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Saturday, October 27, 2007


Travel took us to Ireland and Scotland this time, and it was a wonderful vacation. We used Trafalgar Tours for this trip. It's the second time I've used Trafalgar, and I highly recommend them. I will give you details about this tour company at a later date because right now I'm anxious to share our trip with you. Suffice it to say that if Ireland and Scotland are not on your "must see" list, put them there. They're romantic, changing, historic, and beautiful. The people are friendly, the drinks flow like water, and you're bound to have a memorable time.
I thought I would write a travel journal, but I soon found that I had to stick to highlights. We did so much, saw so many wonderful sights, learned new things, and met so many wonderful people that I would be writing forever. You'll see what happens as you read.
Hope you enjoy the photos. To enlarge the photos, just click on them, and then use the back button to return to TAT.



I chose the bookmark Michael gave me and find it amusingly ironic that I stuck it on page one of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods—his adventure on the famed Appalachian Trail where he reconnected with the America he had not lived in for twenty years. He wished to experience its green beauty. Meanwhile I’m sitting in Newark Airport in New Jersey waiting to leave for Dublin to tour another country of beautiful greens and marvelous vistas. Is this the literal “The grass is always greener…?

Anyway, see this month’s Travel Tips to see what a big mistake I made in planning this trip. Avoid doing the same!!!! I’m not sure this is exactly what they meant when they said to be a lifelong learner. Next time we’ll leave the house earlier and battle traffic on our side of the pond. We’ll fly out of Kennedy.


Great to land in Dublin. We are promptly met by our Trafalgar Tour Director, Harry Gray just as we emerge from Customs. He spotted our Trafalgar bags. What a friendly gentleman. We had no idea just how fond we were to become of Harry who was not only an innovative and informative guide, but also a caring, warm person we would cherish. By the time we arrived at the Trinity Capital Hotel, right in city center and not more than a short walk to Trinity College, we had a good idea of our schedule for the next few days.

With the remainder of the afternoon to ourselves, Rob and I took Harry’s suggestion and took a stroll toward Trinity College and Grafton Street. Think of Trinity College’s famous graduates as well as the Book of Kells. We were in the midst of greatness. We ambled down Grafton Street, a marvelous shopping area and pedestrian mall filled to the brim with college students and tourists looking for a gay afternoon among other exuberant people. Grafton Street mirrors the vivacious energy of Dublin’s young population. Street musicians, punky (is that term outdated?) looking kids—one who even wore horns on her head in preparation, I guess, for the forthcoming Halloween celebrations that would surely rock the city.

We stopped in Marks & Spencer to sit in the window and people watch over a cup of coffee Americano. We saw the statue of Molly Malone with her cockles and muscles. We stopped in a golf shop, and a glorious pipe store, Peterson and Dublin where we ogled the handsome straight-grained pipes and recalled the days gone by when our home was filled with the pungent aromas of Balkan Sobranie tobacco.

Dinner was lovely but better than the meal at the Landsdowne Hotel was the company. Our companions, a couple from Saskatchewan, Canada, Owen and Aggie, and a couple from New Zealand, Eric and Claire. No searching for conversation and lots of laughs. We knew this was going to be fun!



This Trafalgar tour is just too expansive and wonderful for me to cover everything in diary form. I’d go on forever telling you all about the city tour of Dublin—“…the fair city where girls are so pretty….” Our guide, Harry, is a wealth of knowledge; Rob and I are overwhelmed by the country’s history dating back to the Vikings; we travel, make new friends; and have a great time in the pubs. This is very us.

History buff? Ireland is for you. Some parts of Ireland were settled by Vikings, and this morning we head off to Glendalough about forty-five minutes from Dublin. It’s one of the oldest remaining monastic sites in Europe dating back to the 7th century. Imagine! As we walk through the archway entrance we see that no mortar was used and that the rocks forming the arch are placed there as support. Amazing! What was the world like when monks put the entrance to their protective tower far above ground to shield themselves from the marauding Vikings who simply lit fires below them and smoked them out!?
Why was one Celtic cross unfinished and missing the Bible stories the monks used to engrave on them in order to teach these tales to illiterate people? How tiny were the rooms in the priest’s house where today’s pilgrims come to touch the dirt floor in hopes for miraculous cures?

Glendalough, Glen of Two Lakes, sits in a beautiful and still wild valley in county Wichklow, the Garden of Ireland. It probably is not much different, at least in some ways, from the times of the monks.

So many unanswered questions….So many feelings of wonder….

When I was in Ireland in 1997 with my78 year old mother and my 16 year old son, Michael who had his first beer there (of my knowledge), my mother fell in love with Guinness! At one lunch stop at a pub when the waitress asked for her order, she simply replied, “I’m not hungry; just a Guinness.” In her memory, and in Rob’s present, we felt it obligatory to pay homage to this Irish institution by visiting the Guinness Brewery.

