The Emerald Isle - Day Three

Between the rock hard mattress, a noisy radiator, and two wrong-number phone calls from the US on my cell phone at nearly 4:00 am, Justin and I started off our third day in Ireland on the wrong food, with very little sleep. At the appointed time of 8:30, Ester had prepared for us a prodigious feast consisting of fried eggs, bacon, sausages, white and black puddings (which I've actually been developing somewhat of a fondness for, despite their ingredients), tomato, mushrooms, white toast, Irish soda bread, yogurt, cereal, jam, juice, tea, and a selection of Irish cheeses. Seeing as how we were the only people there to eat it, I felt bad that she had gone through such an effort, even if we were paying her.

She did, however, more or less kick us out at 9:10, telling us that we had to leave right away if we wanted to catch the ferry out of the neighboring village with departed every hour on the half-hour. Her husband had alerted us to its existence the night before, and we all agreed that it would be a huge time and fuel-saver for our itinerary. Luckily, we were already packed, so all we had to do was settle the bill and leave. I would have appreciated more time to digest my food, but as it was, we endured a white-knuckle drive to the ferry launch in Tarbert, where we embarked the boat with nary a moment to spare.

The Shannon ferry had been sold to us as being popular with tourists for its views of the coastline, however, being November, it seemed to be largely populated with commuters, despite the €18 fee. One can only assume there is a monthly pass that is more affordable. We left our car and headed for the upper deck, where we found ourselves less than impressed with the view, which was punctuated by a power plant and several grimy industrial facilities. Still, we were glad to have discovered this means of conveyance, as we probably saved at least an equivalent amount of money in gas, not to mention several additional hours in the car.

On the other side of the ferry ride, we found ourselves in County Clare, driving along the stunningly beautiful Atlantic coast. Dramatic waves broke against the shore,  while quaint homes dotted the landscape, and we made a few stops at abandoned seaside picnic grounds to hop out of the car and capture the sights on film.

Our first official destination of the day was the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland's most-visited natural wonder. We were obligated to pay €12 for the privilege of parking our car (I reckon they have to pay for their fancy new visitor's center somehow), but the presence of a penny press near the gift shop softened the blow of the steep parking rates. It was the only one I've ever seen outside of the US.

Out at the cliffs, the sun, though shining, was in the wrong place in the sky for us to get decent photos of the 690 feet tall rock face. Instead, for us, the majority of the cliffs were shrouded in atmospheric mist.

We climbed to a higher vantage point facing the south, where the light was more favorable, and we were able to take several stunning snaps that included the Victorian-era O'Brien's Tower, which created a charming visual focal point. The only problem was the wind, which was so intense that it actually made being at the edge of the precipice fairly intimidating, despite the presence of a stone wall. It also made human photography difficult, as Justin had to make over a dozen attempts before he was able to get a photo of me where my blowing hair wasn't obscuring my face.

We then retraced our steps and scaled a seemingly endless set of stairs up to O'Brien's Tower to see what we could see, though we ultimately opted not to pay an additional entrance fee for the tower itself. The view from ground level was more than sufficient. Besides, we were still high enough above the water that signs were posted everywhere touting access to a suicide prevention hotline -- apparently, the spot is popular with unfortunate souls seeking a watery end to their suffering.

Back in the car, we consulted about what to do for lunch, and narrowed down the choices to a seafood restaurant in nearby Doolin and a well-reviewed pub in Ballyvaughan, which was much further away, but closer to our next destination of the Burren. Fatefully, we decided to try the place in Ballyvaughan, and we set about our way. After a good amount of driving, we found ourselves in an ominously quiet fishing village, and were directed to Monk's, the pub, by numerous signs throughout the town. When we got there, however, we were dismayed to find it closed for the off season. And not only was it closed, just about everything else in town was closed for the season as well.

We parked right next to this sign in Ballyvaughan. It turned out to be an omen for how the rest of our day would go.
With everything shuttered, we had no choice but to press on without food and to power through our tour of the Burren. The word "burren" derives from the Gaelic term for "rocky land" or boireann. Its proximity to the word "barren" is evocative, however, as the land consists primarily of exposed tracts and layers of limestone. British conquerors described it as "a savage land, yielding neither water enough to drown a man, nor tree to hang him, nor soil enough to bury."

In our state of hunger, we could offer little protest to that assessment, as we could find neither food to eat, nor bathroom to use. We stopped first at the site of Poulnabrone Dolmen, a neolithic burial site in the portal tomb style. A massive stone was perched on top of two supporting rocks, tilted upward to the heavens. The remains of nearly three dozen individuals were discovered beneath the overhang, and though it was smaller than I expected, it was still worth seeing, as it is supposedly the best-preserved specimen of this type of tomb in Ireland.

Next, we attempted to see the Cathermore Stone Fort, a stone circle also dating from the Neolithic era, where there was supposed to be a visitors' center, and hence, a restroom. However, we discovered the entire site to be closed for maintenance during the winter months. Desperate for a chance to relieve ourselves at this point, we made a beeline for the Burren Center, the principle visitors' center for the region. Unfortunately, every other attraction we passed on the way was similarly closed, so the best we could do was take in the rugged landscape, take a few photo ops at scenic overlooks, and do our darndest to ignore our bladders.

Maddeningly, when we finally arrived at the Burren Center, we found it locked as well, with a small sign indicating that it would reopen in mid-March. Scrambling for an alternative, we ordered the GPS to take us to the nearest gas station, which turned out to be little more than an antiquated gas pump located outside a filthy service station. I told Justin he could try it if he wanted, but there was no way in hell I'd be using any toilet there.

As it turned out, the service station didn't have a toilet on premises, but the owner lived across the street and offered to let us use the bathroom in his home. Irish generosity prevailed and kept us from peeing in the bushes, though we felt obligated to buy €27 worth of diesel in exchange. After that, we concluded that it was time to put an end to our ill-fated journey through the Burren, by far the worst disaster in my history of off-season travel. Usually, travelling in the off-season offers a respite from the crowds in exchange for sub-optimal weather, but never have I experienced so many closures and lack of amenities as I did in the Burren.

We made our way to our hotel for the evening in Galway, our empty stomachs grumbling mightily, and making us grumpy beyond recognition. Being a larger population center, we were guaranteed to find sustenance at long last, but it had started to rain as we pulled into town, and despite receiving a map from the concierge annotated with restaurant recommendations, we managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost. Wet, crabby, and frustrated with a day that had gone rather less well than planned, I was about at the end of my rope by the time we finally located two of the suggested restaurants. Both were more expensive than I was hoping for, but at that point, I didn't care, I just wanted to eat.

The place we selected ended up being the most expensive meal of our trip so far, but it was comforting, and more importantly, it put us in a much better frame of mind. Justin wanted to walk around after dinner and see more of the city, but given that it was dark, still raining, and nothing was open but pubs and restaurants, I lobbied successfully for a return to the hotel, where we could put our day behind us and start fresh in the morning.

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