Sunday, November 22, 2020

Ireland Road Trip: County Cork

Trip date: September 2019

I was driving from The Rock of Cashel, to Kinsale, a small town on the harbor in County Cork. But first I had an appointment at the Jameson Distillery in Midleton. It was only an hour away so I had made a reservation for 2pm thinking that would give me time to arrive early and have lunch before my tour. Nope. 

My map sent me to the working distillery (instead of the site where customers are welcomed). By the time I made it to the correct location I was late for my tour and the restaurant wasn't serving lunch any more. But the folks were great and got me a spot on the next tour so I relaxed with a beer for a few. 

Whiskey has been made on this site, the grounds of the old Midleton Distillery, since 1825. Jameson moved in from Dublin in 1975 and built new facilities to accommodate their expanding offerings; Powers and Redbreast are among the other brands made here. 

Besides making the world's most purchased whiskey, the distillery also boasts the world's largest pot still built in 1825!

The tour was fun with lots of history and also a blind tasting of Scotch, American whiskey, and Jameson. At the end we were led back to the bar and given a choice of whiskey cocktails. I had signed up for the Premier Tasting so was told to wait until someone came to lead me to a private office. Seems I was the only one who had signed up for this tasting so had the whiskey expert, and pours of Jameson Black Barrel, Redbreast 12 Year Old, Powers John's Lane Release and Midleton Very Rare all to myself!

I did a little shopping in their bottle and gift shop and then continued on to Kinsale, my home for the next two nights. 

Kinsale is absolutely charming and I was so happy I had decided to stay here instead of the bigger city of Cork. I found the large public parking lot and right across the street from Pier House B&B (thanks for the fantastic recommendation Natalie B!)

My room was lovely and had a little deck and view of the water. I was starving since I hadn't had lunch, so made my way to the very popular Fishy Fishy for an early dinner of fish and chips. 

The weather was great for a nice walk around town after dinner before heading into Kitty O'Shea's for some traditional music. The bar was quite fun, even if it was about ½ Americans and ½ locals. Even that was fine until someone next to me started talking politics... 

The next morning I had a lovely table in the breakfast room at my BnB and met the owner Anne (her daughter had helped me out the day before). I ordered the small Irish breakfast of fried egg, black pudding, bacon, sausage and tomato. So filling!

My day was pretty full so I got going right after breakfast. The city of Cork was just over 30 minutes away. It was busting down rain the entire drive and once I arrived I found the city much bigger and with more traffic than I had expected, not the best first impression! I made my way to a parking garage (narrowest spaces ever!) and started walking towards the the English Market. Even in the rain I could see that the city was basically an ad for Ireland. Wet cobblestones, flower and ivy covered brick walls, colorful hanging shop signs. Ok Cork, we're good!

I've never met a market I didn't like and the English Market was no exception. I love how the more I travel the more I recognize things (that would still be quite foreign to most Americans). But there are always new things waiting to be discovered! 

There was a case with the region's favorite Clonakilty black pudding in it (the same one my BnB was serving) and also an amazing selection of seafood that was being prepped under a continuous stream of water. It's a small market and doesn't take much time to wander around;  the vendors each have their specialties proudly on display and not all of them appreciated me taking photos (I'm talking about you Stephen's Bacon!) 

Upstairs is the Farmgate Cafe which is known for their use ingredients from the market vendors. I had a really excellent fish chowder with soda bread, the perfect warming lunch for the blustery day!

The rain let up as I was leaving town, just long enough for me to park and take a quick walk along the River Lee. It really is a pretty town, especially down around the river with its series of bridges.
It was another 30 minute drive to my next stop, Cobh which sits on Cork Harbor. St. Colman's Cathedral sits at the top of the hill, looking out over the town and the sea below. It's an impressive sight both inside and out. I was able to park just down the street and took some time to explore. I thought the cathedral was awesome!

Across the street is a row of cute colorful houses which the locals refer to as the Deck of Cards. It's all very pretty even in scattered showers!

For a town of just ~13,000 Cobh has a lot of history. Many Irish-Americans would tell you that there family is from County Cork, but as Cobh was the launching place for over 6 million emigrants County Cork was listed by default if they didn't write in their county of residence. 

Additionally Cobh was the last stop the Titanic made before heading towards America, and ultimately sinking. The town went by Queenstown at the time and didn't change it back until 1922.

At the Cobh Heritage Center I spent the next 45 minutes going thru the exhibits documenting the Irish emigration, including the story of Annie Moore, the first emigrant to go thru Ellis Island. There are also stories of the Australian bound prison ships, or coffin ships as they were called. 

