Traci hit the treadmill Tuesday morning and sent me to McDonalds to get breakfast. I had an Egg McMuffin and picked up an oatmeal for Traci. Oatmeal is called porridge in this part of the world. It is served with your choice of jelly or syrup.
On the agenda for the day was our departure for the first of two excursions I had booked online before our arrival in Ireland. We were scheduled to do the Bunratty Castle Medieval Banquet & Cliffs of Moher excursion offered by Railtours Ireland. Because this was a 2-day tour, Traci and I needed to check out of the Academy Plaza Hotel. We made our way to Heuston Train Station by 11 AM. We met John, our Railtours representative, who was dressed in the company's identifiable bright yellow jacket. As we followed him to the train, I asked where the rest of our tour group was. He told me that Traci and I were his only clients that day. He told us this was Ireland's low tourist season. He said their high season would not begin until St. Patrick's Day which was about a week and a half away.
John used a Railtours Ireland sign to reserve a table for Traci and me on the 11:25 AM train to Galway. He traveled with us but sat at a different table. I slept during most of the 2.5-hour train ride. Upon our arrival in Galway, John informed us that we would have 4 hours to explore Galway on our own before we would need to be back at the station to be picked up by a shuttle bus to continue the rest of our tour package. This was fine but we had a minor problem. Traci and I were traveling with two 50-pound suitcases in addition to our backpacks. John led us to the Left Luggage at the Galway train station. I had seen these Left Luggage signs at several locations since arriving in Ireland. I assumed they were some sort of lost and found but they are luggage storage facilities. The fee was €5 per bag (approximately $6.50/bag) regardless of size. We left our two large suitcases and kept our backpacks with us. We were warned that the Left Luggage closes at 6 PM. This was not a major issue for us since it was the same time we needed to be back at the station to continue our tour. In hindsight, I really should have inquired about leaving our luggage at the Academy Plaza Hotel since we would be returning there the following day. Oh well, lesson learned.
4 hours in Galway. What are we supposed to do with this luggage?
Galway City is also known as the "City of Tribes" because it used to be ruled by 14 tribes long ago. Today Galway is one of Ireland's largest cities. We exited the train station and found ourselves in Eyre Square, a touristy section of the city. Like what we experienced at Grafton street in Dublin, this area of Galway has a pedestrian-only street called Shoppe Street. There are many shops, pubs, restaurants, stores, and street entertainers. The side streets are not pedestrian-only but are just as busy.
Shopping has never been my thing. Traci does not do as much shopping as she used to do. Therefore, we wondered what we would do for the next four hours. Then I remembered the Christmas gift Traci gave me shortly after we received the wedding invitation that brought us to Ireland. It was a box of flashcards called Village Walks Ireland. I happened to have them in my backpack. I found the flashcard for the Galway City walk and we set off to explore.
Traci and I did not do so well with following the instructions on the card. The first stop we were supposed to make was Lynch's Castle. Even though the card had a map on the back, we still could not find this castle. The problem we had was that there are very few street names posted in Ireland. If you are lucky, you might see one posted on the side of a building but don't count on it. Traci and I joked that if we were on the TV show "The Amazing Race" we would have been eliminated in the first episode.
We did manage to find some of the other sites listed on the card such as the home of Nora Barnacle, the wife of the famous Irish writer James Joyce. Her house is now a museum that happened to be closed that day. We had a look around in the magnificent Galway Cathedral. I was impressed with its massive pipe organ.
We occasionally deviated from the walk listed on our flashcard to explore some of the side streets. There seemed to be a barbershop or beauty shop on every corner. We even found a black beauty shop that sold black hair products. Yes, there are black people who call Ireland home. We stopped in a wonderful little bakery called Sweetie Pies to have cupcakes and hot drinks (tea and hot chocolate with marshmallows) to warm us up.
About three hours into our Galway walk, we decided to try to find that elusive castle again. This time we found it! We had actually walked past it several times that day. It is now an AIB Bank which looks nothing like the castle image in our minds. Inside the bank are pictures and postings describing how the castle once looked.
And people say I'm a quiet guy. These two have got me beat.
We found the Nora Barnacle House Museum but it was closed that day.
We found Lynch's Castle. It is now a bank.
Having found most of the attractions on the flashcard, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. It was starting to rain and it was almost time for us to make our way back to the train station. However, Traci, being the thorough person she is, would not be truly happy until we found everything listed on the card. Our last site was a modern art creation in Eyre Square. We found it but Traci decided not to take a picture of it because it was rusted and contained graffiti.
