August 27, 2013

Irish Faith and Iconic Irish Beauty


"That's right, there's free beer in Irish paradise.  Everyone's jealous."   Kevin Hearne, Hammered

Carol writes:  Once I had obtained the medications I needed to get me headed on the road to recovery, we felt confident enough to venture on with our travels into the Republic of Ireland.  I must confess that it was somewhat by accident that we ended up making our first stop for the night in County Mayo in the small town of Knock, which we had only recently learned was the home of Ireland’s major Catholic pilgrimage site.  Since much of Irish history is intricately interwoven with its strongly predominant Catholic faith, we could think of no better introduction to Ireland than a visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock. 

On a rainy evening in August 1879, fifteen witnesses claim to have had an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist, along with the figure of a lamb on an altar in front of a large cross (symbolic of the Lamb of God).  According to the story, the witnesses watched the vision for 2 hours in the pouring rain while they recited the Rosary.  This apparition was beautifully represented by a simple but elegant statuary display in the Visitation Chapel.

I was somewhat perplexed as to why I had never heard of this event and why it had never been mentioned at any point throughout my Catholic grade school education, even though the Marian vision at Knock has been recognized and sanctioned as trustworthy by the Catholic Church on two separate occasions.  In fact, in 1979 during Pope John Paul II’s visit to Knock for the shrine’s centennial celebration, the Pope called his visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock the goal of his journey to Ireland.  A large papal pilgrimage cross commemorates this visit.

As we walked around the pilgrimage site, we witnessed the daily afternoon ‘rosary procession’ as it snaked its way from the modern-day basilica to the Apparition Chapel.  Dozens of clergy and thousands of pilgrims took part in reciting the rosary as they marched in procession.  I found it interesting that the last decade of the rosary was recited in Gaelic.


So, it was immediately made apparent to us that Ireland’s Catholic faith is still very much a part of the daily life of its people.

From a more secular point of view, Ireland is also noted for its iconic scenery, and we got a good introduction to the so-called “40 shades of green” seen in the Irish countryside of Connemara and County Mayo, along with the “50 shades of gray” (couldn’t resist…) seen in its ubiquitous stone fences and very old buildings of stone.

Ireland is a very large island sticking way out into the Atlantic Ocean, literally the most western point on the European continent.  Such a location almost guarantees rain showers or mists of some degree on most days.  Our challenge was to try and pick the ‘most favorable’ days for our grand scenic drives.  We thought we had the weather forecast all figured out and had carefully selected the day to drive along ‘The Burren,’ a unique geologic formation of windblown limestone wasteland in County Clare,

and then on down to see the dramatic seaside ‘Cliffs of Moher’ soaring  650 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.  In the past 5 months the weather hasn’t aced us out from doing anything we have wanted to do, but as soon as we arrived at the parking lot of the Cliffs of Moher it was obvious our Irish luck had run out.  Within minutes, all we could see was a fog bank at cliff’s edge, leaving us only to imagine what the famous Cliffs of Moher really looked like.

We have a saying in Colorado that if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it will change.  The same sort of principle also seems to operate in Ireland…on some days.  During the half hour or so that we were inside the Visitor’s Center looking at some of the displays, the cloud bank moved inland and we had a miraculous break in visibility.  We headed back out to the cliffs and discovered our luck had taken an Irish turn…

Irish people seem to take the weather as it comes and accept that they will experience lots of rain in their life.  However, the typical tourist eagerly looks forward to any day that is predicted to have very low chances of showers, and we were no exception.  The next day the weather in Killarney was predicted to be mostly sunny, just the opportunity we had been waiting for to do some serious housecleaning and RV sanitizing, along with a sizable load of laundry.  We lucked out…


While we were in Killarney, we took the opportunity to visit Killarney National Park, Ireland’s first national park.  We took a tour of a stately Victorian mansion named Muckross House, the park’s chief tourist attraction,

and afterwards had a very nice stroll in the gardens along trails through groves of magnificent gigantic and exotic trees.

Our first week in Ireland proved to us what any tourist knows:  the weather can greatly add to or detract from any outdoor experience.  Our enjoyment of the next two destinations in our travels would be very weather dependent.  We have planned to do a day’s drive each along two rings of very scenic roads on two prominent peninsulas projecting out into the infamous Atlantic Ocean in westernmost lovely County Kerry—the so-called ‘Ring of Kerry’ drive on the Iveragh Peninsula, and the shorter ring drive at the tip of the smaller Dingle Peninsula.  Would the weather play a factor during either ring drive? 

