They Liked it So They Put a Ring on It

The Ring of Kerry and The Dingle Peninsula pretty much speak for themselves. This week has been filled with an overwhelming amount of beauty and gratitude. I barely know where to begin or how to express what it’s arose within me and how it’s impacted my heart and mind.
Before I begin, in the spirit of my inpatient nature, I’m going to give you the Coles Notes version of my time in Cork and Cobh. This isn’t to say that they were any less significant than my time in the places I’m about to share but something was ignited when I traveled to Killarney and Dingle. They broadened my mind and opened my heart and pretty much made me feel the warmest and fuzziest inside that I could possibly be.
The city of Cobh (pronounced Cove) is known for something very special and holds a unique history. The Titanic set off sailing to New York City just a stones throw from a dock by the cities pier. Hundreds of passengers gathered by the harbour to take a small ferry over to the unsinkable ship in 1912. The building in which each person passed through to collect their ticket and board was just recently renovated last April and was previously kept in its original condition. It now stands as a museum that guides you through the exact steps taken by many so long ago. I’ve had the privilege of going through a similar tour at the Children’s Museum in downtown Kitchener and this one was just as shocking. Even more so knowing that so many of these steps were their last and once so real. I could feel it in the air. It was a looming and eerie feeling of sadness. The whole experience took you back in time perfectly. We were even given a ticket with the name of a real passenger and were able to find out our fate when the exhibit was over. This time I was a seventeen year old girl named Emily in third class and unfortunately (because of that factor), I didn’t survive. It hit close to home knowing she was nearly my age. I thought about her, this girl that I never knew as I looked out over the dock drinking tea, imagining as best as I could who was standing where I was. I wonder what they may have been feeling and thinking in that moment with so many hopes and dreams just a sail away.
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I only spent one day in Cork to experience a few important things and the feeling of a new city. The hostel I stayed at was situated above a bar so I had no problem meeting a great group of people the second I walked in. Having just left Jess and Tomas (who joined me in Cobh), I had that feeling in my stomach again that comes and goes quickly when I enter a new place. Much like the feeling you would get on a first date. It isn’t bad, it’s just uncertain. You’ve yet to ask them their favourite colour and exchange music taste. You just never know what the vibe of a new environment may bring but a part of that is super thrilling. Truthfully, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I was comforted immediately by the faces of new friends from Canada, America and Australia. We played a wickedly intense game of beer pong downstairs until the wee hours of the morning and that warmed me up to Cork right away. The butterflies disappeared within seconds.
 Blarney Castle was certainly the highlight and turned out to be a much fuller experience than I expected. Blarney Castle is just one “small” section of a huge national park. The castle itself is the main attraction but there are gardens and caves surrounding it that are worth checking out just as much. Rock Close is the name of one section and is trail that takes you through a magical and mystical land of fairies and the Blarney Witch’s territory. I loved the quirky little signs that lead you through the Fairy Gland and the Witches Kitchen. My favourite spot was what they called the Magical Staircase which was given as a gift by the Blarney Witch in exchange for fire wood from the forest. If you walk up and down the stone steps with your eyes closed and think of nothing but your wish, it will come true within a year. They mention below that they’re not liable for any accidents and I didn’t blame them for the disclaimer. It was dangerous! Nevertheless, I walked them all. Every single wet and slippery step. All we do now is wait!
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ImageImageClimbing Blarney castle was exciting because the spiral staircase was very narrow, dark and mysterious. Climbing up it alone felt like an adventure. Each opening lead you into a new room labeled bedroom or kitchen, whatever they thought it may have been used for six hundred years ago. At the top of the castle there sits very special stone. It’s said that if you kiss the stone, you will be granted eternal eloquence. I didn’t realize how much of a tourist attraction it had become although maybe I should have assumed. The Discovery Channel has named it one of the 99 things to do before you die. I also didn’t realize how difficult it was to reach the stone and give it a smooch. Seriously, this thing was located underneath the bottom edge of the castle’s wall. I had to lie down on a padded surface while a man held me tightly as I cranked my head all the way back and planted a peck on its slippery surface (I hoped to god it was because they had washed it). Not only that but a man stands on your other side with a huge camera and snaps photos of this event which end up being extremely overpriced. Of course it’s all worth it in the end. Eternal eloquence will do me some good! I chuckled as the lady behind me very loudly expressed to the man, “You better watch where you put your hands there mister.”