I had made a reservation in advance for €50 to meet with Christy Keating, Resident Genealogist at the center. I  had learned fairly recently that my family on my father's side came from Ireland, County Tipperary. Christy and I sat for almost an hour researching my family. He found the properties that my ancestors owned, and signed records of their tax payments. As my ancestral grandfather came to America in the late 1700's there aren't any records of his passage but it was really cool to find these other records. 

If you are going to be in the area and already have a bit of info on your Irish roots, I highly recommend this!

On the way out of town I stopped at the memorial to the Lusitania, which was bombed off the coast near Kinsale. The marker sits across the street from the original White Star Line office, the company who built the Titanic. 

That was a long but super interesting day. Back in Kinsale I headed to local favorite Dalton's Bar for a pint while I read more about the history of Kinsale and Cobh. Dalton's is a sweet spot with a cozy fireplace, a dogleg room with tables, and super friendly staff. 

After learning that the band that was going to be playing that night was very good and very popular I went for a quick dinner around the corner at Jim Edwards. I ate in the pub side as I wanted to get back for the trad session, dinner was fine but nothing to go out of your way for.

Back at Dalton's the place was packed! One of the locals, Heather, had saved me a seat at her table. Later we were joined by some English guys who had grown up in Kinsale and were back visiting. It was such a fun night of music, hanging out with the locals, rounds of Murphy's (County Cork's local stout) and Jameson backs. I felt properly introduced to pub culture and most likely was a little wobbly when I went home at closing time!

If you ever are in Kinsale please have a pint or three for me at Dalton's.

The next morning I checked out of the Pier House after having a delicious breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. It was absolutely dumping buckets of rain as I was on my way to County Kerry!

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

All photos from County Cork here.

Other posts from this trip:

Country Count #50: Ireland

Out and About in Dublin Town

Michelin Stars and Cocktail Bars in Dublin

24 Hours in Belfast

Ireland Road Trip: County Kilkenny

Ireland Road Trip: Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry

Ireland Road Trip: Dingle Town

Dingle Peninsula Archeology Tour

Ireland Road Trip: Cliffs of Moher and Galway

Aran Islands Day Trip

Ireland Road Trip: County Mayo

Ireland Road Trip: End of the Road; Sligo to Dublin

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Ireland Road Trip: County Kilkenny

 Trip date: September 2019

I was back in Ireland, after a quick side trip to the North, and at the Dublin airport picking up my car rental. I've driven on the "wrong" side of the road before (and without incident!) but it's still a bit nerve wracking. So I set off slow and made my way south on the M9. It was day one of a 14-day road trip (the longest I've ever done) around most of Ireland. And the first 12-days were all on my own!

My first destination, Jerpoint Abbey, was 1 ½ hours away according to the map. But narrow country roads and a brief rain squall made it closer to 2 hours. I paid my €5 and set off to explore the medieval abbey once run by the Order of Cistercians.

Built in 1180 the abbey is known for its gorgeous stone carvings. As there were only two other people wandering the grounds, my visit felt very special. A great first stop on my epic road trip! 

The monks of the abbey were very strict and devout followers Christianity. They upheld their beliefs, and for 350 years strongly encouraged others to join them. It wasn't until the creation of the Church of England that the land the monastery is on was awarded to the king and the buildings were made inhabitable. 

Just 10-minutes down the road I arrived at my next stop, Kells Priory. This is the largest enclosed monastic set of structures in Ireland. The buildings cover about 3 acres and is free to wander through. There are a couple of different entrances, I first stopped at the main parking lot just south of the ruins. 

If you then drive north, across a quintessential Irish stone bridge, you can find your way to an abandoned mill. The walk from here is gorgeous, past the old water wheel, and again there were only a few other people wandering about.

Founded in 1193, the priory and its seven towers were of the Augustinian monk order. There are ruins of the church, cellars, graveyard, etc. There are also a lot of sheep! It's a beautiful and peaceful area to explore but I was very happy to be wearing my Hunters through the fields. Highly recommend these boots for this type of trip!

I spent about 40 minutes here before returning to my car and heading to my evening destination of Kilkenny. 

My plan had been to arrive in time to tour the castle that sits majestically in the town. Small country roads and driving on the left had me driving slower than norm though. By the time I arrived in town it was last entry at the castle but I couldn't find parking as the main lot was already closed. I decided to call it a day and headed to my hotel The Pembroke to check in. 

The hotel is in a great location for walking and my room was large with a view of the back of the castle. I changed and headed out to explore the very pretty town that back in the 1640s was the capital of Ireland. Also George Clooney's family hails from here!