We retrieved our suitcases from the Left Luggage at the train station and waited at the parking lot for a Railtours shuttle. After several minutes, a man stepped out of a Mercedes Benz and asked if we were waiting for Railtours. We affirmed and he told us he was our transportation for the next leg of our excursion. Once again, Traci and I were the only clients doing the package that day, so we were chauffeured to the town of Bunratty in style.
Our driver kept us engaged in good conversation during the 1.5-hour drive to Bunratty. He told us about Galway, life in Ireland, and himself. He used to be a fisherman in the North Atlantic.
Traci and I were scheduled to check into Bunratty Castle Hotel and then attend a medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle adjacent to the hotel. Before dropping us off at the hotel, our driver drove us around the castle to show us the entrance since it can be tricky to find - especially at night.
At the hotel, we showed our Railtours voucher to get checked in. Bunratty Castle Hotel is a very nice modern hotel. We had a spacious room at the end of a wing that smelled as if it had just been painted. We did not smell the paint while inside our room. We had free in-room Wi-Fi. I was surprised to find this hotel actually had wash clothes.
We dropped off our luggage and soon headed outside into the rainy night to walk to Bunratty Castle for the banquet. Despite being shown the castle entrance by our driver earlier, Traci and I still struggled to find the entrance. We could hear a bagpiper welcoming guests but it seemed each direction we walked ended with a gate. By the time we reached the moat, the bagpiper was gone. Fortunately, we still had 10 minutes to spare before the 9 PM festivities began.
We were greeted by a host and hostess dressed in medieval fashion. They led us up a narrow spiral staircase where we joined other guests in a rustic reception hall. Everyone was served a honey wine called mead. I took a few sips. It was really good. We were entertained by a harpist and a fiddler. After a while, the host told us a little about the castle and some of the relics that were in the reception hall such as the 500-year old tapestries hanging from the walls.
We were led upstairs to the dining hall and seated at long tables. We were served a four-course meal consisting of soup, chicken, spare ribs, vegetables, and dessert. Since this was a medieval banquet, we were not given any eating utensils other than a dagger (knife). We had to eat with our hands and drink our soup from the bowl. While enjoying the delicious meal, we were entertained by choral singers who sang Renaissance music and some traditional Irish songs. They sounded great. Occasionally, people were pulled from the audience to participate in the entertainment. I was volunteered to be an official taster for the king. The evening concluded with everyone being served tea downstairs before being sent on their way into the cold rainy night. It was a fun evening.
entertaining guests in the grand reception hall
eating soup medieval-style - no utensils
choral singing after dinner
Traci was up by 7 AM the next morning to work out in the hotel's impressive fitness center. I, on the other hand, snoozed in the comfortable bed for as long as I could. A full Irish breakfast buffet in the hotel's dining room was included in our tour package. Besides Traci and me, there was only one other diner that morning. There was black pudding on the buffet but I did not eat any this time.
Once again, it was time for Traci and me to gather our belongings and check out. This was our sixth day in Ireland and all of our lodging thus far had been one-night stays. Consequently, Traci and I had become efficient at handling our luggage.
On this morning, we were to be in the lobby of our hotel at 9:45 to be picked by Railtours to continue our tour package. I was not sure what kind of vehicle would greet us because so far, it had only been Traci and me doing this particular package. At 9:45 AM on the dot, a motorcoach pulled up. Out stepped a man wearing a bright yellow Railtours Ireland jacket. Traci and I boarded the bus and finally saw the rest of our tour group. There were 18 of us - all from the U.S..
We were driven next door to Bunratty Castle and led inside for a 30-minute narrated tour. Our guide gave an outstanding presentation on the castle's history, occupants, living conditions, and renovations. Most of the lecture took place in the reception hall and the dining hall - the same places Traci and I visited the previous evening for the medieval banquet.
We were given an hour to explore the castle and the adjacent Folk Park on our own before we needed to be back on the bus. Bunratty Castle really impressed me. It is what I imaged a medieval castle to be. It was drafty. There are secret windows and doors. There is a dungeon. The castle has been furnished with period furniture and tapestries. Traci and I climbed the narrow staircases of each of the four towers and hung out on the roof of the castle.
exploring Bunratty Castle
exploring Bunratty Castle
We took a walk through the Folk Park before heading back to the bus. The Folk Park is recreations of 19th century Irish homes - both rural and urban. We entered some of the farmhouses and fisherman homes. Each had peat burning in the fireplaces. This left the homes slightly smoky and with the distinctive burning peat smell. We barely scratched the surface of this 26-acre Folk Park in our allotted time. The Shannon Heritage organization has done an outstanding job with Bunratty Castle and the Folk Park.
Bunratty Castle and Folk Park surroundings
By the time we reached our meeting point, we were informed that because we have a relatively small tour group, our belongings had been moved from the motorcoach to a smaller shuttle bus that will transport us for the remainder of our tour.