We expected the kind of tour we’ve taken at wineries where we always learn something new and interesting about wine production. NOT! We paid 22 euros for the tour, and it was wasted on anyone who already knew that beer is made from barley, hops, and water. DUH! In the case of Guinness, that means 70% of the barley crop in the whole of Ireland, and that’s a prodigious amount. For the 22 euros, we received a “free” pint of this nectar, and we toasted to my mom and to Michael in The Gravity Bar atop the building. Actually, I’m a lager fan, so Rob got to drink mine too. The Gravity Bar gave us a great 360° view of Dublin, and that’s pretty spectacular.

I’m not sorry we went; had we not gone and made that toast, I would have felt I’d missed something special and uniquely Irish. Having gone, I’m suggesting you skip this admitted icon and head to another of the many possibilities. Think of Guinness as life blood. It’s offered in every pub and restaurant; it’s given out in return for blood donations; it is free at the old age homes; it’s given to new mothers and fathers at Dublin’s Maternity Hospital. Basically, it's Guinness from cradle to grave. It’s mother’s milk. Yes, you read that right.

Evenings are for partying, and in Ireland that means drinking, music, and warm-hearted fellowship, so we headed about thirty minutes from Dublin to The Merry Ploughboy, a pub with a great show in the Irish tradition.

Dinner tonight was grand: another great soup, Angus Prime Rib, and a lovely dessert. Harps for me and Guinness for Rob. We also met Lorraine and Carl from Michigan, and the evening was off to a great start.

The entertainment was terrific.

The Merry Ploughboys—two guitars or guitar and banjo, mandolin, and Irish pipes, or tin whistle—gave us a great intro to traditional Irish music. They musicians cajoled the audience into joining them sing traditional Irish songs. We also were introduced to some traditional Irish instruments. The Uilleann Pipes are very different from bagpipes as they are played with bags under both arms, one pumping air into a bag, the other regulating the amount of air that enters the pipes. It’s raucous, happy music most of the time, but when it is sad, it is soooooo sad.

Then came the Irish dancers. That’s always incredible to watch, and these two pair were no different. In the smaller venue the sounds of their steps reverberated against the walls. The speed and grace accentuated the delicacy of the women and the strength of the men. The almost miraculous precision of the four added to the magic of the evening.

Harry played Irish music in the coach as we headed back toward Dublin. What a perfect way to end the day.

I’m adding one video clip: 1. Irish pipes (You’ll notice the Guinness in the mic stand ready to wet his whistle)
The Uilleann Pipes
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There’s nothing like the beauty of a thoroughbred—sleek, graceful, and muscular—a horse whose movement is smooth rhythm, a spellbinding ballet. Here in Ireland the thoroughbred is king. The stallion rules, and we traveled to The Irish National Stud Farm, surely horse heaven here on earth.

Ireland is known for its strong and successful thoroughbred race horses. The theory is that since certain parts of Ireland sit on limestone, the grass absorbs the calcium. The horses eat the grass and develop very strong bones. Strong bones are needed to breed resilient racers. Resilient racers endure and win, have fewer injuries, and produce successful offspring.

There’s more to just race horses on the farm. We took a walking tour of the stud farm, and we first saw miniature horses that may be the next thing in help for the blind. These horses can even be house trained! Can you imagine?

But it was the big horses—the thoroughbred beauties—we came to see. Friendly seven month olds come right to the fence to nuzzle and be petted. They’re exposed to human contact very early in their lives, and we were the beneficiaries. We saw handsome stallions whose stud fees go as high as $50,000. Yep! And that fee is collected up to 200 times a year. What a life! What a way to make a living! By the way, it’s too expensive to keep the mare at the farm until she foals, so she’s shipped home to spend her pregnancy there. She may come back, though, to have her foal.

These studs are pampered. There are skylights in their stallion boxes. There is a brass plaque on each door stating the stallion’s name and details of his racing career. They get special feed. They’re offered different combinations of food until the trainers discover their individual preferences. Then they get that. The same is done with their bedding. Must keep the big boys comfy cozy! Music is piped into their stalls. Even the music is individually selected through their reactions to different selections. These stallions rock ‘n roll, sway to classical, and listen to whatever they like. Watta life!

The meadows, paddocks, stalls, and nearby Black Abbey, instituted after the arrival of the Anglo Normans in 1169 as a preceptory for the order now known as the Knights of Malta, and Japanese Gardens where you stroll through the “Life of Man” makes this another place one shouldn’t miss.

For fun tonight we head to Murphy’s Pub for a rollicking sing with three Irish guys and a lot of Guinness and Harp! Two or three times a week these men gather at Murphy’s with other locals and sing Irish songs.