Kilkenny is also home to Smithwick's brewery, and although I didn't go in for a tour, I did stop in at Bollard's Pub for a pint, or two. It was such a different feeling already, being in a small country town as opposed to the cities of Dublin and Belfast. I was relaxing into this slower pace and it felt great. 

I had made dinner reservations at Butcher (thanks for the recs Natalie and Clio!) and it was a good thing I had as it was packed! OMG the food here was soooo delicious. The steak was one of my top 5 favorite meals in Ireland! That was also the last good martini I would have for a while!

After dinner I made my way to the Kytelers Inn for some music. The bar had been recommended to me by the concierge at the hotel as a good local spot for music. Well pretty much every person in town was here (Saturday night) as well as a few hen and stag party goers from Dublin. It was packed and the music was really good!

I would absolutely recommend all 3 of my Kilkenny stops, it was such a fun night!

I had breakfast in the hotel, a good buffet included in my room rate, before checking out and loading up my car. The Pembroke also has free onsite parking which really came in handy as the town was quite busy and also it was raining as I left. 

I was back on country roads, driving through beautiful green pastures, on my way to the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. It took me about an hour and I arrived with a little time to explore on my own before the 45 minute tour started. The tours run twice an hour and are included in the €8 ticket price. 

This site is absolutely gorgeous, and the guide really helps to make sense of the medieval ruins. This was the seat of kings dating back to 300 AD and the site where St. Patrick baptized King Aengus. Impressive!

The small Cormac's Chapel, Ireland's first church and named after then King in 1134 when it was built, is available by tour only and only a few times a day, so I broke off from the main tour when they announced it was starting. 
The tiny chapel is lovely to explore with its funny stone faces peering at you from where the alter once was. But it's real treasure is the barely-still-there frescoed ceiling. Having been painted over by Protestants literally whitewashing the Catholic imagery, it was found during recent restorations!
I spent a bit more time here than I had planned, about 1 ½ hours. So much history along with stunning views of the Plain of Tipperary. Plus I had partly blue skies!

But I had an appointment with some whiskey in County Cork, so I made my way back down the Rock to the parking lot, reminded myself to stay to the left, and hit the road!

**As I visited all of these places before the COVID-19 pandemic, please double check on opening hours. And fingers crossed these businesses all stay in business!**

All photos from County Kilkenny (and Tipperary) here.

Other posts from this trip:

Country Count #50: Ireland

Out and About in Dublin Town

Michelin Stars and Cocktail Bars in Dublin

24 Hours in Belfast

Ireland Road Trip: County Cork

Ireland Road Trip: Kenmare and the Ring of Kerry

Ireland Road Trip: Dingle Town

Dingle Peninsula Archeology Tour

Ireland Road Trip: Cliffs of Moher and Galway

Aran Islands Day Trip

Ireland Road Trip: County Mayo

Ireland Road Trip: End of the Road; Sligo to Dublin

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

24 Hours in Belfast

Trip date: September 2019

I left Dublin on a 9:30am train to Belfast; my hotel had arranged a taxi to pick me up and drop me at Connolly Station. As I had made my reservation online in advance it was quick and easy to print my ticket at the station when I arrived. The trip was just over 2 hours and cost €19.

At the Belfast station I took some cash out of the ATM (Belfast is in the UK and the UK is on British Pound vs the Euro in Ireland) and grabbed a taxi to the waterfront AC Marriott. It was too early to check in but they kindly stored my luggage and I set off to get some lunch.

Fish and chips were on my mind so I headed to Fish City in city center. It was a gorgeous sunny fall afternoon and it was nice to be able to walk around since I only had 1 day in town. My fish was delicious!

Afterwards I wandered along the banks of the River Lagan as I made my way back to the hotel. I was picked up in a traditional black London-style taxi for the 1½ hour Paddy Campbell’s Famous Black Cab Tours I had booked. 

My driver Charlie, born and bred in Belfast, set about explaining the circumstances around "The Troubles" as we drove to the area of Shankill Road. 

I knew very little about the two sides of this political conflict so it was surprising to see first hand the absolute division, still to this day, of the Loyalist (Ulster) and the Irish Republic. 

We started in the Loyalist neighborhood, the area that is fiercely sided with the UK and is mainly Protestant. Union Jack flags waved from every building and were painted on road curbs. The infamous murals, painted on the ends of row house buildings, are still there to commemorate people they consider heros and to spread their political views. They are frightening! Can you imagine seeing this everyday outside your house?

Some of the murals have been replaced with more peaceful messaging, like this one. The original has been photographed and placed in a frame next to the wall. 
We drove through the gates, there are still gates which get locked each night, into the Irish Republic neighborhood of Falls Road. The massive wall that divides the two areas is ironically called the Peace Wall. You can look up and see the multiple additions to create a taller and taller barricade. As someone who honestly thought this was all rectified in the past I was a bit shocked!

