Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ireland!!: Glencolmcille, Slieve League, & That General Area

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Killybegs is a fishing town in the southwest section of County Donegal. There wasn't anything special in that particular town that made us decide to book there - it was mostly because of its location convenient to both Ardara and Slieve League/Glencolmcille (all places we knew we wanted to go) and because the B&B we found there came very highly reviewed on TripAdvisor and was the right price.

We checked in at Drumbeagh House, and although J had reserved a standard single, since we were the only ones there both nights, they upgraded her to an ensuite triple! We had tea and snacks when we arrived, and one of the owners, Tom, came by to chat us up. After discussing the Irish economy for a while (cheery topic...) and stuff about the area, he offered to give us a ride into town to the restaurant he had recommended. It's only a five minute walk or so, but we accepted anyway. He really talked up the restaurant, 22 Main Street, but when we saw the menu it turned out to be a bit more than we wanted to spend. We were reaching the end of the vacation and starting to hit the end of our budgets....so we went to a chipper down the street called Melly's. We still wanted to be able to say we went to 22 because we knew they were going to ask about it, though, so we ended up getting dessert there, as they looked pretty interesting and were not bad at 5 EUR each. Man, were they ever surprised when we walked in and said we only wanted dessert - seafood is their thing, and it makes sense in a fishing port. In retrospect, maybe we should have just had dinner there, but the cost of eating out in Ireland was starting to get on our nerves at that point. It's too bad Killybegs didn't have something that was more of a no-nonsense good fish restaurant, a la No Name in Boston. Anyway, dessert was really fun - for a couple of us. I had fondue for one, which came with strawberries, toasted marshmallows, and a shot of champagne, and was good. My husband had something totally fascinating - it was listed on the menu as "Bailey's Carrageen Moss" which was a complete mystery to us. The waitress explained that carrageen moss is a type of seaweed and the dessert was kind of like creme brulee Irish-ized. She said in the past people soaked the seaweed in milk or something and ate it like that. He decided to order it. There were actually bits of seaweed in it that were kind of weird, but overall it was totally edible, although he wouldn't order it again next time. J was the one who didn't luck out - her baked alaska was very pretty and delicious-looking, but she thought the fruit inside tasted canned, and there was a torn piece of paper or cardboard or something in it. The waitress and the owner?/chef? who came by to talk to us were so nice that she couldn't bring herself to complain about the paper , and I probably wouldn't have been able either. (Yet here I am talking about it on the internet where anyone can see...) But, 22 gets great reviews online and from other people at the B&B so I guess maybe we shouldn't get too carried away with an opinion based on the baked alaska.

Guess I went on about that long enough. After dinner, instead of blowing more cash in a pub - we didn't see any that appeared to have music - we came back to the sitting room of the B&B, which was all ours, and drank some of our whiskey. They also have a computer with internet access in the sitting room which is handy, but after I checked my email I was sorry I had. Nothing really bad in particular was in there - just reminders of some of the draggy bits of daily life that I didn't really need on vacation. Don't do it.

The next morning Tom did ask us how we liked 22 and we just said yes with no details! Breakfast was your choice of the usual Irish cooked breakfast or local smoked salmon, both of which were the best we had anywhere (and since they were pretty much all good - it was really good).

Then we were off! We drove north from Killybegs and then turned westward to approach the shore via the Glengesh Pass, a beautiful green valley with kind of concave hills. It was also marked as Gaeltacht. It seemed every time we saw a Gaeltacht sign we drove into a big empty area. Once you get over the top of the pass, you can see all the way to the ocean.

Glencolmcille sounded interesting for having some ancient ruins that were later Christianized by carving crosses and things on them, plus some later ruins associated with St. Colmcille. The town and the ruins are a little spread out, though, and we felt a little bit lost when we arrived. We came upon a couple of carved rocks and a church first, then after driving further down a road that was getting smaller and scarier all the time, we ended in a farmyard and saw a sign for a well. We got out and went off that way through a pasture full of sheep in search of the well, but the sign was a little vague. We thought we found it when we found a little rock with some water at the base, but that turned out to be a feature called "Colmcille's Chair". We knew the real well immediately when we found it - check out the pictures!!