"There are only two kinds of people in the world, The Irish and those who wish they were."  Anonymous


      

August 23, 2013

Carol's NHS Experience

"A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures."  Unknown

Carol writes:  Living a wandering, busy life on the road for an extended period of time becomes much more challenging when one of us gets sick.  One of the most tiresome of illnesses is the relentless hacking cough that is worse at night.  After eight days, we mutually decided that I needed the services of a doctor for help with my never-ending cough.   We asked campground personnel how to go about obtaining urgent but non-emergency medical care on a Sunday.  We were told to go to the local hospital where there was a clinic of doctors that operated ‘out of hours.’  This turned out to be South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen.  Oh, what a big beautiful new complex it was!
 




We found out later that the hospital had only been opened a year ago in a ceremony conducted by Queen Elizabeth. 

Pictures from the outside didn’t do this hospital justice.  Inside I felt like I was in a futuristic medical facility with windows everywhere along tall, airy corridors.  It was Sunday, so maybe that partly explained the largely empty long, long corridors.  The view outside the cafeteria windows was of cows grazing in a luscious green field.


A few feet beyond the hospital entrance door I was buzzed into the after-hours clinic and was told walk-ins were not seen there and that I needed to call for an appointment.  I was given a paper with the number to call, so we went back outside for cell phone coverage and called for an appointment.  A nice nurse asked me a series of questions to help her decide my method of treatment.  I told her I thought I needed to be seen since I had been sick for over a week and I wasn’t getting any better; she agreed.  It was noon by now, and the nurse booked me an appointment for 12:05.  She said I would be buzzed right in, and that is exactly what happened.  There was only one other patient waiting to be seen--a little boy with his mother.


Within 5 minutes, I was called into the exam room by a nice young Irish doctor.  He listened to my history of why I was there, all the while nodding his head as if he had heard these symptoms many times before.  A quick listen to my lungs confirmed that I had a “little phlegm” at the bottom on the left side.  The doctor then rolled his chair over to a medication cupboard and handed me a complete course of antibiotics and some antibiotic eye ointment for my red and inflamed eyes.  Al asked about something for the cough at night so we both could get some sleep, and he promptly gave me a computer-generated prescription for a cough medicine containing codeine.  He did not have this in his medication supply cupboard, but he said I could fill it in town only between 5 and 6:30 that evening since the pharmacy was open only for an hour and a half on Sundays.

We shared small talk with the doctor about what he perceived as our travels of a lifetime, and he seemed curious and approving.  As we left to go, we asked about payment for the visit and medications and we were told the visit and the prescriptions were free of charge, courtesy of the National Health Service.  I had made it plain on check-in that I was an American citizen, but that didn’t matter—all of my medical needs that day would be free of charge in Northern Ireland!

Back out in the hospital parking lot, we spent a few hours in the RV playing cribbage, then went into Enniskillen and obtained my codeine cough medicine in about 5 minutes—once again, free of charge and with no hassle over getting a medication with a narcotic component.

I must admit I was a little surprised that at no point was I asked to show an ID, either at the clinic or at the pharmacy in Enniskillen.  I did not have to fill out reams of paperwork giving my entire medical history and that of my family.  The only information I had to provide at the clinic was my name and address.  At the pharmacy, the clerk simply called my name out and gave me my medication.

Both Al and I were flabbergasted at how easy it was for me to get medical care under the government-run National Health Service.  The fact that a foreign traveler would also be treated—at no cost and with zero paperwork—was astounding!  It was gratifying in so many ways to be in a country that values human dignity and provides healthcare for all its citizens.  It has been pointed out to us many times in our conversations with other travelers that America is perceived as having the ‘best’ and ‘biggest’ of many things…and at cheaper prices.  Some speak in almost envious tones.  However, lack of medical insurance for 50 million of our citizens is not something I brag about.  In the United Kingdom healthcare for its citizens is provided by both private and government-run agencies, with the vast majority being provided by the government and paid for through taxation.  In every instance, when we have asked about the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, to a person they have all been happy with it and their choice of doctors.

By the way, Al and I had a blessed night’s sleep the first night I took my codeine-containing cough medicine.  I am on the mend!

