Travel is about moments suspended in time. When travelling I try to consider a place my temporary home. Running around, visiting one sight after the other in order to tick off the list of sights you really have to see and cannot miss, blurs one’s mind into one undistinguished pile of memories of churches, castles, landscapes, cafés, restaurants and other things you have visited but actually can’t remember. You look back at all those pictures you took, ragging your brain what you liked so much about that particular place. No, I’m not a list ticker. I also do not read the guidebooks from beginning to end; I use those for logistics. What I do read, is stories and this is mine.
I had always wanted to go to Ireland; that green piece of land tucked away behind its large neighbour with the stiff upper lip, had always had a pull to me. However, I kept postponing it and the words “one day” lingered on in my mind. That day came when I bought the book Sacred Europe from Martin Gray where he mentions that people should sometimes take a detour from life: to step aside from the world once in a while, in order to understand it better.
After some further browsing in bookshops and on the internet I decided to go to the Dingle Peninsula for a week to do just that: take a detour and step aside from my usual world. I didn’t consider it a soul-searching trip. I had done enough of those the last years and was finally close to coming into my own. I just wanted some peace and quiet after all the abundant Christmas and New Years’ parties and prepare for the new busy year ahead; just feel good on my own in a quiet way without anyone telling me what to do. I knew my family and friends would think it weird, silly or outright stupid to go by myself to the most western part of Europe, to a country full of sheep and rain in the midst of winter. I didn’t care: Martin Gray and Dingle got stuck in my mind and I was going.
Deciding to treat myself I looked around the internet for a very nice, comfortable and luxurious cottage and I found an agency that just started out in Dingle and surroundings. A small company offered special cottages in breath-taking places. The list of cottages was certainly not endless but the choice was as diverse as possible: in town, on the beach, overlooking the hills, eco-friendly, luxurious, inspirational and… most cottages dog friendly. Suddenly it hit me as the most perfect solution: I would take the dog with me. It would stop everybody wondering and nagging why I wanted to go alone. Besides, taking long walks with that big black Lab was way more fun than walking alone. My choice fell on the, of course dog friendly Green House located on the edge of the small town of Brandon: an eco-friendly, luxurious cottage with a view of the beach in front and Mount Brandon at your back. Beach for the dog, mountains for me. Perfect.
Going to Ireland from the European continent is straightforward for most people: there is an ocean between it so you book a flight, get yourself on that plane and upon arrival hire a car or head down town. With the dog I had to take a different route. Fortunately the strict regulations to drag your dog across the UK and Irish borders had changed three years ago and were now more relaxed and less of a hassle. However, putting that big dog in a plane did not seem such a good idea: the poor animal would probably be traumatised for the rest of his life. Besides, I always preferred to travel with my own car so I decided upon the Eurotunnel and the ferry.
Apparently I wasn’t the only stranger to take such a detour to get to Ireland. Irish Ferries informed you on what is aptly called the “land bridge” and all other sort of bits and pieces such as the choices between the Ferries, fast or not, and the kennels they had on board.
What on earth possessed me to leave on the first of January still eludes me but I did. With loads of coffee and a foggy brain I left early in the morning to arrive at Calais only two and a half hours later. Dog checked and approved, I was allowed to get on a much earlier slot which is hardly surprising on such a date. Calais was tranquil and the few passengers waiting for the next train, huddled in their cars to escape from the cold wind blowing across the empty tarmac. The UK side was quite different. The terminal was reasonably quiet but the roads most certainly were not. After a seven hour drive through rain and busy traffic, I arrived in Holyhead Northern Wales, the little village with the ferry terminal for Dublin.
I had exchanged the cold Calais winds for a hell-raising Welsh storm impeding me from opening the door of the hotel and causing the ships in the harbour to bob violently in the water. My dog loved it. I experienced a feeling of dread of things to come. This feeling was confirmed only half an hour later: The fast ferry The Swift, was cancelled. I could choose to either take the early morning ferry or the afternoon one. The same SMS informed me that I could just show up for either journey and did not have to do anything. That was a welcome surprise: no forms to fill, no phone calls to make; just a customer friendly service and the feeling of dread slowly faded.
I decided to go on the early morning one considering that driving in Ireland half way in the dark was not a smart idea with this weather. Leaving the storm behind me, I arrived 5 hours later greeted by sunny skies in Dublin. The journey was starting to bear: another five hours on the road and I would be there. Driving in Ireland is both easy and hell: your fellow men on the road are nice and polite enough but the roads can be narrow with surprising turns and angles, leaving you trembling and closing your eyes to say a little prayer. Needless to say that closing your eyes is the last thing you do behind the wheel but there you go: sometimes you have to deliver yourself to the gods.
