Stonehenge


Usually as a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours I am based in Ireland visiting wonderful and special places there such as Glendalough, The Giants Causeway or The Cliffs of Moher. But I do occasionally guide in Britain and Europe.

This is a retrospective account of one of the highlights of a Real Britain trip I guided in the winter of  2018. With lockdown measures easing throughout Europe, hopefully we will be back travelling again soon but for now I must satisfy my traveling desires by looking back and remembering the wonderful places I have visited both as a travel director and in my own personal travels.


We visited Stonehenge towards the beginning of the trip on a grey, cloudy day. The approach to Stonehenge is decidely odd. It sits right next to a motorway and the juxtaposition of the motorway with the ancient ruins of Stonehenge is a little unsettling, But it is the modern world with its noise and hypermotion which appears as a stranger in the landscape, although happily there are plans to use a tunnel to remove the imposition of traffic on this wonderful heritage site.

 

 

There the ruins sit, minding their own business, an unlikely but definite echo of the past.

But what was that past like ? This is one of the many question that Stonehenge evokes. The question sits in the mind; an enjoyable, wallowing, wonderment as we allow our imagination to evoke for us what Stonehenge might have been all about in ages past.

Facts, myths and conjecture all roll into one very quickly here so I will separate them out and allow you to enjoy the mystery and  the sense of wonder that enthralls so many people on a visit here.

Facts:

Stonehenge sits as part of a wider complex of (mostly buried) neolythic structures which include earthworks, burial mounds and wooden henges. The complex of structures was originally constructed over an approximate millennium dating from 2600 bc to 1600 bc.

The famous part of the site known as stonehenge is a ring of standing stones, capped in part by other large stones. The stones are up to 25 tons in weight and originate many miles away Wales although we don’t know how they arrived at their current location with theories ranging from land transportation, river transportation, sea transportation and even glacial flow to the vacinity of the site all hypothosized as potential  modes of transportation. In any event the erection and transportation of these stones is something of a mystery and points to impressive engineering and technological skills for the era.

Myths:

Given the paucity of facts, myths relating to Stonehenge are as rich as the human imagination. The most well known fable relating to Stonehenge is that  the stones were transferred from Ireland by Merlin, the famous wizard of English folklore. Another myth held that they were constructed by invading Danes and yet another that it was constructed ( or at least used) by the Romans. More modern myths also attach to the landscape as a site of alien visitation.

Conjecture:

While exploring and enjoying myths is fun and informative, it is also intriguing to explore imaginative conjecture in relation to Stonehenge and use the facts, historical context and indeed myths to gain an imaginative insight into Stonehenge.

While their place in the English landscape has remained unchanged, their place in the English folk imagination has shifted with the centuries, reflecting the times.

There are many competing theories about the original purpose of Stonehenge and it has drawn curious visitors since the advent of recorded times, including the Romans who may have used it also for ceremonial purposes

Many experts believe it was primarily created as a burial place while others believe it was a place of spiritual or ritualistic ceremony. It famously alligns with both sunrise on the summer solstice and sunset in the winter solstice so it may have been a site of celestial observation leading others to posit that it served as a sort of primitive scientific observation point with probable strong superstitious and ceremonial overtones.

It is also believed by some experts that it was a place of pilgrimage with the purpose of healing, a sort of prehistoric Lourdes, drawing pilgrims in search of healing throughout the mellenia.

When we consider that it took over a thousand years to construct the site and that it has stood there for over three thousand years, we must also consider that it served many of these different purposes over time.

Stonehenge is often considered a “Celtic” monument but for reasons that merit  another blog post(and will be covered shortly), the term Celtic is a misleading term loaded with too much political and cultural weight too have any meaning here. It is more accurate to say that Stonehenge grew from a neolythic ( late Stone Age) civilisation native to North West Europe including Britain, Ireland, and parts of France and Spain.  It has many similarities with other neolythic sites in Ireland such as Newgrange and Knowth and sits in a landscape rich in the mycellium circles which are known as “fairy rings” or “fairy forts” that are so rich in mystical and mythological associations throughout Northern Europe, Britain and especially Ireland right to this day.

