped at Dublin Castle, Christ Church and St. Audoen's Parish before hunting down my favorite Thai restaurant for a spicy dinner.

A good night's sleep and now we're on the road to Cashel for some history and photo ops.

The countryside here is glorious on a sunny day. We passed countless postcard field chock full of sheep, cows and spry little Irish ponies. A burning smell permeated the car for miles on end and each of us figured that our driver was burning the clutch or the brakes. It finally dawned, it was peat being burned is all the local farmhouse fire places.

We took a detour on a country lane to see if we could get closer to some castle ruins up on a hill. It turned out to be on private property, guarded by two ferocious black and white border collies who came charging and yapping down the long drive, only to melt into a puddle at my feet when they realized I was only there to scratch behind their ears. From their drive, the valley spread out bounded by some rolling green hills, the closest capped by our unattainable ruins. From here, you could see the peat smoke drifting across the fields.

So now we're barreling down the narrow 60 MPH roads heading to the next stop, the Rock of Cashel.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Southwest continues to flummox travelers, big and small

So here I am blogging from the Tom Bradley International Terminal in lovely LA. It's spring here - eucalyptus is fragrant, the azaleas are in bloom and the airport workers are spending their lunch time sprawled out under the palms. But more on LA later.

Taking a local carrier over to an international connection raises the stakes a bit - no one cares if your connection is blown or if your bag is lost. For a less than intrepid traveler, this makes it a tiny but more stressful and the delay to my first flight of the day raised the stakes even further. But it worked out and the delay was only 15 minutes or so.

I've spoken about Southwest's not so new boarding process a few times in the past. 7 foot steel poles with the boarding groups painted in bold black letters. To make it doubly simple, the numbers are painted on both of the poles that bracket you group. Like 31-35 with arrows pointing to the left and the right.

No matter though, because this complex math continues to stymie my fellow travelers. The best thing is that you can now sit until the last possible moment. The second best thing is watching 8 people line up in the space for 5. My group had just that this morning, 5 individuals and a mom with 2 kids. Making it interesting was the quiz show the little boy was running for his mom and sis, today's topic being "world's largest bodies of water".

"It's not in North America"

"It's close to Europe but not in Asia"


I knew right away that these were the culprits but I followed my regular routine of waiting until someone flashed their boarding pass offering me the opportunity to politely steer them in the correct direction. Am I the only Good Ssmaritan out there? Does anyone else care about this stuff?

Finally the little girl asked what their number was and mom said "41, 42, 43".

Aha! I had them!

I politely mentioned that they were in the wrong space and mom told me in no uncertain terms that they were not. They were in fact standing in the 41 to 45 spot. I pointed to the poles, she looked and then made some comment to the effect that it really didn't matter anyway. While she moved back in line. The guy next to me said "it's the alphabet and numbers, what do you expect?"

The flight was quick and easy and marred only by the 15 minute wait for a parking place. The guys in the seat next to me were blithering on about semiconductor manufacturing, something I know a bit about but I decided one intervention today was enough.

Picked up my bag once Southwest decided which of the two carousels it wanted to use and I was on the hike to the other terminal. Today's learning - it's easier to walk with two wheeled bags, one in each hand, than it is to stack them up.

One great thing about LAX, the helpers they place at the terminal doorways. If you look confused, they will offer help without being asked. I availed myself of one today, asking how to get up from the lower level (shadier down there for the hike) to the ticketing level above.

Found m way to the Aer Lingus check-in area and I was faced with two options - a long sweaty serpentine line or the completely empty Gold Circle check-in. Now, I am a member but I have not achieved any status having booked only 2 previous flights, but I figured "what the heck" and went for the empty line.

I've discovered that a little bluff and bluster goes a long way in international travel. This though is very much in conflict with my normal "Swiss" demeanor in following rules, signs and regulations. I still recall the dread I felt when Auntie Jean Russell barged right past the ticket kiosk at Biosphere when we went out there to find some friend of hers. Throughout the entire stolen tour, I was in mortal fear of the moment when the Terranaut Police would ask me to kindly step out of line.

The agent called me up and asked me if I was holding a gold ticket. I handed her my passport. She told me she couldn't find my gold status in the computer. I whipped out my phone and read her my membership number, wisely stored in my "contacts". She asked me if they had sent me a card yet. I told her I'd been a member for a lone time. In the end it didn't matter, because she gave me my boarding pass and sent me on my way.

The Bradley terminal serves to remind one just how far we have not come in terms of airport security. Like so many others, the security area here is makeshift, built in the only logical area where people can be pushed through a funnel. It went fast though and the big surprise didn't come until I was inside - the place was under construction and the services were scant to say the least. Dashed was my dream of a crusty panini sandwich, the one and only food outlet was Build-A-Dog, and its menus options were twofold - a $10 hot dog or a $10 sausage. The thought of those choices rattling around in my gut on a 9 hour flight led me to a chocolate chip scone and a diet coke. I figured I'd wait for dinner on the plane.

I understand improving the infrastructure, but trapping people downstream from security and limiting them to Build-A-Dog seems somewhat cruel and unusual. At least somewhat below what you'd expect from the international terminal at the airport in our nation's second largest city.

Ah well, next stop - Dublin.

Source = Blackberry

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Time to go around the other way

Friday I will be heading out again this time time going around the world in the other direction. My goal - to regain that day I lost last time by crossing the International Date Line heading west. All joking aside, this one should be interesting. 100% in the "wrong" direction - east - except for the short hop from Albuquerque to LA at the start. Traveling this direction means a never ending pharmaceutical feast of No-Jet-Lag (TM) and Melatonin in hopes that I will be able to stay awake while tending to business.

After Dublin and Dalian, I'll be back home for two days and then off to Phoenix and Denver for the following week. April, well April will seem like a dream.

Here's the route -