We were driven about an hour to the small town of Doolin. Doolin is a popular location for surfers. It was immediately clear why when we stepped off the bus and walked to the rocky shore. These were some of the largest waves I have ever seen. You would definitely need to be a daredevil to try surfing in this violent water. Furthermore, this is not a warm, sunny location. It was cold and windy. Nonetheless, we saw people suiting up in preparation for a surfing adventure.
Our group had lunch in Doolin at Gus O'Connor's Pub. Traci had chicken and vegetables. I had the Guinness Beef Stew and a can of my new favorite soft drink on this trip - Club orange soda. The beef stew did not taste any different than other beef stews I've had. We enjoyed our meals. Traci also ordered the apple dessert and ice cream but I was too full to help her eat it.
enjoyed our lunch
The next destination on our tour was one of Ireland's major attractions - The Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs of Moher are where the edge of Ireland meets the Atlantic Ocean in the form of 700-foot cliffs. There are several paths that allow visitors to see these dramatic drop-offs. There is also a visitor center where there are presentations about the geology and wildlife of the area. We were given an hour and twenty minutes to experience the Cliffs of Moher however we chose. Everyone was warned to not to stray from the paths because the cliffs are constantly eroding. Occasionally, a chunk of land falls into the ocean. They did not have to tell me twice. I have a fear of heights. I would not categorize my fear as an extreme phobia but it is enough to cause my knees to feel weak when standing in high places such as this. Despite the warning, I saw tourists standing very close to the edge in hopes of getting a radical photo. Traci and I were told by several people we met in Ireland to dress in layers when going to cliffs. This turned out to be great advice because it was cold and windy. When it gets too windy, the attraction is closed. This was not the case on the day we visited but we met other tourists during our time in Ireland who were not able to visit the cliffs because of the winds. We had a good time at the Cliffs of Moher. I would have liked to have checked out the visitor center but we ran out of time.
Our driver took a scenic route back to Galway. We were driven along the coast and through farmlands where sheep and cattle grazed. One of the distinctive features of this part of the country is the use of dry stone walls instead of fences to delineate property. These stones are plentiful and last a very long time. Our guide pointed out famine graveyards where victims of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 are buried. Some of these victims have never been identified. We made a quick photo stop at the Burren, a field of limestone slabs of rock.
dry stone wall
We eventually arrived back in Galway City. Our driver made two hotel stops to drop off two couples who were doing a multi-day version of this tour. The rest of us were let off at Galway train station. We were given an hour and a half to roam around Galway City on our own before we needed to be back at the train station. Once again, Traci and I had to deal with our two large suitcases. Since it was almost closing time for the Left Luggage office, our tour guide made special arrangements to allow us leave our luggage there and pick them up an hour after closing. We still had to pay the €5/bag fee. As our tour guide so politely put it, "I'm afraid the fee is unavoidable." The friendly man at the Left Luggage office recognized Traci and me from the previous day. This time, he allowed us to leave all four of our bags but only charged us for two of them.
Traci and I had already spent four hours exploring Galway the previous day. Rather than go in and out of the shops and stores for an hour and a half, we decided to find somewhere to eat dinner. After all, we had not eaten anything since lunch almost 6 hours ago. We ended up eating pasta at an Italian restaurant called Venice Cafe located on one of the side streets. I must have still been full from the Guinness Beef Stew I had at lunch because there was still a lot of pasta on my plate when I told our waiter I was finished.
Traci and I joined the rest of our tour group at the Galway train station for the 7:15 PM train to Dublin. Our guide reserved an entire railcar for our group. As we got closer to Dublin, our guide came around to each party in our tour group to make sure we had transportation arrangements for getting to our hotels from Heuston Station. When Traci and I told him we were staying at the Academy Plaza Hotel, he suggested we take a taxi so that we would not get lost. We assured him we were comfortable with taking the LUAS tram. We must have made a convincing argument because a family in our group who was also booked at the same hotel asked if they could join us.
Our guide waited at the tram stop with us and saw us off. We made it to the Academy Plaza Hotel with no problems. The family that had joined Traci and me thanked us for showing them this convenient transportation option. They were surprised at how fast we made it there from the train station. Most of all, they were happy with how inexpensive the tram was compared to a taxi.
This was our third time checking into the Academy Plaza Hotel. It was starting to feel like our home away from home. We were especially looking forward to this stay because this would be the first time since arriving in Ireland that we would be staying in the same accommodation for consecutive nights. We would be at the Academy Plaza for three consecutive nights this time. Better yet, these three nights were free thanks to our Best Western points. After checking in, we went to bed. It had been an exciting two-day excursion with Railtours but it left us exhausted. continue...