stop and smell the Irish coffee
Ireland, perhaps more than any other country we have visited, teaches the casual traveler about the importance of taking things slowly. Some of the top tourist sites are memorable; many others are much less so. Ireland, however, is much more than the sum of its tourist destinations. What is truly worth seeing in Ireland is the countryside itself — the rich palette of greens that comprise the landscape, the small, colorful towns, and their residents, who are friendly almost to a fault and whose speech tends to be equally colorful.
Naturally, this is a lesson that one has to learn firsthand, and it usually does not fully sink in until the trip is nearing its end. Several times during our travels we would visit multiple sites in one day only to realize that the route between them was actually more remarkable than the sites themselves.
Leaving Glendalough, for example, we found ourselves navigating narrow backroads that cut through gorgeous highlands. Many of the roads curved through tall hedges and seemed not quite wide enough for two vehicles to pass in opposite directions. D stopped the car every couple of minutes to take pictures of glacial valleys, gushing waterfalls, and meandering streams that cut through lilac fields of wild lavender. On one scenic descent, a pair of rams locked horns over a female in the middle of the road, halting us in our tracks.
That night we stayed at a beautifully situated farmhouse in Stonyford, a mere blip of a town on the outskirts of Kilkenny. While S put Munchkin to bed, D headed to the local pub with the farmhouse owner, which is one of the best ways to get a taste of any local culture, and of experiencing the heart and soul of Irish culture in particular.
It was the kind of lively, small-town establishment where everyone knew everyone else and the patrons all had a unique story to share. D talked a while with a craftsman who makes his living by repairing the stained glass in churches, and met his neighbor, who earned a windfall by day-trading in Chicago and now supports himself by renting out an apartment on AirBnB in Amsterdam. D easily could have spent hours just being a fly on the wall watching the billiards game that raged in the back room of the small pub, each shot taking about ten minutes because of all the showboating and continuous stream of witty jibes exchanged by the players and onlookers.
In the morning, Munchkin got to see how the animals are fed before we returned to the sunlit glass patio for a delicious home-cooked Irish breakfast. The owners also provided us with an elaborate hand-drawn map of the area, which featured plenty of ancient sites not mentioned in the guidebooks.
After visiting the Jerpoint Abbey, we strolled through the ruins of the Kells Priory, and visited the famine graveyard and church ruins at Kilree. D had to hop a fence to access the ruins and was looking for the 8th century Kilree high cross when a large and very vocal herd of cattle dissuaded him from further exploration.
Similarly, the most memorable part of our visit to Cork was not the big city itself, but rather the time we spent in nearby Kinsale on the coast. It was small, scenic, colorful, with lots of cute shops and great restaurants; plus, we found a creatively designed playground for Munchkin. Sometimes, the best part of traveling is actually staying put in one place and taking time to truly appreciate it.