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 These were a few highlights from the two C Cities as I call them. Those definitely weren’t Coles Notes either. Sorry guys, you all know how much of a lie “I’ll give you the short version” can be when it comes from me.
Walking into Killarney and Dingle had me falling in love with these cozy little towns that often belong to the West. Killarney is home to the National Park and The Ring of Kerry, both spectacular sights to see and each of them take you away to a different world full of peace and tranquility. I spent at least four hours walking around the national park on my very first day. I practically bolted from my hostel so I would have enough time to see as much of it as possible before darkness swept over. I walked somewhat of a ring around that park too and took in the smells of the trees, the sound of my footsteps. It took me right back to my Camino days which suddenly seem so far away now. I found myself walking by a gorgeous backdrop of rolling hills and decided to sit down on a bench so conveniently placed right in the middle of the whole scene. I sat there for a long time and took everything in. I kept on noticing a disturbing sound coming from the distance like a cow in distress. I thought to myself, “wow, those cows sound really upset!” When I looked a little closer, I could see that it wasn’t coming from the cows at all. It was a herd of deer. The noise I continued to hear was the males mating call and I remembered the woman at the hostel desk telling me it was that time of year. They looked so beautiful out in the open and I wanted to get closer. This probably wasn’t a very smart idea on my part but I hopped over a fence and tried to get a better view and a clear photograph. Their little ears perked up as soon as they heard my crunching steps and I ran back just in time. I’m sure they wouldn’t have been happy had I come any closer. I didn’t get the photo I wanted but a man told me to head to a path called Deer Run where there were even more running free and you could get a much better view.
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Before heading there, I made my way to Ross castle which sat beside a beautiful lake filled with ducks and a few docked boats in the distance. I didn’t bother taking the tour of this one. I just wanted to enjoy its beauty by myself and run my hands along the stone walls. I ended up walking to the very last marked point on the trail and came upon a lookout that they call Governors Rock. The view stretched for miles and was dotted with little islands. I let the wind blow around me and relaxed overlooking natures gift. That’s what it felt like to me. A gift. Every time I look out at something beautiful, I always want to thank the Earth. I want to kiss the ground for giving me something so inspiring to surround myself with. Deer Run ended my 15km walk around the park. It really was incredible how many seemed to flock here.  I was nearly in a trance watching them all interact and stand so proud and delicate.
ImageImageIt had been a full day and it didn’t stop there. I was exhausted from my walk and travel but decided to go to a pub for dinner and some live music. As I was sitting there waiting for a table, I had a strange instinct to head back and grab the friends I had met earlier that day. See, my plan had been to rent a car and drive around The Ring of Kerry. I would have done it by myself if that had been the only option but I was hell bent on finding someone to split it with me. Driving on the opposite side of the road seemed a lot more comfortable with someone else in the passenger seat. I posted a sign in the lobby advertising “a car ride and a new friend” and the second I barged into my room, I asked the girls there if they were up for the challenge. This was all done before any introductions.I know, it was a little forceful but it was a good ice breaker! Two of them had seen the Ring the previous day, but we seemed to connect well and they were who I wanted to be with that night at Murphy’s Pub. I told my waiter I would be back in a few minutes and walked back to the hostel to see what they were up to. It seemed a little crazy and impulsive at first but everything fell into place as it usually does. They had been wanting to go out for a few drinks anyway so we all went to the pub together and several others followed. They all played some beautiful and traditional Irish music and I was once again in awe at our diversity. Austin, a guy from South Carolina, had wanted to see The Ring of Kerry the exact same way and when he agreed to take a car with me, I was thrilled. Hanna from Michigan said she wanted to join as well. We had a great group going but as soon as we arrived at the car rental, the man told us we needed to have had our license for eight years before legally being aloud to rent in Ireland. It was a bit of a bummer, but we found out just minutes before the tour bus was leaving. Despite my negative view towards tours in general, it was that way or the highway. Image
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Whisky before breakfast. Irish coffee stashes are the best stashes

