The Emerald Isle - Day One

Ireland might not have been at the top of my international travel destination list, but when I received an invitation to the nuptials of my friend Abel and his wife Sinead, there was suddenly no place else I'd rather go. Since the wedding was to occur the day after Thanksgiving, I quickly set about the task of renegotiating my holiday agreement with Justin. Originally, we had planned to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family and Christmas with mine, but in order to make Ireland work, we capitalized on the mid-week occurrence of Christmas in order to split the holiday between both families. We were all set to cross the pond in order to celebrate our friends.

Our journey, though stereotypically exhausting for international air travel, was notable for two reasons: we had purchased a Groupon for a fancy chauffeured car to deliver us to O'Hare, and we were on the same flight as Abel's parents, so we got to visit with them while we waited for our flight.

Sleep was elusive on the plane, and we arrived in Dublin tired, but determined to make the most of our day regardless. In order to see as much of the country as possible, we had made the decision to rent a car, which was a somewhat terrifying prospect, to be honest. Though I have traveled extensively abroad, I've always relied on cabs and public transportation to get around, but Justin is a braver, and more experienced driver than me, and I was ready to put my life in his capable hands.

We soon found ourselves responsible for a gunmetal VW Golf, which we made sure to equip with a GPS device. Though it added to the expense of the entire enterprise, we both felt that driving on the left in a foreign country with different rules of the road was enough to worry about without the additional stress of trying to navigate for ourselves. As it turned out, maneuvering our new vehicle proved to be a challenge from the start -- the car rental agents had parked the vehicles so impossibly close together that exiting the lot was an exercise akin to the infamous scene in Austin Powers where the eponymous character manages to get a car stuck between two walls.

Despite the rocky start, Justin quickly got a hang of driving on the left, and our GPS quickly conveyed us to our first stop of the day, the gardens at Powerscourt, a palatial residence built in the 18th century by the viscounts of Powerscourt. Though there is no longer much to see at the residence, which holds a branch of Avoca, an Irish retailer/restaurant chain, a museum dedicated to childhood, and a Ritz-Carlton hotel, the gardens are said to be the finest in Ireland.

Though it was drizzling and overcast, once we stepped out into the gardens, we found ourselves in no position to argue with that assessment. The grounds at Powerscourt are divided into several sub-gardens, each laid out in a different style. Those that directly abutted the house were done in a baroque Italianate style, with carefully-manicured terraces leading down to an artificial lake, and sweeping views of a nearby mountain. As we started down the grand stairs, it finally hit me -- I was in Ireland, a foreign country, with the man I love. It was unexpectedly emotional and exhilarating all at the same time.

Though I have seen plenty of Japanese gardens in my life, we strolled through the Japanese gardens at Powerscourt largely because they were there, and we wanted to make the most of our admission fee. It turned out to be the single most romantic place we've ever been together, full of labyrinthine hideaways and idyllic waterfalls. Plus, there was virtually no one else there, leaving us to explore all the nooks and crannies of the garden by ourselves. 

Next, we hiked over to a quaint, medieval-looking tower that was actually a much later, strictly ornamental lawn decoration known as the Pepperpot Tower, as it is said to have been fashioned in the shape of one of the 19th century family members' favorite pepperpot, or pepper shaker. Magically, just as we started to take photos of the idyllic scene, the gloomy haze lifted and the sun came out, giving us exquisite lighting conditions. It was as if Mother Nature suddenly realized we were outdoors trying to take photos and decided to give us an assist.

In spite of being in a state of starvation and dehydration from our flight, we decided to cross the grounds and see the other half of the estate, though it looked significantly less interesting on the map. We did find a lovely English-style garden which had some late-blooming roses to see, and there was another small artificial lake with a fountain. The highlight, however, was a modest pet cemetery, filled with loving odes to the many dogs, horses, and even Shetland ponies that had kept the family company over the centuries. Even if this half of the grounds wasn't quite as impressive as the first portion, I was glad that we got our money's worth, plus, the view of the house that we were afforded on the way back was absolutely exquisite in the sunlight.

Since we were so hungry, we decided to go ahead and have lunch at the Powerscourt Avoca franchise, where we discovered that despite being a chain, their food was surprisingly good, especially their light but flavorful salads. Duly fortified, it was time to brave driving on the left once more to move on to our next destination for the day, Glendalough.

Glendalough, which is something of a national park, consists of an early medieval monastic site nestled in a glacial valley with two lakes and a wealth of hiking trails. Knowing that Justin loves a good nature walk, I had selected Glendalough to appeal mostly to him, plus it was loosely on the way to Kilkenny, which was our final destination for the day. Through Justin's driving skills, we made it there in one piece, but we were so exhausted from our travels that we made the somewhat unusual decision to take a quick nap in our car in the parking lot, otherwise we would have had no energy to undertake even a modest hike. I set an alarm on my phone so we wouldn't waste too much time, and even though it was an extremely unorthodox strategy for me, the person who likes to wring every possible iota out of my vacation time, it was definitely the right decision.

Somewhat refreshed, we set out to tour Glendalough, starting with the monastic settlement, which was built by the followers of the hermetic St. Kevin, who supposedly lived until the age of 120 during the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries (a claim I find decidedly dubious, given the average life expectancy back then). Glendalough achieved the zenith of its influence as a religious center during the 1100s, and was partially destroyed by the British in the late 14th century, leaving the ruins that are visible today.

A quirk that seems unique to the Irish religious architectural vernacular is the round tower. Due to the constant fighting between rival tribes and rival towns, the round bell-tower grew to prominence because it was more difficult to scale. Typically, the actual entrance was located a few yards off the ground, accessible only by a ladder that could be pulled up in times of strife to protect the monks or other inhabitants.

The ruins were also surrounded by an atmospheric old cemetery, full of crumbling, moldy tombstones. I love to incorporate historic cemeteries into my travels (my soft spot for them is comparable, though not quite as intense as that for churches and cathedrals), and though I did not know that Glendalough boasted a cemetery when I selected it for our itinerary, it turned out to be an unexpected bonus. 

After thoroughly inspecting the first set of sites pertaining to the monastic settlement, we embarked on a hike through the glacial valley, hoping to make it to a second set of ruins at the juncture where the higher of the two lakes drains into the lower one. The hike wasn't quite as scenic as I was hoping, given that the leaves were somewhat lacking in fall foliage in late November, though I was surprised there was still as much green as there was. 

Unfortunately, we were quickly running out of daylight, and faced with the choice of continuing our hike and having to return in the dark and complete our drive to Kilkenny in the dark, or turning around and driving in what little daylight was left, we decided to turn back.

Given how exhausted we were, it is a credit to Justin's driving ability that we made it to Kilkenny in one piece. The roads were narrow, winding, and fenced in with stone walls for long stretches at a time, and I quickly passed out, leaving him no company to help him stay awake himself. While the GPS did manage to navigate us to the correct town, it was of little use in helping us locate our hotel. We ultimately drove past it several times before finally parking illegally, albeit temporarily, so we could call and ask them where the entrance to their parking lot was. We finally found it, and checked into the Langton House Hotel for the evening.

We found our room to be modern, but very cramped, though at that point, we were mostly just happy to find a bed. Though our guidebooks offered several suggestions in town for dining options, we were too worn out to venture forth and locate any of them. Instead, we took the path of least resistance and ate an acceptable, if somewhat overpriced dinner in the hotel pub, before finally hitting the sheets for some much deserved slumber.

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