Friday, August 29, 2008

One Year Later

Well, it's been one year since the end of my relationship with Sachiko. It still feels weird. It's refreshing to know that my life didn't stop then. Honestly, life is pretty darn good, and in many ways probably better than it would have been. Still, I sometimes wonder what that version of my life would have been... and heaven knows that sometimes I still miss living in Japan.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jaunting Cars

The morning of our last full day in Ireland some members of the group awoke early so we could take a trip via traditional jaunting cars, small horse drawn wagons. Motor vehicles aren't allowed in Killarney National Park, so if you don't want to walk, the jaunting cars are they only way to go.

The trip through the town to the park was rather comical, its not often you have a series of horse drawn carts clomping along the main thoroughfare, backing up morning rush hour!

Inside the park we got wonderful views of Lough Leane and the nearby Ross Castle. Lough Leane is one of the three Lakes of Killarney and the nearest of the three to the city. We were quite glad to have opted to wake up early, some members of the group slept in, but they missed a very fun excursion.

We were back at the hotel after about an hour, and then it was off on the 100 mile trek of the Ring of Kerry.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Plague of Hippies

The Democratic National Convention has taken over Denver this week, so I figured I'd take a quick break from European coverage and look at what's going on right on my front door.

Everything is centered right downtown, which happens to be where I work, so I've been dealing with convention goers all week. Luckily, while there are a TON of people, by and large I haven't been impacted by things. No riots outside the door. Yet anyway.

What most people notice (besides the police presence and the hordes of Hilary supporters) is the sheer press of humanity. Seriously, I feel like I'm living in a CITY, and not just plain old Denver. I've never seen the central business district so busy in all my life. I have to admit, its even kind of exciting. Though the hippie protesters are pretty annoying. Thankfully, they seem to be concentrated in areas away from my office building and the light rail station.

And now back to your regularly scheduled Ireland.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Load of Blarney

Our final stop that day was Blarney Castle, Ireland's most famous tourist attraction. We had the misfortune to arrive at the same time as a couple of other coach-loads full of tourists, so the trip through the castle was rather like standing in a very long line.

The castle is largely a ruin, only rooms that had stone floors and ceilings are still intact. Any area that used wood is long collapsed, so the central core of the structure is open to the elements. The narrow stone stairways were still in tip top shape though, as were the battlements ringing the summit.

Once on the top, everybody got to lean over and kiss the Blarney Stone, bestowing the "gift of gab" on all the lucky stone smoochers. Despite rumors I have heard about what the locals do to the stone after hours (rumors I discounted looking at the security of the place), I went ahead and gave the rock the requisite kiss.

While it was a fun experience, the severe overcrowding kind of lessoned the pleasure considerably. I like time to wander and explore at my own pace, but the line up the stairs to the battlements made that difficult to do. The fact that I couldn't find a replacement tweed cap to the one my sister pinched from me was also a letdown. Who knew that a suitable snap brim green tweed cap would be so difficult to find in Ireland?

Looking around town I noticed that there is still a bit of Republican zeal in Ireland, which in these days of peace seems a little odd.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Rock of Cashel

We left Dublin early the next morning for (another) long day on the bus. Our first stop was the fortified cathedral called the Rock of Cashel. I missed seeing Cashel on my first trip through Ireland, so I was very excited to get another chance.

As we drove along the low rolling hills in County Tipperary, we came around a corner and saw The Rock perched high above the surrounding plains on a limestone outcropping. Cashel is an interesting site, as the Cathedral has a fortified castle keep attached to one side, and the whole area is walled.

Cashel used to be the seat of the Kings of Munster, and is said to be the site where St. Patrick converted the Kings to Catholicism. In later years the site was given over to the church, and became the ecclisiastical center of Ireland.

The site was sacked by Parlimentarian troops in 1647, and fell into disuse. In modern times some restoration work has been undertaken, but the stark outline of the roofless cathedral is quite the contrast to the other cathedrals I saw on the trip.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Auld Dublin Town

The next day we started early with a guided bus tour of Dublin. Our local guide was amazing, he was super knowledgeable about his city, and he constantly found ways to tie Dublin to America. This really helped the kids relate to what could have been a boring chronicle of a city's famous sites. I am sure the fact that they also learned some history was purely unintentional. The first stop on the tour was some of Dublin's famed Georgian houses, one of the largest concentrations of Georgian architecture left in the world.

