I've never been as exhausted as I was at the end of our first day in Ireland. I couldn't have been more thrilled to share the exhiliration and the exhaustion with one of my closest friends from high school—Kara. We drove almost 600 kilometers, walked several miles, and had been awake for 32 hours straight that day—but there's no doubt that I'd live it all over again.
The plan was to get into Ireland Saturday morning, but given an overbooked Aer Lingus flight and an offer of $700 to fly out the next day, we landed in Dublin Sunday morning instead. We lost a day of travel time and the stay in our first castle hotel, but we weren't too broken up about getting reimbursed the cost of more than half of our trip.
From the first Irish we spoke with, I knew I was going to have a pleasant time in Ireland. The airports police officers were friendly and smiling, and the first thing our rental car shuttle driver did was give the whole van general tips about Irish culture and directions to where each of us were headed that day. Since we lost so much travel time bumping our flight, we covered the most ground that first day—heading straight to the Irish countryside after we picked up our car.
I had been warned about the driving situation—left side of the road and right side of the car and such—but that was easy to get used to. It was the narrow country roads, confident Irish drivers, and lack of a hard shoulder that gave us tense muscles and a firm grip on the wheel the entire time we were in the car. Never in my life have I been more comfortable driving on the highway than on back country roads. But I have to say, I was impressed with how well our little Škoda Octavia did on gas mileage. We drove more than 2,000 kilometers that week and only had to fill up three times.
Driving through Ireland's countryside was disappointingly similar to driving through Indiana's countryside. Sheep replaced cattle as mossy stone walls did fields of corn, but the landscape had the familiar green fields interrupted by groves of dormant trees. But the views and my sentiments changed once we got to Wicklow Mountains National Park.
Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough Monastic Site
Hiking through the idyllic park made you wonder if it was the kind of place mythical beings roamed. It wasn't hard to picture fairies playing in the boulder-laden brooks or gnomes hiding behind mossy, hillside tree trunks. Nessie could have just as likely been visiting from Scotland, gliding beneath the lake's choppy surface.
Coming upon the ruins of a monastic site brought on emotions of a more reflective kind. Walking through the doorways of the ancient ruins, I wondered about those who lived there when the walls were intact—and I envied them. Well, I envied their home and how it became a natural extension of the landscape. I thought about what our buildings today would look like once we've outgrown them, and pictured ugly rusting skeletons of structures; obtrusive eyesores that don't belong.
These ruins belonged here, somehow. Maybe it was the way moss covered the stones and grass grew through the cracks in the walls—almost as if nature was welcoming the structure as a part of the scenery.
We wandered silently until we found ourselves back at the parking lot, where we had some surprisingly delicious homemade squash soup from one of the food stalls.
Coming to Ireland, I had no concept of what the Blarney Stone was—I just knew it was something I had to kiss. I didn't learn about it's history and supposed powers of gifting eloquence until I was in line to hang upside down and kiss it.
I think I enjoyed the journey to the Blarney Stone more than I did actually kissing it. We walked up this tiny spiral staircase, exploring the different floors and rooms and the courtyard of Blarney Castle on the way up.
I was glad we went later on a Sunday afternoon because—well, mainly because it wasn't busy at all—but also because the castle was stunning at that time of day. The sun shone just enough into the castle windows and onto its moss-covered walls to make the rooms glow golden. It made roaming through a Medieval castle that much more enchanting.
The Blarney Stone is located at the very top of the castle, where we found lots of wind on the open terrace. We only had to wait behind a few people before we got to where there were two long bars vertically attached to one side of the wall.
We had to grip the bars while leaning back upside down into the gap between the floor and the wall to kiss the Stone at the base of the broken wall. There was a man there who helped lean us down and make sure we didn't fall or lose any belongings...and to make sure we actually kissed the right stone.
After kissing the stone, we walked around the castle grounds for awhile—exploring the castle's dungeon cave, wandering tentatively through the Poison Garden, and appreciating the natural beauty of the two rivers that run through the grounds and meet beneath the castle.
Dinner in Cork
Since we were so close to the strongly recommended city of Cork, we had dinner there. I liked how vibrant the city was. Colorful blocks of buildings lined the streets and the city seemed to be where all the 20- and 30-somethings lived.
We planned to try a place called the English Market, but it was closed so we wandered until we came across something that looked decent. We each devoured a plate of fish and chips at a bar called Brick Lane and stopped by a café to grab a coffee for our long drive to our first castle hotel, Lough Rynn.