That it still stands is a minor miracle and that it acts as a stimulus to think deeply about our past is enough to draw us into an imaginative contemplation of our future. The motorway sits as a sort of absurdist comment on our high velocity present. But the question remains to be wallowed in and enjoyed, where are we going? To me, stonehenge asks this question.

If you visit bring your imagination !

Alan is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.


A day trip to Charlesfort

 

 

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Ordinarily at this time of year I am busy guiding with Trafalgar Tours and bringing guests to all parts of the country but I am blessed to have many beautiful and indeed historic spots close to home also. One such spot is Charlesfort, an ancient coastal fortification situated adjacent to the little village of Summercove in the kinsale hinterland.


We are still pretty restricted in our movements here but the weather is beautiful and the coast is always a big draw for locals in the nice weather. It was great to see so many kids and teenagers cycling around and enjoying the great outdoors. I hope that they will have many happy memories of this strange interlude in all our lives.

Charlesfort was built during the reign of Charles ii, between 1677 and 1682, and sits across the harbour from Jamesfort, an older fortification dating from the early years of the 17th century ( built 1602-07). It was essentially built to cement the rule of British rule in Ireland. Spanish troops had occupied Kinsale in 1601 prior to the Battle of Kinsale and Ireland’s coast was seen as especially vulnerable to attack by either French or Spanish forces who the Catholic Irish felt much affinity with. Indeed the French did send troops to Kinsale in 1689 in support of the Catholic claimant on the British crown, James ii –  ultimately defeated by William of orange at the battle of the Boyne in 1690. Subsequent to this, the city of Cork and then Charlesfort, home to defeated Jacobite troops, were successfully besieged by the Williamite forces. The defeated Jacobite troops were ultimately given safe passage to Limerick and then on to Europe but as we say in Irish – sin sceal eile ( thats another story ).

It was designed by William Robinson and contains elements of a star fortification and was built as a fortification against sea invasion. The star fortification gave greater protection from cannon and the position at the mouth of the harbour gave control of the harbour. It was, however, vulnerable to attack from the land as proved by the Williamite forces in 1690. The walls are hugely impressive and up to six meters thick in places and would have been constantly patrolled. It is nice to visit Charlesfort as the imagination can really fill in the blanks and bring you back in time to the 17th century.

The fort remained a military installation under British control until the Irish war of independence in 1921 and was then burned in 1922 during the Irish civil war. Another sceal eile !

But the dramatic history of Charlesfort has yet another colourful and dramatic when it briefly became home to a hippie community in the 1960’s which prompted the state to become more involved in the managing of the heritage site and bringing it under the management of the office of public works who manage a visitor centre on-site as a tourist attraction. Of course it is closed at present but it is still a wonderful place to visit affording beautiful views of the ocean, a nice swimming spot at high tide and a lovely walkway off to the left of the fort. For access to the swim spot and the walk, simply park your car and navigate around to the left of the fort down to the sea. You couldn’t miss it !

Here are some photo’s from around the fort.

Alan is a travel director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


 

 

A visit to Glendalough

 

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Glendalaugh is a beautiful valley in the heart of Wicklow. It is famed both for its monastic heritage and natural beauty. I have been there many times as a tour guide but I wanted to visit myself to explore the hiking trails more extensively.

We had a beautiful sunny morning to explore the hiking trails and the beautiful scenery. The beautiful winter sunlight and cool, windless day gave us a glimpse of Glendalaugh at its peaceful, tranquil best.

There is an air of contentment and ease about the place on mornings like this that is irresistable. The water in the lakes was still and gave a beautiful mirror like surface to the splendid valley. The clear sky and winter sun lent a majestic, generous light. I always find sunny, winter days to be magical. There is a preciousness about that brilliant, winter light that is absent in the longer summer days and the cooler air invites more vigorous exercise. But there is no real cold here yet. Our mild autumn had not yet given way to winter.

So a perfect day for a hike !

 

 

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With the luxury of time, we were able to explore the longer white trail around both lakes, which gives way to a steeper climb towards the further reaches of the valley and then returns along the cliff, giving beautiful views of the lakes at the heart of the valley.

Glendalaugh is named after these two gorgeous lakes., from the Irish Gleann an dha locha which translates as the Glen of the two lakes. It is very much associated with St. Kevin who lived as a contemplative saint and mystic here in the golden age of Celtic Christianity in the 6th century.

