Friday, November 5, 2010

Along The Enchanted Way[s]

I used the same song twice in a row again. Oops.

It is [past] time for another belated update: my solo trip to Killarney almost a month ago.

Well, as I mentioned at the time, I had planned to enter tourist mode and go on two bus tours, one of the Ring of Kerry and one of the Dingle Peninsula. Dingle was first, and best. It was not a promising beginning: It was a grey, drizzly morning with clouds hanging low enough to suggest they weren’t going anywhere, and our departure was delayed by several late arrivals, much to my annoyance. But, Ireland never stays at its worst for long and the rain and clouds did clear up fairly early in the day, and once we were underway our driver proved to be entertaining as well as knowledgeable. He kept up a fairly steady stream of commentary all day, filling in jokes and stories where there wasn’t much to say about our surroundings.*

Our stops included a famous beach, Inch Strand, several scenic overlooks with spectacular views of Dingle Bay and cliffs and the Blasket Islands, the town of Dingle itself, and, most exciting to me, the Gallarus Oratory, an early medieval stone church that the guide claimed is the oldest surviving church in Ireland. I’m not positive that’s true, but it’s highly possible. I suspect it’s the oldest intact church, at the very least. It was beautiful. I don’t know if you’ll believe me when you see the pictures, but trust me.

Dingle, which is where a lot of movies set in Ireland have been filmed, is stunningly green, full of sheep and wide open fields and rolling hills. It also has some pretty dramatic changes in elevation and some roads that A) are exceedingly narrow and on cliffs next to the ocean and B) would rival Arizona’s mountain highways for hair-raising curves. It’s gorgeous, though.

The Ring of Kerry is also gorgeous, and very similar but surprisingly different at the same time. Still lots of green, but a lot of not-so-green, too. I think [I can’t remember the name of the peninsula the Ring of Kerry loops around…] has more mountainous terrain than Dingle, despite Dingle’s rather impressive cliffs. More of it seemed remote and rugged. That could be a flaw in my memory, considering how long ago this was now, but I know for a fact that the last stretch of the Ring is along the MacGillicuddy Reeks and through Killarney National Park and involves several truly stunning vantage points at elevations that are not to be sneezed at, shall we say. There were a lot of scenic stops along the Ring of Kerry, some on the coast and some in the mountains and at least one that was both (and also includes an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary). We also stopped in a couple of cute little towns, one of which is apparently where Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier spent their honeymoon (why, I don’t know and can’t imagine). Our first two stops for the day, though, were super-touristy (not that the whole tour wasn’t) cultural attractions. The tour price did not include admission to either of them, which irked me, but I decided to assume they were worth five euros apiece. The first was another of those folk parks, the Kerry Bog Village. More 19th century cottage reconstructions: marginally interesting. More wolfhounds: better. TINY FUZZY PONIES: totally worth it. The next was a border collie demonstration from a guy who is apparently a world champion in sheepdog trials and trains really fantastic dogs. This one I really almost didn’t do, since I grew up going to Celtic Classic and watching sheepdogs every year of my childhood, but there was nothing else nearby and I really do love watching the dogs work, so I grudgingly paid my five euros and joined the group. And I’m glad I did, actually. He had some really weird exotic sheep and the dogs were amazing and this was in one of the areas where everything is uphill and people raise sheep because that’s all the land is good for, so the demonstration was basically on a more or less vertical slope that made for easy viewing and some really great pictures.

All in all, I think the Ring of Kerry was a fuller day than Dingle, even though we weren’t gone any longer, but even though it was exciting and beautiful, I think I preferred Dingle. I think people who had already done the Ring of Kerry played it up too much for it to live up to my expectations, especially since I’d seen the beauty of Dingle just the day before. I think it would be hard to argue that either trip isn’t touristy, but Dingle definitely had more of a “hidden Ireland” sort of feel to it. I don’t know if any of it was actually more remote or off the beaten path than parts of the Ring of Kerry, but it felt like it. I think the drivers/tour guides also made a difference: Ring of Kerry guy was far less chatty and not as interesting when he did talk as Dingle guy, who as I mentioned before was hyper-engaged. And there again I think experiencing the one before the other hurt the second.

Both nights after my bus returned I wandered around Killarney a bit, exploring and souvenir shopping, and both nights I found a nice pub with music and had dinner at the bar. There was a great band at the one I went to on Saturday, who I think was originally from Cork, and I didn’t want to leave. Sunday was less awesome music-wise, more like a typical trad session, but still good, and the Irish stew was well worth the expense of eating out here.

Monday morning I (along with a couple on vacation from Georgia who were on their way to Cork next, making me an awkward human travel guide) went horseback riding in Killarney National Park. It was awesome. I rode a bay pony named Diamond who was less than enthusiastic, but didn’t give me too much of a hard time even though I’d never ridden English style before and had not a clue what I was doing (and I’m not exactly an expert rider in the first place). It was another drizzly morning, but never more than a drizzle, often through sunshine, and we saw two or three rainbows in the two hours we were out. We also saw a herd of deer and my first-ever pheasant. The park is lovely, although admittedly I spent more time thinking about my horse and the mechanics of riding than about the scenery. That was okay, though. And I think maybe I prefer English to Western now that I’ve tried both. The English saddle is less comfortable, but as I predicted the stirrup position feels more natural to me and my short legs. I have a very hard time keeping my heels down in a Western saddle, not to mention keeping my feet in place if I get jostled (which I do, because I’ve never figured out how to post and probably never will until I manage to find time for riding lessons). And I like having both hands on the reins, although on the other hand I’m a lot more comfortable with the way one uses the reins in Western riding. The guide keeping up the rear of our little group told me I could shorten the reins about a dozen times that morning.

So now that I’ve bored the heck out of everyone who doesn’t ride with that little comparison, that’s the end of my Killarney adventure. I didn’t want to leave, and I had wanted to go back up before now and explore the Park some on foot, but that didn’t happen. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance now or not.

* The best of these that I remember was a story of uncertain factuality about this trio of robbers/highwaymen/outlaws of some sort or another (I missed the beginning of this story, so I don’t have the details) that are on the run and end up hiding out up in the hills somewhere with two sheepherders who “were very good friends… if you get what I’m saying.” After a while the outlaws get too comfortable and start using their real names, and the shepherds figure out who they are and tie them up in their sleep and hand them over to the law. And, said our driver/guide, if there’s truth in that story, “it must be the only time in history that two queens have beaten three jacks.”

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