We also got a guided tour of St. Patrick's Cathedral, and again the guide impressed me with his deep knowledge both about the Cathedral and about the nation's history. Interesting fact, the statue outside of St. Patrick's is NOT the patron saint himself, but rather a member of the Guinness family! It recognizes the effort and money that the Guinness's put into rebuilding the Cathedral after centuries of use and abuse (some at the hands of Oliver Cromwell, who stabled his horses there.) Of course, an argument could be made for Arthur Guinness being the patron saint of Ireland.

Our tour took us past the General Post Office (GPO) which was the headquarters of the Easter Rising in 1916. Padraig Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic on the steps of the GPO on the morning of April 24th. They lasted through six days of fighting and shelling, but Irish nationalism was no match for English artillery. The center of Dublin had been shattered, and the ringleaders were all shot, a move that actually cemented their place in Irish lore and set the country on the path towards self rule. On a side note, this photo was taken from the bus and the color was tinted by the bus window, though through the magic of Lightroom I managed to save it.

Our last stop was Trinity College and the Book of Kells. Few people on the tour had heard of the Book of Kells before we stopped there, but everybody was entranced by the delicate illumination. I was impressed, and I had seen the Book back in 2000! After that, we had the afternoon at liberty, so I decided to head out to the National Gallery for a spell, and the cross the Ha'penny bridge to seek out the Old Jameson Distillery. I really enjoyed the tour, and it gave me a deeper appreciation for what goes into crafting Jameson, and Whiskey in general. We did a taste test at the end, and Jameson came out ahead of Jack Daniels, though the Johnny Walker Black Label was a tie. I like the peaty flavor of Scotch.

Having some time to kill I swung back by the GPO so I could feel the bullet holes and see the history up close.

A quick stroll down the trendy shopping district of Grafton Street, and it was off to dinner. We had but one more night in Dublin, and it was back on the bus the next morning, bound for Kilarny in the south-west of Ireland.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ferries, Coaches, and Very Long Names

After a delicious lunch of Cornish Pasty at Beaumaris, we piled back in the motor coach for a trip to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. This tiny Welsh village is famous for having the longest name in the UK, and one of the longest in the world, though the full name of Bangkok claims that particular record.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a total tourist trap. Coach-loads of vacationers disembark to buy souvenirs, stamp their passports, and have their photographs taken next to the railway sign. There are even workers who will come onto the coach dressed in traditional Welsh garb and pronounce the name for the admiring masses. Interestingly enough, the name itself is the result of a late 19th century publicity stunt! They wanted to have the longest named railway station in the UK, and so tacked on the extra words. The original name was merely Llanfair Pwllgwyngyl.

After a brief time to stretch and gawk, we boarded our English coach for one last time. Our destination was the port of Hollyhead. Taking the ferry from Hollyhead to Dublin was a pretty interesting experience all around. I've taken trains, planes, and more, but never a car ferry. The three hour journey across the Irish Sea went fairly quickly, especially because you could wander around at will, and scope out the observation deck.

The Port of Hollyhead

As we drew closer to Ireland, we had a few jet skis playing in the wake.

And then, our first glimpse of Ireland! Everybody in the group was pretty excited to see the Emerald Isle, and I was very excited to return to the site of my first ever trip overseas. I wouldn't be doing what I do today without that trip, and I was curious to see if after so many years of travel could quaint little Ireland still interest me.

I was to find that the answer was both yes and no...

Saturday, August 16, 2008


Our hotel in Llangollen was a bit of a local hot spot, so that night saw a huge birthday party in one of the hotel bars. The party was pretty legendary, lasting until around 4 am. This came back to haunt our group, as the birthday boy had parked his car right in front of our motor coach! The hotel clerk had to call a relative in to move the car, and then we were on our way to Beaumaris.

Located on the island of Anglesey, Beaumaris is one of four fortresses, along with the castles of Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, that were built by Edward 1st of England to ring around the high mountain strongholds of Welsh Snowdonia.

Beaumaris was the final of the four, and is considered one of the most perfectly designed castles in all of Britain. While the design is perfect, Beaumaris was never finished.