He did have a moody and perhaps even murderous side to him however ! St. Kevin was a famously handsome and charismatic figure and it seems that his quest for a silent, contemplative life were constantly interrupted by a local population that was in thrall to his ways. Young women were particularly persistent and most persistent of all was a young lady by the name of Kathleen of the green eyes. Undeterred by Kevins rejection of her, she continued to pursue him until one day in a fit of rage Kevin threw her into the lake where she drowned.

The valley went on to host a large and important monastic community right through the glory days of Irelands monastic tradition when Ireland gained a reputation as Europe’s premier seat of learning and scholarship in the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. During this time much of Europe was in a chaotic state following the decline of the Roman Empire and Irelands relative isolation, peace and respect for learning allowed the monasteries to become repositories of learning and scholarship during this era. Indeed scholars flocked from all over Europe monasteries such as Glendalaugh during this time.

Much of the original monastic settlement remains including the entrance way, the round tower, St.Kevin’s kitchen, a beautiful Celtic cross. All her bathed in myths, legends and stories. For example, it is said that if the central archway falls down, then armegeddon will follow in seven days.

The round tower is a particularly well preserved and impressive construction dating from the 11th century and is one of the finest preserved round towers of its era. It served as both a beacon and a look out tower, allowing pilgrims to locate the monastery and allowing the monks to keep a watchful eye on the surrounding country also.

While, St. Kevin’s kitchen is also nicely preserved, overall we are talking about the ruins of an old settlement. Imagination is essential in bringing it to life. You have to imagine the monks, living, working and praying in this beautiful tranquil valley.

The golden age of Glendalough came to an end with its sack by the Anglo Normans in the 12th century and its subsequent union with the Dublin diocese in 1214. It fell into disuse in 1398 following destruction by English forces. It remained an important local church and remained an iconic site for the local population throughout its history right up to the present and indeed their are accounts of riotous celebrations there on the feast of St. Kevin in the 18th and 19th century.

It remains an icon of Celtic spirituality and the serenity of the lakes and their attendant atmosphere remains special right to this day.

 

 
 
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Alan Coakley is a travel director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland


 

 

 

 

 

 

Powerscourt House and Gardens

 

While tour guiding, I have the opportunity to visit many of Ireland’s most beautiful and renowned places. That certainly includes Powerscourt house located about an hours drive from Dublin. The gardens are beautifully laid out, proportioned and expertly maintained.

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Powerscourt house is located on the site of an original 13th century castle associated with the anglo Norman De Paor (Power) family. As the power of the Anglo Normans receded in medieval times the castle fell under the control of the Gaelic O Tooles. However as the British asserted their authority over Ireland in the late 16th and early 17th centuries the castle confiscated from the O’Tooles and was gifted to Richard Wingfield in 1603, originally given as a leasehold but eventually transferred in full to the family following Wingfield successful campaigns in Ulster in the Northern part of Ireland against the Gaelic O Doherty clan at the same time that he was given the title Viscount Powerscourt by Elizabeth 1.


The house was constructed around the castle in 1741 by Richard Wingfield also the 1st Viscount Powerscourt. The reason he was also the 1st viscount is that the title lapsed on a few occasions and was reawarded to Richard Wingfield in 1735 and he thus shares the title 1st Viscount of Powerscourt as well as his name  with his 17th century ancestor who was the first 1st viscount of Powerscourt. It took me a while to get my head around it too !

Anyway, the house was constructed between 1730 and 1741 under the stewardship of Richard Cassels who aimed to create a great Italian renaissance villa I the heart of the Wicklow hills. In truth the house and gardens to sit rather incongruously amidst the boggy Wicklow hills. If we were to apply the standards of the present to the conception of the house we could easily criticise the design for failing to draw any inspiration at all from its surroundings. It is a dream of Europe set amidst the Wicklow hills but it is a dream come alive and, indeed, why not draw inspiration from Europe?

A further storey was completed in 1787 and it was further altered and upgraded in the 19th century. It was sold to the Slazenger family (of sportswear fame) in 1961 and the original house sadly burnt down in 1974. Although the grounds were beautifully maintained in the meantime, it wasn’t until 1995 that the house was renovated and reconstructed.

