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May 24, 2006: Ireland Trip - Ring of Kerry

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We decided to try to get onto the road as soon as possible this morning, since the guidebooks warned that going either early or really late was the best way to avoid getting stuck behind buses on the Ring of Kerry. I'm not sure if we were successful in that; we did end up getting stuck behind a few from time to time, but either we missed the majority of them, or there just weren't that many on the road to begin with; either way, it wasn't really a problem.

We weren't the only ones wanting an early start, as evidenced by the fact that every guest in the B&B showed up for breakfast as early as we did. We ended up sitting with a mother and daughter traveling together, so the four of us had fun talking about getting lost on the roads traveling around Ireland.

The route along the Ring is gorgeous, of course - all rocky hills and lakes and the occasional ruin of a stone building here and there. The more open areas looked almost desolate at times - only a house here and there, amid the lines of the crumbling stone walls, but then you'd round a corner and be confronted with bright splashes of color, making it clear you were entering a town well used to the traffic of tourists. Pastel paints for the buildings along the main streets of the towns along the Ring were the norm.

We followed the Ring for the most part down the northernmost leg of the route, stopping very briefly in the first town to get some coffee (since my sinuses decided that ten days without a flare-up was more than long enough and decided to attack with a vengeance. Alas, their plans to ruin my day were thwarted, since I came prepared with plenty of sinus meds, but I needed something to wash the pill down). That particular stop was a bit interesting. We stopped at a tiny little combination gas station / grocery store, and I asked if they had a restroom I could use. The guy I was talking to hesitated and looked meaningfully at a man and his daughter who were just leaving the store; only when they were out of earshot did he tell me that they were having to screen who they allowed to use the store's restrooms. I didn't quite follow the whole explanation, due to the heavy accent, but Richard got more out of them later. It turns out that a caravan of gypsies had moved into town the night before (we passed their campers as we drove out of town) and they didn't want them to be coming in and milling about in the back where the restrooms were located. This also explained why it was that as we drove into town, a number of the parking lots had cars parked so that they blocked the entrance. I assume this was to prevent the gypsies from deciding to move camp into those lots (they'd set up camp in parking lots across from the store where we stopped).

We took a few detours away from the main route fo the ring on the advice of the guidebook, and weren't disappointed either time. The first was a detour toward Portmagee, to go to the Skellig Information Center, which included some displays about the lighthouses in the area, and a short film on the tiny little monastery established in the 600's by Saint Finnian on Skellig Michael. The skelligs themselves are tiny little islands not really meant to be inhabited by humans, since they're steep and extremely rocky and mostly serve as habitats for birds and a few species of extremely tenacious plants. But they're isolated and inhospitable and thus must have been completely irresistible to the monks, since at that time monks were big into that kind of thing. So they established a tiny little colony on the top of the largest one, which still stands, many structures still intact even though it was eventually abandoned by the 12th century. There are tiny little stone huts, and fences, and of course a little chapel, and through sheer determination and who knows how many years of hard work they also constructed hundreds of steps out of stone up to their little rocky perch.

We next followed the Ring of Skellig through Portmagee and up an extremely steep and narrow little road to what one of the guides at the Information Center told us was the highest point one could get in Ireland by car. He also noted rather apologetically that the views were gorgeous from up there, when it wasn't raining. Ah well. As we came down the other side of the hill we could see a full view of that area of the peninsula, and off in the distance, barely visible through the mists, were the skelligs.

One of the reasons for taking this particular detour off the main Ring road was to visit the Skellig Chocolate Factory, which is just a bit south of Ballinskellig. It's a tiny little white building that looks nothing at all like a factory, but inside, there was the heavenly aroma of chocolate, and behind the counter there were four or five women all busy with various phases of chocolate production. One stopped when she saw us and proceeded to lay out samples of their entire line of truffles and brittles and then rattled off a string of items and prices. The chocolates were delicious - not too sweet (a big plus for me since I prefer dark chocolate to milk) and the flavors all subtle enough to not overwhelm. So naturally we had to buy a tin of assorted truffles, because one does not pass up on handmade chocolates, especially at those prices. Yum!

We rejoined the Ring at Waterville, where we also stopped to get lunch (or rather, a snack) at a cute little shop that seemed as if it had been set up in someone's living room. The shop served a variety of scones and cakes, as well as coffee and tea, so we had coffee and cake and enjoyed the chance to just sit somewhere that wasn't in a moving vehicle.

We took one more detour on our drive around the Ring; this one to see Staigue Fort. It's an old Ringfort that was built more than 2000 years ago, which is kind of awe-inspiring right there, to walk into something that's been around such a long time. It's only reachable up an extremely windy and narrow road- perhaps the narrowest road we've been on, since it really was only wide enough for one car, yet was meant for two-way traffic. It was easy enough to find, though, and while the sign on the gate said we were to pay a 'trespassing' fee, we couldn't figure out where, or to whom, we were supposed to offer money, so we just gave up and went in. We were met by an extremely talkative sheep, who followed us to the entrance to the fort, and then proceeded to share his opinion with us pretty much the entire time we were inside.

The fort itself consists of just the outer stone wall; any dwellings inside would have obviously long ago disappeared. But it's an amazing thing to see, if only because the entire thing was built using the dry wall method - stones piled on top of each other, and no mortar at all. The walls at their highest stood about 6 meters tall and were about 4 meters thick, plus they'd worked in stairways and platforms all around the inner side, obviously meant so that people could climb up and look out (sentries, or soldiers, perhaps).

After the fort we rejoined the Ring once again and continued along it back to Killarney. The road passes through Killarney National Park, and there were some places to stop and enjoy the amazing views of the lakes and valleys, but by this time we had realized that both of us were in desperate need of getting some laundry done, and if we went directly back to Killarney we might still have a shot at getting to a place before they closed. So we zipped back into the B&B, got directions from the owner for the closest location, which turned out to be a dry cleaners, but they pointed us somewhere else, and after circling through the main part of town a few times, we eventually tracked it down and I dashed inside and dropped off bags of laundry while Richard stayed in the car and pretended he was a taxi (we had to park in the taxi queue). We won't be able to pick it up again until tomorrow morning, but the timing still works out so that it shouldn't cause too many delays on our way north.

So now it's off to dinner, and to some more wandering around Killarney. Rumor has it that there are actually more than one stores in town where I might find yarn, and Richard's on the lookout for some books, so as long as the rain doesn't get any worse than it is, I think we'll have fun.

Pictures are uploaded (not very many today) from our tour of the Ring of Kerry.

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