Construction began in 1294, and as we all know from Braveheart, Edward's priorities soon began to shift away from the freshly pacified Welsh to the increasingly restive Scottish. The massive expense of building such a large fortification was no longer necessary, so the primary construction ceased in 1298, though some further work was undertaken later.

The massive gatehouses and inner keeps were never raised to their full height, but even so the fortification is pretty impressive. The castles of Master James of Saint George were known for their multiple defensive layers, making them very difficult to assault. Each of the four also contained a water based sally port, enabling resupply in the event of a siege. Harlech once withstood a seven year siege because of the ocean access.

Back in college I actually wrote an paper on Edward's castles for my English History course. Back in 2002 I wrote that:

Beaumaris was begun in 1294, after a second Welsh Rebellion. It had an outer wall with a moat and gatehouse, with a much higher inner wall. This allowed two sets of defenders, while still providing a point of retreat if the outer wall was breached. The inner wall also had a heavily fortified gatehouse, which set to the side of the outer gatehouse. Any army that made it that far would have to turn directly right and parallel a tower, all the while getting hit from the defenders above. The effort put into the construction of these castles was immense. During the construction of Beaumaris in 1296 James of St George oversaw “400 masons, 2000 labourers, 200 quarrymen, 30 smiths and carpenters, 100 carts, 60 wagons, and 30 cargo boats.”

The tour director found out that I had written about the castle, so I got to do the bus commentary as we drove towards it. I only faintly remembered what I had read back in school, but with a little bit of wikipedia to refresh my memory, I did all right. Perhaps being a tour guide really is my true calling...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


After our very long day we finally arrived in our destination for the night, Llangollen. This sleepy little town in the Welsh countryside offered one remarkably interesting attraction, the ruined castle of Dinas Bran. The steep hill above Llangollen has been fortified since the Iron Age, but the current ruins date to the Welsh Kingdoms that existed shortly before Edward I's conquest of Wales in the 1200's.

Immediately after dinner we struck out for the summit, despite the late hour and light rain. Luckily, shortly after we left town we met a local family out for a walk, and the mother offered up her sons, and dog, to escort us up the path. We were most lucky to have their assistance, as the path was not always clear, and we would surely have gotten lost.

The views from the summit, through mist and rain, were wonderful. While the light wasn't quite enough for really good photography, it was enough for us to revel in the vistas surrounding the hill.

I've seen a fair number of castle's in my time, and I have to admit that Dinas Bran is one of the worst preserved ruins I've happened across! The centuries have whittled away at the stout stone walls, and not much now remains of the fortification. In some ways though, that fact makes the castle an even more compelling place, with sinuous half-walls and gaping holes that are much more romantic than a fully restored castle would be.

As we were jogging home through the oncoming gloom and still misting rain, our Tour Director, who was waiting back at the hotel, was getting worried. She had a cell number for one of the group, and called him for a status report:

American: "Hello..?"
Irish Tour Director: "Josh, you must come down from the mountain! Its getting dark and the mist is coming!"
American, very sleepy and confused: "What...?!?!"

Some poor soul in Indiana with a very strange sleep schedule and a cell phone number very close to our Josh's got the strangest phone call of his life!

This is a view of the ruins peeking through the fog the next morning.

We were up early, and departed quickly for we had another long day ahead of us, traveling from Llangollen all the way to Dublin!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Stratford upon Avon

The Tour's next stop on our drive to Wales was Stratford upon Avon, famous worldwide for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Right outside of town is Anne Hathaway's cottage, where Shakespeare's wife was born, raised, and courted. The cottage was in the hands of her family up until fairly recently, and has been a tourist stop for a very, very long time.

The cottage itself is a very interesting look at how people lived back in the 1500's, perfectly preserved and recently re-thatched. Another draw is the beautiful gardens around the grounds. It was a great chance for us to get a glimpse of the English countryside.

There was also a "woods walk" that I took the opportunity to stroll through. Very different than the kind of woods we see in the Rocky Mountains.

Even the more modern structure of the (ubiquitous) gift shop was blended in with the historical setting.

After a quick visit to William's birthplace in downtown (so to speak) Stratford, we had some time to grab lunch and meander the town. I had the chance to say hello to some Swans and their cute little "ugly ducklings" down by the river.

Stratford was interesting, but it was much more touristy and less beautiful than Oxford, so while I enjoyed our hours there, I was ready to leave when it was time to get on the bus for the last portion of our drive.