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The house itself boasts some very pleasant gift shops but the cafe (run by Avoca) area was busy and overcrowded and even though I had time on my side I choose to forego my coffee due to the long queue.

For me a particular highlight was the rhodedeneuram garden which were a popular feature for estates this type.

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The tower, which really is a faux tower constructed in 1911   , was also a highlight and afforded beautiful views over the grounds.

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Overall, I really enjoyed my visit to the grounds. It is a soothing, peaceful place to visit and we were blessed with the weather.

The video presentation in the house gives some nice historical detail also. It is worth noting that the waterfall is not in the grounds and located about 6km away and has a separate admission. House and garden (adult prices) is Euro10.50, waterfall Euro6 with day tours also available from Dublin some of which combine a visit to Glendalough also..

 

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar tours based in Ireland.


Ko Chang ( andaman coast)

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I’m coming to the end of my trip/holiday now having spent four days on Ko Chang on the Andaman coast ( not to be confused with its more famous namesake in the east)

Getting there: Ranong has an airport but you can get buses to Ranong from Bangkok or Phuket. It is sometimes possible to get overnight buses which help you to catch an afternoon boat, saving the overnight in Ranong.

Long boats serve the island, twice a day and it is approximately a two and a half hour journey and very enjoyable also.

Ranong harbour itself is full of activity, commerce and associated rubbish. Turn a kind eye on this and it is not long before a heavenly visage of islands, sun and sea fill the eye and the mind, soothing our senses and our spirit.

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Ko Chang is a beautiful island, small and lush. There are beautiful beaches, some intact jungles and a relaxed, sleepy vibe that make this a very mellow holiday destination.

It is also free of any large developments. There are no hotels. People stay in little huts made of bamboo or wood, sometimes with concrete foundations. Most of the resorts have restaurants/bars attached serving very good Thai food. Most are located along the bay that features Ao Yai ( long beach)

It is also relatively inexpensive for the quality of experience.

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Here is where I stayed; crocodile rock resort, located at the end Ao Yai beach and bay. (Cost: 500baht per night which is about 12 Euro).

A lovely kuti located right on the edge of the ocean with what felt like my own private beach in front of me. (Hamock and all !) Staff were friendly and genuine and food was great.

I spent my time hiking, jogging, swimming, reading and reflecting.

This is Ao Kai To, where some intact jungle survives.

I had a good day long hike between getting there and the hike itself,  with plenty of rests for reading, relaxing, swimming and a nice lunch on Ao Kai To beach which opens out majestically at the end of the forest trail. It’s not so easy to get to it however. You have to walk to the north of the island, pass the resort called mamas villas, cross the beach and scramble over the rocks where a small sign welcomes you to a nature reserve. The opening ascent is steep and uninviting but it quickly levels out into a pleasant and relatively easy to follow trail.

Jogging was nice in the early morning but even before the heat arrived the humidity discouraged strenous exercise. Most of my running was on the narrow concrete paths and dirt trails that serve as roads here. They are too small for cars and only serve motorbikes.

Much of the island is given over to fruit and rubber plantations and most of my running was through these or along the beach.

Swimming in the gentle, warm waters of the bay was very enjoyable and refreshing also, especially in the hot afternoons although I did get sunburnt on one of my longer afternoon swims.

Heavenly really!

But I’m told, the true beach snobs go to the nearby Ko Phayam which has whiter sand. Hence more development also. Here was beautiful enough for me !

I met some nice folks here too. Tez was a Mongolian new yorker who I had met in Ranong, where I stayed a night before going to the island. He had learned some Mongolian throat singing and allowed me to record a little.

He introduced me to a few more travellers on the island as well and we had some good conversations.

It is a great place for reading and reflecting also and allowed me the chance to gather myself together at the end of my trip and think about the coming year.

But I would like to make clear this is not a party island. It is quiet and tranquil. I did go to a few bars and the music wasn’t great. Alot of dated raggae and bars were mostly quiet. Indeed electricity was sporadic and not always available. So if you want to party – go elsewhere !

My advice is bring a book and sink into the tranquility of the place. I had a great book but “sin sceal eile” ( thats another story!)

You can hear the sea sing, enjoy long walks on quiet beaches, eat well and live easy.