Glencolmcille, Slieve League, Kilcar, & Killybegs Mai 11

On top of the small hill just behind the well, there's a beautiful outlook over the shore and Glencolmcille. We stood there being amazed for a while, then headed to some ruins we'd spotted from above on the other side of the farmyard. Most of these sites were marked with signs indicating that they are part of a turas, or pilgrimage. The sites are very far apart and later the lady at the post office told us that people used to do it barefoot (but not anymore - all I could think of was all that sheep doo we passed through on the way to the well!). We found what seemed to be more of a town center than anything we'd been through yet and the tourist info office turned out to also be a general store. I think Glencolmcille had about 5 general stores. It was an interesting shop, selling things like locally-knit baby clothes in addition to the usual postcards and picture frames. We even found a package of carrageen moss, harvested by nearby Kilcar! It had a recipe on the back for mousse made with the seaweed, but it's strained out, not left in, so we got it and are going to try it. We also checked out a local Irish-language center which has a really great shop. I found some Christmas cards I really liked with a Celtic knot border that looked like pretzels, so it would have been all Irish and German-like at the same time, but that tweed purse was still in the back of my mind so I talked myself out of it.

We had sandwiches from the grocery store deli for lunch while sitting at a lookout point over the ocean, then checked out a few more dolmens south of Glencolmcille. A couple were in a field full of sheep that wouldn't stop creepily staring at us. Another seemed to have been incorporated into the landscaping of someone's house, and the third wasn't accessible, although it looked like it had been at one point.

We drove to Slieve League and parked at the lower parking lot so we could walk up the rest of the way. We thought it was going to be just up the hill so we didn't bring much with us, but it was a lot farther than we thought! So if you park in the lower lot - it's right before a gate - take your rain gear & stuff with you! On the way you pass an old tower built back in the days of Napoleon to watch out in case he tried to invade, and there's a short path out to it. At the end you get to a parking lot and a view of the highest accessible sea cliffs in Europe. If you have more time you can walk up to the top of the highest one on a trail called the Pilgrim's Path - but the path along the clifftops is currently closed. There was a coffee and donut truck in the parking lot and we couldn't resist the donut smell and the friendly guy working there. I think the mini-donuts from the truck were one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.

We made our way back to Killybegs via a route that sort of followed the coast. We stopped in Kilcar, another tweedy place, in hopes of finding that purse - AND FOUND IT at Studio Donegal, another, larger place where they handweave tweed. It wasn't the purse I'd dream up if I had to design it myself, but it was probably as close as we were going to get and as my husband was sick of hearing about "the tweed purse" I was going to get one day, he insisted that I get it. I also had seen a patchwork tweed scarf somewhere that I really liked, but that I thought I could make on my own if I could get some scraps, so we asked if they sold scraps. They do, for 10 EUR per kilo, and they let me go upstairs to where they do all the work to look through a big box of scraps and pick some out and weigh it on the scale in their office. I got a kilo of scraps and took it to the counter. The checkout guy was nice and I was getting used to everyone being chatty so I played that game and brought up the gorse fires for some reason. Wow, I found the right topic. I think he talked for like ten minutes without even taking a breath about the gorse fires and how bad they were and how they were started on purpose and how they had destroyed a lot of trees at Bonny Glen that had been ready to harvest for lumber, then he moved on to peat (he called it turf) bogs and the different types of them and how you have to be careful walking around in a peat bog because there can be deep holes full of water and you can get killed in them. Wow. So, we learned something in addition to getting some tweed. Kilcar is awesome. It also had a Mary shrine and a disproportionate number of pubs with unpronounceable names (still in Gaeltacht). We also saw a St. Kieran/Ciaran shrine and well on our way back to Killybegs! Shrines are really thick there!

We stopped at the B&B to drop everything off before heading out again for dinner and drinks, and to find that folk music that had been eluding us. Tom caught us and we asked if he knew of any place in town that would have music, and he couldn't think of any, so we asked about Ardara and he thought they would. Off to Ardara - where we found ourselves back at Nancy's again for dinner! That's the no-nonsense seafood place I was thinking of! The menu is small, but the most expensive thing on it is the same price as the cheapest thing at 22 Main Street. That's what Killybegs needs. It wasn't too busy there and we had a spot where we could overhear the discussion at the bar, which appeared to actually be all locals, surprising for a place that could have been guidebooked to death. They talked about the queen's impending visit ("WHOSE queen!?" asked one) and one of them, about playing music later at The Corner House down the street! We went there after dinner, and sure enough, she was there 45 minutes later to play the whistle. They had a fiddler, the girl on whistle, and later an accordion guy. Fiddler wanted to play lots of slow sad things and some modern folk tunes, while accordion guy wanted to play some more upbeat instrumental things, so they ended up switching off. I was hoping for more of the latter with some party atmosphere but it was still a nice evening. The road back to Killybegs was blissfully empty. When we got back to the B&B my husband noticed I'd still left my bag o' tweed in the car and was insistent that I should bring it in (he likes to use his new stuff right away, while I like to admire it in its pre-trashed state for a couple of days first) so he went back down to get it and brought it in. Later this turned into a problem...

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