I had been taught that the divisions were based solely on religious differences but learned there was so much more to it than that. There was so much violence here between British Troops and the IRA, most notably during the August riots in 1969. We visited Bombay Street, an area that had been completely burned down before the peace wall was built, and the memorial to those who were killed.

Still to this day bonfires are lit on the evening of July 11th in the loyalist neighborhoods to commemorate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James II in 1690. And yearly, starting in April and going thru August, members of The Orange Order march through towns to proudly show their loyalist support. These bonfires and parades continue to cause violence. A lot has been settled but there is still so much division. An extremely complicated situation.

One of our last stops was Northumberland Street which runs perpendicular between Shankill and Falls Roads. Charlie let me out of the taxi so that I could walk along what is now referred to as the Solidarity or International Wall. The murals here reflect people from different cultures and nations and their hopes for peace.  It was a good note to end on.

My tour cost £35 and was worth every sterling (cash only).  I learned more in 90 minutes about The Troubles than I had in my entire time in school. I also found Charlie to be completely unbiased when explaining the situations and differing viewpoints to me. Highly recommend. For an extra £5 I had Charlie drop me off at my next destination, the Titanic Museum.

The taxi tour was obviously a bit heavy so I took a little time inside the museum snack bar with a pint to relax before starting my self-guided tour of the museum. 

The museum is located in the actual spot where the ship was constructed. It starts with some history of the relationship between Ireland and the UK; there are lots of great photographs from the early 1900's. It then moves into the design and building of the Titanic by Harland and Wolff, the 128 year old company which is still around today. 
At one point you take an elevator up to the same height of the ship and then board a 6-seat car which flies you through and around a simulated shipyard. It's a bit Disney-esque but also very fun and a cool immersion experience. 

The timeline continues with stories of the launch party of the ship from the very spot you are standing. And then there are galleries that are filled with recreated staterooms, dishware, furnishings, photos, and even CGI of the interior spaces.

There are stories of the people who were on board, and of course the many who were lost when the ship sunk. And at the end there is an awesome video projecting under a glass floor camera footage of the wreckage when it was found. I loved this!

I thought the museum was fantastic! I was also ready for a bit of a lie down so I headed back to my hotel to rest and get changed for dinner. 

My hotel choice was based on me needing a stay so that my Marriott points wouldn't expire. The hotel and my room were basic but I had a waterfront view of the Titanic Museum which I loved. 

Soon it was time for a cocktail! My destination was the well-known and historic Merchant Hotel and their Cocktail Bar

The building dates from the mid 1800's and was originally built as the HQ of Ulster Bank. The "red hand of Ulster" can still be found in the wrought iron. Now as the only 5-star hotel in Belfast it is an ornate posh locale for some of the best cocktails in town.

I had time for 2 rounds before leaving to walk to Ox, the 1-Star Michelin restaurant I had chosen for dinner. On my way I passed a lot of street parties as an event called Culture Night was happening around the city. 
Ox is right on the River Lagan and has an uber-seasonally driven tasting menu. There is a choice between a "regular" or vegetable tasting menu, I chose the regular for £60,  I also had a choice between a regular or Premium wine pairing, which I chose the regular for £35. Both exceptional prices! The actual dishes weren't revealed but there was a list of all the ingredients they might be using for the evening which I thought was clever (also giving diners an opportunity to call out anything they are allergic to.)

From my first bite (of peas, foie gras, verbena and a gougere filled with local cheddar and beer) I absolutely loved the style of the food.
The service unfortunately was bad, on the verge of being annoying in not knowing much about the ingredients or the wine they were pouring. 
Hopefully it was just an off night for the staff because really the food is delicious! The space is very simple and felt almost Scandinavian, there was a hygge feel to it. Dinner was excellent and an excellent value. 

It was a lovely walk home with the moon rising over the Titanic Museum and the water. 

The next morning I had breakfast in the hotel and then took a taxi to the bus station. This taxi only took cash and I didn't have much left so unfortunately he ended up getting shorted a bit. There wasn't anything I could do about it as he wasn't interested in my Euro but something to keep in mind if you are traveling there. 

There was a small queue on the sidewalk as the bus hadn't arrived yet. But it was just a quick wait and then the driver pulled up, checked everyone in (I had bought my £10 ticket online in advance), loaded the luggage, and away we went. It was a 2-hour ride to the Dublin airport where I would be picking up my rental car to start my drive around the country.

24 hours isn't much, but I feel like I made the most of my time in Belfast. It's a lovely city, especially when the sun is shining, and I'd absolutely return given the opportunity!

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