I totally recommend it. It is a paradise, reminding us of our home in nature.

Alan is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


Bangkok

It broke my heart a little to leave Yangon, Myanmar and its tumbledown tranquality behind. The mood is entirely different in Bangkok and it took me a while to adjust to the different spirit of life here.


In aboriginal culture it’s believed that after a journey it takes a while for the spirit to catch up with the body and that was definately my feeling today exploring Bangkok.

I was seeing beautiful places and amazing sights and yet, with no ostensible cause, feeling a bit disconnected and disengaged from them.

I started with a visit to Ko Ratanakosin. It’s the oldest part of the city and home to numerous temples, palaces, museums and markets. Far too many to explore in a single day. Here are a few pictures.

Next, I wandered over to the golden mount which affords some beautiful sights and a panoromic view of the city from the top.

The story of the vultures is interesting. Apparently it was customary leave bodies out for vultures prior to crematation. In the 19th centurt, during a particularly bad cholera outbreak, the bodies were piled high on the golden mount creating a gruesome spectacle as the vultures feasted. This attracted the attention of monks who were drawn to the spectacle as a bracing meditation on impermanence. Now that confounds our cultural expectation of what meditation is doesn’t it!

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Next I took some time to venture off the main path and explore some smaller and delightful alleys and markets as I wandered in the general direction of Wat Phra Kaew and the royal palace. Life and commerce spilling over eternally. The atmosphere was very positive and friendly and I started to feel more in tune with the place (coffee helped!).

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Wat Phra Kaew is the religious enclosure that forms part of the grand palace and is one of Bangkok’s biggest tourist magnets. Beautiful but very crowded. It was a real jostle to get into the ordination hall that houses the emerald Buddha – an important icon of Thai national identity. Originally made in Northern Thailand out of pure jade (and not emerald) in the 15th century. It was carried off to Laos in the 16th century before being returned to Chaing Mai, Northern Thailand by prince Setthathirath who united the thrown of Lao and Lang Zang, an ancient kingdom in Northern Thailand with Chaing Mai as capital. It was subsequently taken to Bangkok in the late 18th century by the forces of the then Siamese military after putting down an insurrection in the North. It has remained in Bangkok as Siam morphed into Thailand, artfully dodging colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries, unlike its neighbours in the region. I will write more on history and politics later. But back to the emerald Buddha…

It sits there shimmering in the beautiful temple as devout Thai’s pray and tourists jostle in a formidable throng.  Photography is forbidden in the hall so I’ve no photo of the inside, but here is the exterior.

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The rest of Wat Phra Kaew is full of beautiful buildings but most are closed to the public. Very pretty.  Here are some photos.

The rest of the buildings in the royal palace are mostly off-limits to tourists but look lovely from the outside. Here are some photos. The palace is spacious and impressive.

It’s all very pretty but to be honest I just wasn’t feeling it. I don’t if it was the throng of tourists, the sweltering heat or tourist fatigue but I just didn’t feel much connection here.

Afterwards I crossed the road and entered a small shrine and simply sat down for a few minutes. I watched the people come in sit, pray and take photographs. It was lovely just to sit there, observe and be part of a more ordinary place and I left connected and balanced again. Here’s a photo.

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If I was feeling more in the mood , I could have gone to Wat Pho with its reclining Buddha, mother of pearl inlay and stone giants but I wasn’t.

A good lunch, a read of my book and it was time to move on. A night bus to Ranong, where I will stay for one night before a few days on the island of Ko Chang ( off the Andaman coast, not to be confused with its more famous Eastern namesake) lie ahead. Best, Alan

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director based in Ireland.


 

A beautiful day in Yangon

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I had a beautiful day today. My mind was cool, calm and happy as I explored the markets and some of the sights.


I went to the markets first. Bogyoke market is a colonial era market set in what is now a tumble down concrete square but with many beautiful shops selling crafts, clothes and jewellery. The sheer scale was exciting to me. So many stalls and goods!

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Next I went to Theingyi Zei market, an older,  more claustraphobic ( if your that way inclined) market described by the Lonely Planet as “a proper Burmese bazaar” . Again the scale of it was thrilling in its way.

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And then I went to “Junction City” a modern day temple of commerce with awful music but some rather nice interior decoration and a Christmas tree.

