Here I sit, roughly a week and a half after returning from the trip, trying to remember the details and particulars of our last two days in Ireland. So, that I can write this entry and hopefully wrap up our account of that fast and fun ten days. I think that it says a bit about how busy Sarah and I have become, between work, family and general life responsibilities, that it has taken me this long to work through these entries. Entries which, at another point in our life, would have been done the same day we experienced things. But, so it goes, I suppose.
Thursday was our last full day at Jody and Sandeep's house, and -after the more low key previous day- we decide to make a run out West to the wilds of Connemara. Entertainingly, we'd already sort of been out that way a couple of times before, once while rushing Southwest to catch our ferry to Inishmore, and once while hopelessly lost trying to get to the Cliffs of Moher. On neither occasion had we felt like we'd really had a chance to take in the region though, in both cases, we noticed the remote, open bleakness of the area. Though, an appealing bleakness.
This time, following the directions of our trusted Garmin, we set off on the winding backroads, and allowed ourselves to travel farther and farther afield. In Ireland, or at least in this part of Ireland, it's not difficult to feel like you are suddenly in the middle of nowhere. And, sure enough, it wasn't long before we were traveling down nearly one-lane roads, with barely a house, car or even tree to be seen.
At one point, we passed what looked like a farm house that was being used as a staging area for a large film production, and were told later that it was likely people filming Game of Thrones. We had entered the Kingdom of Winderfell.
Eventually our winding road lead us to the tiny village of Leenane, which seemed to be composed entirely of a single strip of pubs and shops, lining a road which overlooks a gorgeous fjord. Stretching out legs, we found a small café that was just opening and dug in for tea, scones and smoked salmon. Refreshed, and with food in our bellies, we headed onward to Kylemore Abbey.
Initially, after our previous hit-or-miss experiences with the kids and castles and/or manor houses, we had ben considering just stopping for the quick photo op at Kylemore Abbey, before heading on to do some hiking elsewhere. But, as we crossed the bridge over Kylemore Lough, and got our first glimpse of the Abbey, it quickly became apparent that we would want to get out and explore a bit.
Kylemore Abbey was initially made by a Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret. Then, in 1920, it was purchased by an order of Benedictine nuns who were fleeing WWI; and -while the location is now popular with tourists- the nuns still reside there to this day.
In addition to Abbey's main building, there is also a small cathedral and a number of other features, including a walled garden. Since the garden lay roughly a kilometer from the house, we decided not to explore inside the abbey house itself, and instead wanders around it's vast grounds, taking in the beautiful lake, the gardens and generally enjoying the sunny day.
After hiking down to the gardens, and taking a shuttle back, it was on to the village of Letterfrack for lunch. Arriving in Letterfrack, we were all in our collective hunger-fugue state, where we were all drifting between cranky, indecisive and confused. Luckily, we discovered the Lodge, another in a string of great little Irish restaurants with a singular focus on locale ingredients.
With lunch in our bellies, and some focus back, it was on to Connemara National Park... which turned out to almost be within walking distance of where we'd parked our car for lunch. Arriving, we selected a three kilometer loop to hike and set off (albeit a little concerned that the kids would make the loop, having already put more than one kilometer under their shoes that day).
At first, I have to admit that I was a little skeptical, as we set of on the train, which began in what appeared to be simple scrubland. Then, the terrain turned more peaty, and then climbed a hill opening up to spectacular views of the coast and surrounding countryside. As for the kids, the did amazingly. In fact, Otto practically ran the last kilometer of the hike, knowing that -at the end- there was a small playground.
Back in the car, we realized that we wouldn't be able to make it to our final destination of the day, Clifton and the Sky Road. The afternoon had passed quickly, and we would have to drive fast to get back to Ballinrobe for dinner.
With the kids crashed out in the back of the car, after their long hike, we raced back across the countryside one last time. Arriving at Jody and Sandeep's place, we were disappointed to find out that Jody was tied up with a work call, and that they would be unable to join us for dinner, but grabbed meal at the cozy Lough Inn, not far from their house.