In conclusion, many people in the eight countries we have visited so far have subtlety let us know that they look up to the United States.  Every one of them has spoken very approvingly of President Obama, and they wonder why he is involved in so many political disagreements.  The only other blatantly political reference I will make in this blog is:  Why can’t we compromise and find a way to make medical care available to all of our citizens who need it?

Off the soapbox for now and on with the rest of our travels…

“Sláinte!”  Irish Gaelic for Cheers/Health   

  

 

August 22, 2013

First Days in Northern Ireland


"If you're lucky enough to be Irish, then you're lucky enough."  Unknown

 
Carol writes:  We used Stena Line ferry to cross the Irish Sea from Cairnryan, Scotland, to Belfast, Northern Ireland.  Stena Line offered a big, comfortable, modern ship complete with slot machines, optional pricey staterooms where you could catch a nap, and a spa for those who really wanted to pamper themselves.  We felt fortunate that the seas were very calm for the 2-1/4-hour crossing.


Soon we sighted the coast of Northern Ireland,


and in no time at all were had negotiated Belfast traffic and were checked into a campground from which we could make an easy day trip the next day to see two of Northern Ireland’s most famous sights—the geologic marvel at the World Heritage Site of the Giant’s Causeway, followed by the world-famous Old Bushmills Distillery.

The Giant’s Causeway was unlike any geologic formation we had ever seen.  Volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago formed lava flows which cooled into formations of 5- and 6-sided basalt columns which gradually separated from one another by means of settling and erosion.  There was one excellent spot where the height of the columns could be appreciated. 


 

For the most part, the columns themselves were buried underground and only the top surface was visible, creating what looked like a geologic alligator skin which sloped gently into the sea.



 



 


Of course, that is the scientific explanation for how the Giant’s Causeway was formed.  Irish legend has it that a giant Ulster warrior named Finn MacCool made a stone bridge across the Irish Sea so he could spy on a rival giant living on an island off the coast of Scotland, and indeed, the Giant’s Causeway formation extends undersea all the way to the island of Staffa just off the coast of Scotland.  Perhaps there is really something to that fairytale version…

For a change of pace, we made a stop on the way back to the campground at nearby Old Bushmills Distillery, makers of world-famous Irish whiskey (whiskey with the ‘e’ in Ireland) at what is claimed to be the world’s oldest distillery.  An interesting half-hour tour of the plant explained how Old Bushmills was made from Irish-grown barley.  It seemed important that we understand the difference between Old Bushmills and Scotch whisky because this was also addressed during the Talisker Distillery tour.  The basic giant distillation apparatus and the resultant chemical process sounded and looked similar for both types of whiskey/whisky; however, Talisker whisky undergoes two distillations and the barley is dried using peat smoke, whereas Old Bushmills is distilled 3 times and the barley is dried without the use of peat smoke, making it smoother to the palate and without the peaty flavor.  A more desirable taste?

In the taste room at the conclusion of the tour,  Al sampled the 10-year Old Bushmills while I opted for the hot toddy.  Neither of us was disappointed!  My hot toddy tasted heavenly on my sore throat, and Al clearly preferred his Old Bushmills over the peat smoke quality of Talisker’s. 

In the gift shop we splurged on the purchase of a bottle of Old Bushmills.
So far, the weather had cooperated in what is usually a very rainy part of the world, and we were eagerly looking forward to doing a giant counterclockwise loop of the island during which we hoped to gain a more thorough understanding of the centuries of history which has divided this emerald gem into two factions.  For decades as young adults, we had grown accustomed to hearing terrible stories about acts of terror and fighting between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland.  This most recent conflict of three decades is known as the “Troubles,” a benign name which certainly implies in a grossly understated way that the complicated historical political and religious issues that divide the two sides are merely ‘troublesome.’

We had left Colorado on March 16th, so our first full day in Northern Ireland at the Giant’s Causeway and Old Bushmills Distillery marked the start of our sixth month on the road.  Such a lifestyle in a small RV can be challenging at times, especially in less than ideal cold and rainy weather.  In addition, we are constantly exposed to thousands of people at the popular tourist sites that we visit, so it came as no surprise that I developed another cold with a relentless hacking cough, once again making for several sleepless nights.  By the eighth day, I had shown no signs of getting any better, and lack of sleep was starting to take its toll on both of us.  The fact that we were still in Northern Ireland, a member of the United Kingdom, became more important than we realized at first. 
 