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And then there were the temples. Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a am er ( how can I put this?) a roundabout.

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Yes thats right -a roundabout. Rimmed with shops, the inside is rather nice and costs three dollars to enter.  After ordering me to take off my shoes a middle aged lady shoved flowers in hand ( for the Buddha) and charging the equivelent of a dollar. I can’t argue (or even bargain) with middle aged Burmese women ( you learn something new every day I guess!).

Nice enough overall but nothing compared with the Shwedagon Pagoda. This was absolutely stunning. About a 40 minute walk from town I first noticed it here after rounding the bend

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The approach across busy streets requires the usual game of dodge the cars but after that……absolute heaven.

On entering the approach is deceptive and lined with stalls ( ssssh don’t tell Jesus) and there is three flights of stairs as you approach the entrance proper. Then its ten dollers in but totally worth it. I really had no idea of the beauty ahead of me and was grousing inwardly about having to pay!

But then, I was in this beautiful place. Everyone was barefoot and the atmosphere was one of quiet joy.

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Absolutely gorgeous. This is the orient of my dreams. Hundreds of temples, statues and pagodas set in a concentric ring with a gold gilded stupa in the middle 99 meters high. Originally built to a height of 18 meters in the 6-8th centuries, it was raised to 40 meters in the 15th century and brought to its current majestic splendour in the late 18th century.

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In a philistine act the British occupied it in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 resulting in vandalism and  pillage and  they and dug a tunnel under the stupa to see if it could store gunpowder. They occupied it again from 1852-1929 following the second Anglo-Burmese war. The Portugese also tried to make off with a bell tower in 1605. He wanted to melt the bell down to make canons but it fell into the river in transit. The same thing happened when the British tried to make off with a bell in the 19th century.

But somehow the stupa survived the Europeans.

Later in the 20th century it became a focal point for both nationalism and later for pro democracy demonstrations also. It is a strong symbol of Myanmar and loved by the people.

It was very special to be there. There were many people, both monks and lay people praying and chanting. I had a very pleasant meditation myself there also.

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And tomorrow I will go to the monastery until the new year. I hope to do one more post before then. Thanks for reading!

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


Blarney Castle

Blarney castle with its famous Blarney stone is high on the agenda for most tourists. The thing to do is to climb to the top of the castle where you lean into the machicolation ( gap between floor opening at top of castle through which oil or projectiles could be hurled at attackers) and kiss the Blarney stone. Kissing the stone itself is supposed to bestow eloquence and persuasiveness and the very word “blarney” now means to waffle aimlessly.


The origin of this dates lies in the 16th century when queen Elizabeth the first sent the duke of Leicester to seize the the stone from the McCarthys who were the Gaelic lords in possession  of the castle at the time.  As the Gaels were firmly defeated at the time and were unable to mount a military defense the best the head of the McCarthy clan could do was stall the queens emissary with excuses and promises etc.  When the queen received the reports from the duke she dismissed the talk of the McCarthy elder as “Blarney”.

The stone itself as a dazzling array of origin stories associated with it including (brace yourself), that it was the famous lia fail stone on which Kings were crowned, that it was taken during the crusades of the middle ages, that it was a gift from Robert de Bruce as a gift to the McCarthys following his help in sending men to assist in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and another tale tells that it is made from the same material rock as that at Stonehenge. The University of Glascow put a dampener on all this “blarney” however when they analysed the rock and found it was made of local limestone in 2014. Ah well.

The grounds of the castle are beautiful and relaxing and contain many interesting plants and includes a poison garden which features mandrake, wolfsbain, ricin, opium and cannabis. The latter are of course illegal in Ireland which goes to show that there is one law for the rich.

The castle is still in private ownership and it has to be said that the castle does not appear to have been refurbished to any extent beyond the minimum required to meet  health and safety, although the gardens are immaculately maintained. On a rainy day , lines of tourists are exposed to the wind and rain as they queue to kiss the iconic stone.