The next morning, we were up early, packed and -after saying our goodbye's to Jody and Sandeep, we were on our way to Dublin. Neither Sarah, the kids nor I was particularly excited about diving into the 3 hour drive, but our flight home the next day was early, and we had decided to stay at an airport hotel the last night to avoid an early morning scramble. Thankfully, both traffic and the kids were on our side for the entire drive, and we made it back across the width of Ireland with little hassle and barely a complaint from the kids.
Arriving a little after noon, it gave us half a day to explore Dublin. After a week in the countryside, with little in the way of traffic, Dublin was definitely a shock, and I was glad I had now had several thousand kilometers of Irish roads under my belt before navigating it's confusing spidereweb of streets. Our initial impression was that Dublin felt (for lack of a better term) very "blue-collar." The buildings lacked the ornamentation and grandiose architecture that I equate with other European cities and -instead- the predominate builds seemed to be brick factories and storehouses. That's not to say the city was ugly, mind you, but instead it had a very lived in feel that was equal parts honest and charming.
Our first destination was possibly the most touristed place in Dublin: The Guinness Storehouse. It was the Guinness Storehouse that you visited to find out about how Guinness is made, how the pour the perfect pint and -of course- sample the drink itself. But, if you are expecting a folksy old factory, you've got another thing coming to you. Instead of being an old-fashioned brewery, with vats, barrels and piles of hops and barely, the Guinness Storehouse is a state-of-the-art, multi-storied, interactive experience, filled with restaurants, souvenir shops, curio pieces from Guinness' past and more than it's share interactive touchscreens and giant monitors explaining how the beer is made.
The beer itself isn't even made on the premises, so it' snot exactly even a brewery tour. But, it does make up for it through the range of activities. Unfortunately, most of the ones we were really interested in -like how to pour the perfect pint or the chance to taste different Guinness beers- also had prohibitively long lines, since we had two little travelers with us who had little interest in imbibing in beer. So, instead we stuck to the areas that had interesting things for them to look at, before finally heading up to the Storehouses Sky Bar with it's 360-degree views.
The views in the bar were, indeed exceptional, and gave us our one real look out at the layout of the city. And, the complimentary Guinnesses were -likewise- immaculately poured. But, the crowds and restless children soon brought us back down to the ground floor and on to our next location.
A short drive later brought us to a parking garage (my first European parking garage!) a short walk Stephen's Green, one of Dublin's city parks. Our initial plans had been to wander through the park before moving on to Trinity College and it's promises of Harry Potter-esque libraries. But, it quickly became apparent that the kids would be happier with some time at the playground to run free and relax.
Finally, it was on to our last tourist destination of the trip: The 800-year-old Brazen Head. The oldest pub in Dublin. While we knew that the "oldest pub in Dublin" would obviously be a draw for tourists, we were actually surprised by how fun and homey it felt, and how much we enjoyed it. To enter you passed through a courtyard bar, with it's obligatory smokers and revelers, and into the pub itself, which was actually a series of small rooms, each seemingly sporting their own bar. While some rooms were cramped and others more specious, each seemed to have an authentic sense of history to them. One wall, for example was covered with hundreds of patches. Closer inspection of the patches revealed that most of them were patches off of police and fire jackets, left by visitors from the states and other locales. Otto, for his part, slept curled up on the bench next to me, which led to more than one joke with the wait staff about how he'd already had enough Guinness for the day.
While both the Brazen Head and the Guinness Storehouse were tourist draws, it will definitely be the Brazen Head I look back on more fondly.
Done with our dinners, it was time to check in at the airport hotel. After all the events of the day, I think we were actually all sort of looking forward to the predictable comfort of our hotel room. Stella, upon seeing it declared: "It's like staying in a castle, except nice and new."
Then, the next morning it was home again. The flight back was long. Frustrating at time, tedious and times and challenging at time. But, never quite the gauntlet that flying out there was. Movies were watched, hobby-kit-style meals were consumed and the kids eventually nodded off in the final hours before landing. Returning through customs proved challenging since, in the heads of both the kids and us, it was something like 3 in the morning. Otto, having spilled juice on himself in the flight, became the first person I've known to pass through customs not wearing pants.
And then, we were home again.