We’re an international group. Though primarily American and Canadian, we’ve got some Australians and New Zealanders too. We don’t know each other well yet, but joining the fun is irresistible. We get right into the mood and begin with several choruses of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” We go through every Irish song any one of us knows, and then the trio sings others. One about the famine called “My Old Man” had some of us crying. I’m not kidding. Sad Irish songs are the saddest! Here, as in the show the other night, someone played the bodhrán, an ancient Irish drum that was reintroduced to Irish music in the 1970s and is now a necessary instrument. The bodhrán added to the music with the strength of its rhythmic pounding reverberating throughout the room.

The trio gets one of us, Brenda, to sing along with them. Once she agrees, the rest of us rise to the next level. Our table rocked. Marge got up and danced solo, and when she rejoined us, two other couples got up and danced to the music and to our singing. It was glorious.

Rob was sitting nearest to the trio, and he got into a conversation about the difference between Guinness on tap and Guinness in a bottle. Not only was there a huge difference, said the man whose bottle remained close at hand, but he wanted Rob to share his Guinness with him. Which he did! Yes, he decided, a huge difference.

Heart warming to me and Rob was the way the evening ended—the same way it ended at The Merry Ploughboys. We were asked to stand while they played and sang Ireland’s National Anthem. We could hear their hearts in their voices. Beautiful. Proud.




We travel to Blarney Castle this day, off to kiss the Blarney Stone. Michael and I did it when we visited Ireland, and now it’s Rob’s turn, as if he needs The Gift of Gab.

The Blarney Stone is reputed to be half the Stone of Scone (a zillion legends revolve around that). It was installed at the highest point of Blarney Castle after being awarded by Robert De Bruce, King of the Scots, to Irish Chieftain Cormac McCarthy for his aid at one of the biggest battles for Scottish independence from England, the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

To kiss the Blarney Stone, you must first climb the narrow, high, always narrowing staircase. Stairways and archways were constructed in this manner to keep invaders from being able to move en masse. You maneuver through narrow archways until to reach the parapet. There you lay on your back, held by a trusted aide, and you hold tightly to the support bars, lean out upside down over the edge and kiss the stone. Okay, it’s not REALLY dangerous, but it is dramatic! And you do have something to gab about!

I’m not sure that Rob needs any help in being full of blarney, but it’s sure nice to know he’s now legitimately entitled!
What a blast tonight was! We went to a ceili, an Irish social evening filled with music, dancing, and story telling. For us travelers, still uninitiated in Irish ways, the entertainment was also informative. Terrific!

We drove outside Killarney where we are staying, passing some of the beautiful Lakes of Killarney and traveled up into the hills which, this dusk, are crowned with cloud tiaras. We headed toward Bleachfield, so named because it was there they bleached the flax to make Irish linen.

Bleachfield Bistro is a pub. The menu is entirely Irish, and after salad, potato and leek soup (delicious), Rob and I had bacon and cabbage served with mashed potatoes, pie and ice cream. Topped it off with Irish coffee.

The three performers at Bleachfields, in addition to performing a marvelous, raucous, rousing, audience-inclusive show, gave us some lessons in Irish culture and entertainment. We learned the history of those Uilleann pipes, and got a detailed demonstration of how one arm works to pump while the other regulates the amount of air as the musician plays the notes—basically perfoming three operations at once. Not so simple.

We also learned about the famed Irish tin whistle by the man who was in the finals for the country championship. He dazzled us with his versatility, and it was almost impossible to believe that a six-holed whistle could produce the fantastic variety of music to which he treated us. The third performer, a lovely Irish tenor also played the concertina and harmonica with agility and skill. At one time he played a song so quickly that we could hardly believe human fingers moved so fast. We were in the presence of greatness in this little pub tucked away in the hills of Ireland.

This third Irish evening as the others—not in big cities or in big clubs—showed me the importance of music, singing, and fellowship in the Irish culture. We tourists had no problem picking up and loving the spirit and the fun. (especially with the help of the ever present Guinness)
Two wonderful dancers demonstrated the different beats used in Irish dancing, reminiscent, of course, of Riverdance, and they, believe it or not, had two of us up and dancing The Brush Dance! Not dancing it well—actually barely at all—but a good time was had, and we left Bleachfields in a convivial mood. What a crew we’d become. We’d all left our inhibitions back wherever we came from, and I thank Harry, our director, for that. He is a great team builder.


I write these tips fresh from not taking my own advice about looking ALWAYS for non-stop flights.

On this trip we opted for the convenience of Newark Airport over Kennedy Airport which gave us a layover at Heathrow in London. AVOID this scenario. Heathrow is spread out in what appears to be a series of Quonset huts. You walk a zillion miles to the bus that takes you to the terminal, but first you have to go through security again—because you’re leaving your original terminal. Then you walk again and stand in line until you get to your departure terminal. Our travel papers suggested 70 minutes to get from arrival to departure. We barely made it. Others joining our tour in Dublin missed their connecting flight and were lucky to catch up at all.

We did not have to re-do security on the way back from Edinburgh, but we did have all the walking to do. Try wearing hiking shoes, because the distance is extreme. Better yet, avoid Heathrow if you can.