There can be long queues to kiss the stone and if you want to avoid the queues my advice is to go early. This is very much part of the tourist trail and most tourists arrive after travelling from Kilarney in the morning. This means it gets busy from 11/11:30 each morning. If you can get there before then, there is a much better chance that you will not be caught up in large queues. While it can be fun, especially for teenagers, there are often queues and it does make you feel very consciously like a tourist. If there is a cruise ship in town then my advice is to stay away from the castle as the line is prohibitively long. Keep a close eye http://www.portofcork.ie for the cruise ship schedule.

Whatever about the castle though, the gardens are gorgeous, interesting, relaxing and  well maintained.

Entry is 13/5Euro and there is ample parking just opposite in the Blarney Castle hotel and Blarney Woolen Mills car park. The Blarney Woolen Mills shop is very popular with tourists and has really excellent products for reasonably good value. It is a wonderful place to buy Irish clothes and the perfect place to pick up a quality souvenir.

So my advice, if you go, go early and take time to enjoy the grounds as well as the castle.

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


 

Giant’s Causeway


Perched on the North Eastern edge of Ireland, if you travel through the loyalist towns with their Union Jack flags, lies one of my favourite spots in the country, the giants causeway.  
The causeway is a strange looking series of hexagonal basalt column’s that extend a few hundred meters into the ocean. There they sit and have sat for up to 40 million years, withstanding the ocean’s daily assaults and the ice sheets that come along every few thousand years or so. If rocks have spirits it must seem to them that  the ice-age comes every five minutes or so.  
I will tell you where these strange hexagonal rocks came from but the Gaelic myth associated with the causeway is much more fun and I’ll start with that. The story concerns two giants ( with giant sized ego’s! ). On the Irish side of the Irish sea is the mythical giant Fionn MacCumhal. On the Scottish side of the Irish sea is the giant Benandonner. The two get into a ferocious argument and start to threaten each other. Eventually an enraged Fionn decides to settle the argument once and for all. He starts to pick up rocks and hurl them into the ocean to create a path across the sea so that he can cross to challenge Benandonner. When he gets to Scotland however, he realises his mistake as Benandonner is much larger than him. He hightails it back to Ireland and tells his wife, Oonagh, about the trouble he has made for himself. Luckily he has married a clever woman and she invents a plan to save him. She disguises Fionn as a baby and when Benandonner comes looking for Fionn, Oonagh lets on that the infant is their son. When Benandonner sees the size of the baby, he is shocked at the size of the baby and thinks to himself that the father must be a fearsome prospect indeed. He himself then runs back to Scotland as fast as he can and for good measure destroys most of the pathway after him, leaving only the few hundred meters of causeway that are visible today off the coast of Belfast.  
The scientific explanation is actually simpler ! The rocks were formed in volcanic activity from 50-60 million years ago. The molten lava formed a lava bed and as it cooled it contracted into the hexagonal vertical structures we see today.

 

The causeway itself is accessible via a beautiful coastal walk of about 30 minutes from the car park and buses run also which only cost 1£.  If you are able do the walk. It really is a very pleasant stroll and is not demanding. I absolutely love clambering over the  irregular rocks. I always get a giddy thrill from their surreal aspect, jutting out as they are into the ocean. Their black shiny surface sitting in a stony defiance against the ocean is so emblematic of the Ulster spirit !

  
There is a visitor center at the causeway which documents the scientific explanation and how it was arrived it by geologists in the 19th century and there is also a beautiful video installation which chronicles the mythological explanation beautifully. It is well worth a visit but a bit pricey at 10.50£ adult and 5.25£ for a child, with discounts available for groups and families. Also the shops, cafe and toilet facilities are all located inside the visitor center, which you must pay to access.  There are free toilets in the carpark but these are not as pleasant as the ones in the visitor center.  Note that the causeway itself is entirely free.  
   
Important note on Admission and parking:  The National Trust operate the Causeway and charge per adult using the facilities. Visitor center and admission is charged together. This means that if you drive to the visitor center carpark you will be charged 10.50£ /adult for parking and entry to the visitor center.  
But be aware that admission to the Causeway itself is totally free. You can either park at the railway carpark (6£/day) or park in the nearby town of  Bushmills and get a bus to and from  the Causeway.  
For families, I’m going to recommend that unless you are very cost conscious,  that you go ahead and pay for parking and admittance to the visitor center. It is a much more pleasant experience to enjoy the cliffs at your leisure and have access to the visitor center afterwards for bathroom facilities, coffee and, of course, education !.  Family tickets are available for 22.50£.  
If you area  party of adults and are not interested in the visitor center then it makes sense to park for 6£ in the railway park, use the toilet facilities in the nearby hotel and walk to the causeway.  
Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Belfast and Derry. From Dublin travel time is over three hours each way so you will be on the bus for much of the day. From Belfast or Derry, I would argue that the Causeway is an absolute must.