The tour didn’t end up have much of a “tour feel” at all. It felt more like one giant road trip with a bunch of strangers who eventually became friends. Our driver was an older man with a funny hat and a polka-dot bow tie who had a wicked and quick sense of humour. John was his name and he took us around that ring with laughter and ease. I was almost grateful for his driving instead of my own. It allowed me to really concentrate on what was around me without the worry on the rainy roads and let me tell you, there was a lot to look at and process as we cruised along. John let us stop at all the key photo opportunities and take as much time as we needed to enjoy the breathtaking beauty that is Killarney. It was raining hard almost all day but it reminded me of my walk through the Pyrenees. I liked the vibe that the misty horizon brought to the atmosphere. It was magical. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing half the time. Am I really here? Is this really happening to me? It was one of those moments I’ve found myself experiencing now and again on my travels. I needed to remind myself of my whereabouts. “Okay Sam, you’re in Ireland. You’re actually in Ireland.” It’s not like the scenery wasn’t enough of a reminder alone but it’s so incredible that you just have to pinch yourself every once in a while. It was, in fact, all real and I was really there as a part of it. Things like this exist in the world. Like I said, I think the photos can do the most justice although even then, it needs to be seen and felt with your entire body.

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I didn’t realize how tiring a bus ride could be but we traveled around the entire ring that day and were walking in and out of the bus for at least six hours. Hanna and I spent the night in and decided that the two of us were going to head to our next destination together: Dingle. I should note that the alternative title for this post was I bet you can’t say dingle without laughing. My Mother sure couldn’t. I had heard loads about Dingle from Jess’s family who praised it constantly. When I told people I was planning to visit for a few days, their faces lit up. I knew there was no way I could be let down. Needless to say, it didn’t disappoint me one bit. If anything, it was even more beautiful than I imagined. Dingle was a harbour town which always drags me in. It’s full of sweater stores and fish and chip shops. A famous dolphin named Fungi has been hanging around for years and no one really knows why. She’s become a huge tourist attraction and probably sustains half the town from the looks of it. We explored the area around the harbour for a while which had such a distinct feel from the rest of the town. It felt like Dingle had been plopped into the middle of the wilderness unexpectedly. Did anyone even live here at all? Looking around you, there wasn’t a skyscraper in sight, only lush fields of green and the sound of sheep munching on grass. That particular moment brought us just a sprinkle of sunlight through the dark clouds above. I’ve been focusing a lot on smells lately and I wanted more than anything to bottle this one up and keep it forever. I don’t think we spoke much as we walked, only smiled and photographed silently and completely at peace.
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The hostel we stayed in will probably be top on my list regardless of where I go next. This little place called the Hide Out Hostel is someone’s home. It hasn’t been converted or renovated, they’ve just placed extra bunk beds in the rooms. It was the warmest and coziest place alive. There was a roaring fire in the living room that I could have lived in front of and I enjoyed writing in my journal by its toasty light. Hanna and I made friends right away with two beautiful Australian girls sharing our room. Ruby and Rosalie are two lifelong friends taking the trip of their dreams and were perfect roommates for the nights that we stayed. Laurie was another wonderful soul we met while there. She was taking just a small vacation by herself and had rented a car for the two weeks she was away. Laurie became somewhat of an angel in my journey when she invited me on her car ride to Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher. We realized we would be heading to the same place next at the same time and she saved me one hell of a travel day. I don’t know what I would have done without her. You’ll hear more about this in my next post! Hide Out had that atmosphere that invited friendship and love so easily. It made my stay in Dingle extra special.
I wanted to see the Peninsula more than anything. National Geographic had named it one of the most beautiful places on Earth. I needed to see it for myself. The two of us rented bikes for the day and set off to ride as much of it as we could in a day. Although we didn’t finish the entire 40km route, we biked for eight hours straight (stopping to take photos every second it seemed). There was just so much to capture. I have to say, this route was even more breathtaking than The Ring of Kerry. The air was so crystal clear and pure with every breath. I could smell the ocean again which brought me back to Paros, Greece when I would walk to my scuba lessons every day by the pier. I rode down the hills with the breeze rushing around my whole body and focused so hard on being present. That’s been something I’ve strived to achieve over and over again while I’ve been away. On the Camino, I would find my mind wandering so far away from me that by the time I’d snapped back into reality, who knows what sights I had missed. It’s okay to dream, it’s okay to think about the past and the future but all in moderation. I’ve managed to reach moments of complete and utter participation in the “now” but it fleets away before I can grab ahold of it for more than a few minutes. This acted as perfect practice and as my bike took me faster and faster down that hill, I payed close attention to every inch of my surroundings. I took in the sounds around me and dammit, I was present in each millisecond that passed. So there. It really was beautiful. My camera took the digitals and my mind took the feeling and images that nothing could possibly capture.

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This feeling held as we biked to the Dunbeg Fort which is a site where construction of these stone forts began in 6th century B.C. It held as we biked around Slea Head Drive and out to the peak where ocean and islands stretched for miles. As we rounded the bend, we met a woman named Kirsten who was selling pans of dessert squares out of the back of her van. She had picked the perfect spot. Behind her was the most breathtaking panoramic view I had ever seen. She was trying to save money to go to Grad school and then eventually open up an animal sanctuary. We chatted for quite a bit about life in Dingle and how difficult it is to make enough money to sustain yourself over the winter. She moved there after falling in love with the city while spending her summer holidays in the town. We had planned to just retrace our steps and head back after this since it had been four hours since we started but Kirsten insisted we keep going. “You can’t go back that way”, she told us promptly. There was no question. We just couldn’t. Apparently, the most beautiful section was yet to come.
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If it hadn’t been for Kirsten, we wouldn’t have discovered the walking hills that lead us up to the peaks and the best view in all of Ireland. One particular hill lead me up to the highest point possible. The little bodies of fellow travellers were far from where I had climbed and Hanna sat content on a peak of her own. I was alone for a moment and felt like I was the only human in the entire world. I hadn’t seen a view like this one before. Looking out I could see The Sleeping Giant, The Three Sisters, the roaring and bright blue ocean below, the entire town of Dingle and beyond…I once again was reminded of how small I really am against what the physical world holds. I took a little time to meditate up there as best I could. I couldn’t really sit down so I sort of did it standing up but it was my first instinct when I thought, “how can I experience this fully.” Shortly after, families arrived and my little paradise was discovered. I was okay with this. I had my moment with the world and now they could experience it too. I wished that everyone could. It reminds you of what’s important. What’s worth worrying about in the grand scheme of everything.

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The Sleeping Giant. Can you see it?

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After asking directions several times and climbing up one giant hill where we couldn’t bare to ride our bikes any longer, we made it back to the cozy little nook we called home. We agreed that it would be totally reasonable for us to sell t-shirts that read, “I broke my ass on the Dingle Peninsula” because we seriously ached afterward. We had another quiet night in, full from seeing yet another gift of the universe.
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Ireland, you’ve got me wrapped around your little finger.
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