Each member of the United Kingdom has a unique combination of private and publically funded universal healthcare.  Each member nation provides public healthcare to all UK residents that is free at the point of need, being paid for from general taxation.  I clearly had a need to see a doctor, but what would be the mechanics of obtaining such a service, how much would it cost, and how hard would it be to obtain a prescription drug?  I will cover this experience in the next blog.  Suffice it to say for now, I was pleasantly surprised.

…TO BE CONTINUED


"The longest road out is the shortest road home."  Irish saying
  

 

August 17, 2013

Wild Skye, Whisky, and Robert Burns

“Sky(e) lies open to the west and north to a vast extent of ocean…from the autumnal to the vernal equinox, a dry day is hardly known, except when the showers are suspended by a tempest.”  From the journal of Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1773

Carol writes:  The western coast of Scotland is known for its incredible natural beauty.  One of the crown jewels in this area would have to be the Isle of Skye, a large, rainsoaked peninsula of land sticking out into the Sea of Hebrides.  Some of its most spectacular scenery and unique geologic formations can be seen on a 40-mile loop drive around the Trotternish Peninsula, so that is where we aimed our travels.  Some of the more interesting geologic stops along the loop drive were at the Old Man of Storr,


Kilt Rock, with its layers of vertical volcanic lava columns, and the view of the Outer Hebrides Islands across the inland Sea of Hebrides near the crumbling remains of an ancient MacDonald clan castle.

 

Scotland is known all over the world for its famous whisky—whisky without an “e” is the way it is spelled here.  The next day we took our first whisky tour to see how famous Scottish whisky is made at Talisker’s Distillery, a presence on Skye since 1830.


The drive along the way to Talisker’s displayed some marvelous whisky humor.


Since I knew next to nothing about how whisky was made, the tour taught me a lot about how complicated and special each step was along the way in the secret process of distilling an excellent whisky.  Talisker whisky is known for its strong smoky flavor due to the use of peat smoke during roasting of the barley.  We sampled a wee dram of a 10-year Talisker whisky at the conclusion of the tour.  Although Al was not so fond of the strong smoky taste, I found it to be rather pleasant.  What wasn’t so pleasant was the price for a single bottle of the 35-year-old Talisker’s.  Are there really that many whisky drinkers who would pay upwards of $850 for such a bottle?


OK, we are visiting Scotland, we have to see Loch Ness and discover what is so special about it, right?  Well…I’d advise anyone with time in Scotland to skip all things connected with Loch Ness.  The ‘monster’ stuff has largely been shown to be a tourist-grabbing hoax.  The drive along the shore of Loch Ness was a nail-biter with very narrow two-way lanes, fast drivers, many large trucks, and no extra space on either side of the road.  Trees obscured most of the view of Loch Ness, except in a few coveted pullover spots.  We got our obligatory picture, but I will have to resort to some prankish photo shopping and draw in ‘Nessie’ to make the picture interesting.  There were much prettier drives along other famous Scottish lochs, such as...   


scenic glacier-carved Glencoe Valley,


also known as the ‘Weeping Glen’ because of a terrible massacre of the Campbell clan by the MacDonald clan that occurred on February 13, 1692.  Clan history and rivalries were taken seriously and could be very bloody.

One of our last nights in Scotland was spent in the town of Ayr, best known as the birthplace of Scotland’s beloved national poet Robert Burns.  Among all other famous names in Scottish history, Robert Burns has been voted the most popular.  To this day, every January 25th on his birthday, Scots gather in pubs to read his poems and sing his songs. 

The museum dedicated to Robert Burns had many original manuscripts in his distinctive handwriting.


His writing desk and chair were lovingly preserved in a playful display.


Most interesting for us was fact that the 800-year-old bridge


and the old kirk (church)

 

that were mentioned prominently in his poem “Tam o’ Shanter” still exist and can be visited.  Memorial nods to the poetry of Robert Burns were displayed in many ways—as a giant mouse


and in nifty windblown Tam o’ Shanter weather vanes.


We also visited the Burns Cottage, which has been nicely preserved.


The bed where four of the Burns children were born had an eerie artistic display of floating baby gowns representing Robert and three of his siblings who were born in that bed.


From our brief stay in Ayr, it was obvious to us that Scotland is indeed still in love with Robert Burns.

This brings us to our last night in Scotland for a while.  We have booked a ferry ride for early tomorrow (August 15th) that will take us across the Irish Sea to Belfast, Northern Ireland.  We plan to return to Scotland in a few weeks to visit Edinburgh, after the tourist crowds have lessened a wee bit.