Alan is a Travel director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.


 

Cliffs Of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most visited tourist sites and easily the most visited attraction outside of Dublin. The cliffs themselves rise up to 214 metres above sea level and the sheer vertical descent makes for wonderful, dramatic views. On a clear day one can see the Aaran islands in Galway bay as well as great views of the surrounding ocean and countrywide. They are located on the West Coast of Ireland in the county of Clare and are accessible via day trips from Dublin, Galway or the nearby village of Doolin.


There is a wonderful visitor center that is a beautifully constructed, hobbit like, construction that is built into the hill adjacent to the cliffs. It was opened in 2007 and features geo-thermal heating, solar panels and grey water recycling. Here you will find the Atlantic Edge exhibition which contains a wealth of information about the local geology, coffee shops and shops. Admittance is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking. If you travel by private coach, the admittance fee will usually be covered also.

Cliff walk. There are 20 km. of cliff walks running from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher and down to Liscannor. The stretch from the visitor center to Hags head is about 5km and is doable within an hour and a half, or up to three hours there and back. I’m going to suggest that if you are relatively fit and able this will add immeasurably to your experience of the cliffs. Driving the coast of Ireland is a beautiful experience but to get off-road and feel the elements in your hair and face is a refreshing and bracing experience.  The cliffs are, of course, a major tourist attraction, so the walk will also enable you to escape from the hoardes and have some quiet time with nature in all its splendour. Please be mindful of weather conditions and note that the route is not advisable for children U12. See https://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/plan-your-visit/beyond-the-cliffs/  for more information on these walks.

A note on the weather: The West coast of Ireland has a notoriously changeable climate and it is often foggy or even raining at the cliffs. That too is nature in all its glory ! One can only enjoy the weather one gets. The surly drama of an Atlantic rain storm or watching the fog and mist roll gently up over the cliffs is all part of life here too.

The cliffs are a beautiful, scenic and iconic part of Ireland’s coast but to be honest, much  of Ireland’s West Coast features similar scenic beauty, much of it as breathtaking as the iconic cliffs. So is it worth the trip ?

If you are staying in the vicinity of Galway or Clare then a visit to the cliffs is relatively easy proposition. From Galway the Cliffs are an hour and a half drive but the drive itself is worth the trip as you travel down the coast enjoying wonderful views of Galway Bay,  and drive through the pretty towns of Kinvarra and Doolin. These towns are also well worth stopping in with a pleasant tourist oriented atmosphere in summer and a more local, but always welcoming, feel outside of the tourist season.

From Dublin, the drive to the cliffs is three to three and a half hours across the midlands of Ireland so you won’t enjoy much coastal scenery on route. Of course, if your trip is entirely city based then it can make a welcome break from the city but you do need to ask if it is worth the drive. If you want to get out into nature for a day then I would suggest exploring the possibility of visiting Glendalough or Powerscourt  in Wicklow which are within an hour of Dublin. It is not the Atlantic coast but has its own special magic and you will be able to take more time there because it is nearer. If you are intent on visiting the cliffs, then why not spend a night on the West coast. It will make the whole experience more relaxing and you will have more time to savour rural Ireland.

A note on admission: The cliffs themselves are free but you pay for parking and/or entrance to the visitor center.

Visitor Center Admission: 6Euro/adult, 4.50 Euro Seniors and students, U-16 -free

Getting There:

Driving:

If you are driving, you can park in the car park adjacent to the visitor center. Cost of admittance to the visitor center is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking.

Public Bus:

From Galway or Doolin the 350 bus will get you there and back with plenty of time to enjoy the cliffs. Check out http://www.buseireann.ie/news.php?id=1490&month=May for information.

Cost – 20 Euro approx. return.

Private Coach tours:

Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Galway and Doolin

Alan Coakley is a Travel Director with Trafalgar Tours based in Ireland.