“Haste Ye Back.”  Goodbye seen on many road signs as you leave Scottish villages

August 16, 2013

Old, old Scottish History


“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  Winston Churchill

Carol writes:

CULLODEN BATTLEFIELD:  One of the most pivotal points in Scottish history was decided on April 16, 1746, on the battlefield at Culloden.  Under the leadership of Bonnie Prince Charles, the Jacobite Highlanders of the House of Stuart sought to retake the English throne from the house of Hanover, English royalty of German descent.  At Culloden, the Highlanders were soundly defeated in only one hour, and over 1000 men lost their lives.  For over two centuries, Scottish culture and traditions have been trying to recover from the events that occurred on the battlefield at Culloden. 

Today the battlefield looks much as it did 250 years ago.


Simple, unadorned engraved stones mark the respective areas where each Highlander clan was buried.

The English government troops had their special area set aside too.

 
A simple stone house with a thatched roof that was there on the day of battle has been nicely restored.


So…for the past 250 years Scotland has been a part of the United Kingdom; however, the yearning for independence has never totally disappeared.  Interestingly, we were just recently informed that one of the ballot questions in the next election will be a question on whether Scotland should withdraw from the United Kingdom and become its own independent country.  That will be an interesting election result to watch.  In our conversations with locals, we have heard both sides of what is a very complicated issue.

CLAVA CAIRNS:  Very near Culloden Battlefield, we visited a fascinating Neolithic burial site called Clava Cairns, stone monuments which were built 3000-4000 years ago.  We have been waiting to see some really old burial sites like this.  The simplicity and accessibility of Clava Cairns was especially nice.  

 

 
 At Clava Cairns the entrance shafts to the circular walled enclosures line up with the setting sun at the winter solstice, a feature found in many ancient stone sites.  It has always fascinated me how in-tune ancient civilizations were with their environment, the moon, the sun, the stars, and the passage of the seasons.

ORKNEY ISLANDS:  One of the things you think about a lot on any open-ended trip is how far should we go?  In our case, we wondered how far north on the Earth we would be able to travel in the British Isles.  We took the paved roads as far north as we could on the Scottish coast, and it was a spectacular drive!  We camped in a Caravan Club site that was right above the beach at Dunnet’s Head with only the grass-covered coastal dunes between us and the water.

 

The question we had to decide was whether we should book a car ferry to the nearby Orkney Islands for a few days of camping.  The exorbitant ferry pricing for camping cars caused us to reconsider taking the RV over.  We booked a day excursion instead, and that turned out to be the right decision.  Our ferry/bus tour covered pretty much everything we wanted to see and, for a change, Al could sit back and relax and let somebody else do the driving.

The Orkney Islands are a group of about 70 islands, but only 16 or so of them are inhabited.  Our bus tour would drive us around the largest Orkney Mainland Island and across the connecting Churchill Barriers to two smaller islands.


Our fascination with the Orkney Islands, aside from being the northern most point in our travels, was due to its WW II history and its Neolithic history.  In WW II a large portion of the British fleet used Scapa Flow as a safe harbor when they were not on patrol.  Unfortunately, the Germans knew this and on October 14, 1939, a German submarine snuck into the harbor and sank the battleship H.M.S. Royal Oak with a terrible loss of 833 lives.  As a result, Winston Churchill ordered giant rock barriers to be built in four areas that could be used to gain entrance to the Scapa Flow harbor.  These are known as the Churchill Barriers.  The Orkneys were also used as prisoner-of-war camps.  A delightful little chapel was constructed by some of the Italian prisoners so they would have a place of worship.  Our first tour bus stop was at the ‘Italian Chapel.’

 

It is the Orkney Islands Neolithic history that has put it front and center in the archeological world.  This summer’s ongoing excavations have attracted worldwide attention.  The 4000-year-old Skara Brae site, uncovered by a great storm in the winter of 1850, is one of the most remarkable monuments in Europe.  For us, this small Neolithic village was the highlight of our day trip.

 



 
Our bus tour also took us to two “standing stones” sites—the Ring of Brodgar


and the Standing Stones of Stenness—not of Stonehenge notoriety or complexity but equally fascinating nonetheless.


Our visit to the Orkney Islands had taken us to the 59th degree of latitude, marking it as our farthest point north.  We were delighted with our day excursion to the Orkney Islands, one of the more remote locations on the Earth and also one with a fascinating recent and ancient history.

“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”   Albert Einstein