They delivered me in one piece and although I arrived in the dark, I felt instantly at home. The owner of the cottage welcomed me with an easiness that left the feeling we had known each other forever. Without any fuss she showed me around explaining the house and its quirks. I decided to get my bearings the next day and crashed in the comfortable bed with the dog at my feet. We had been travelling for 36 hours.
With the wind caressing the house I slept like a log. The first thing I noticed when I woke up, was the sunshine. I remember I grinned: Wasn’t Ireland always associated with grey skies and buckets of rain?
Coming downstairs and looking out of the many windows that brought light to the house, I saw that where I was, was breath-taking. The beach right at the edge of the small town, was flanked by rolling hills in the distance. The inevitable sheep dotted the landscape of green fields and mountains bare of trees. Having triumphed the narrow roads I spent the rest of the day walking the beach and falling asleep. I had time, I had the luxury of almost a week.
The daunting Conor Pass
The next day I decided to explore Dingle first. The owner had said it was only a twenty minute drive which would leave the rest of the day for pottering around the house and the beach with a wandering mind. Looking at the map my heart sank in my shoes: the Conor Pass, which runs from Dingle on the southern end of the peninsula towards Brandon Bay in the North.
I had read about that pass: Scary Conor Pass or something. I decided to google the pass again to reassure myself, long live my luxurious Green House with perfectly working WIFI. I should not have done that: It was the highest mountain pass in Ireland and it was featured on the site Most Dangerous Roads. I almost considered skipping it based on these stories but I told myself that being on my own I could just scream out loud in the car or turn back if necessary. Nobody to laugh at you, scold you or look at you with a judging look. Well, the dog maybe.
I survived, drove it five times in that week and thank the Irish Gods for being so kind to me by providing dry skies and clear weather every time. The pass is narrow, precarious and at some point only one car can pass at a time between the sharp cliffs. However, if you pay attention you can spot oncoming traffic and decide on your driving strategy: Stay or go. I told myself to go every time and the reward for shattering my nerves was enormous: once I had made it to the carpark at the summit, I was treated to wonderful views of the coast and magnificent sights of the surrounding mountains dotted by sheep and piercing blue lakes.
Parking was easy, too easy. I went in a time when villages swamped by tourists in summer, are handed back to their original inhabitants, albeit temporarily till the next influx comes. Dingle looked lovely with colourful little shops, pubs and restaurants, most of them closed. Understandable: The Christmas holiday is the most personal and important holiday for families and close friends to be together. It is the time to be around people to whom you can confess your mistakes of the past year and the innermost hopes and fears for the years to come. It is a time to be cherished so let shops be closed. Fortunately for me, the supermarket was open, busy and had an abundant stock granting all my wishes.
With a full trunk, I considered retracing my road across the pass but decided to take the long loop around. This took me to a secondary road across Mount Caherconree, the second highest top of the Slieve Mountains. I was in awe of what I saw: bare rocky hills with a road winding around one hill after the other, sometimes daunting, other times breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely nobody there. I had entered gorgeous no man’s land. Home I trailed to the beach to let the dog have his long awaited run and play. Catching an extraordinary sunset, it felt like I was granted a gift. I knew then I wanted to see more of this small part of the Emerald Isle.
Slea Head Drive
The next day provided another blue sky with some cotton ball clouds just for good measure. I decided to go with the weather and head out. There would be more than enough time to read the books I brought when the rain was coming down. I wavered between Mount Brandon at my doorstep and the Slea Head Drive. I had my portion of hair raising drives for the time being so I chose the latter, figuring I would experience a nice easy circular drive along the coast following the Wild Atlantic Way sometimes stopping to visit one of the archaeological sites along the way. Honestly: why is this road not featured on Most Dangerous Roads. It is at some places just as narrow as the Conor Pass and the simple fact that it is not in the mountains does not mean it is less treacherous. I stubbornly remembered my decision on the Conor Pass, “Go”. It quickly became a mantra when squeezing my old VW Golf past buses and even a few caravans. Then again, it was so worthwhile that at a certain point I stopped muttering to myself. The drive gave me incredible views of amongst others the Blasket Islands and circled me past a considerable amount of Celtic and prehistoric artefacts. The Gallarus Oratory was the last and most intriguing. A building that old and that well preserved is a wonder and may be a sacred place in Europe. I should write Mr. Gray about this but then again: he certainly knows about this place already.
Letting out the dog for a walk in an area where no signs where telling you of hidden or visible treasures, I found myself in the midst of a small stone circle. Another sign of the rich history of this part of the world which didn’t need any advertising, it was just there. Just like me. I returned from the drive feeling almost exhilarated. Could a country be that beautiful? Could a country feel so welcoming to a guest who was just visiting to get reacquainted with herself again?
Calm before the storm
The next day gave me another day of sun and clouds but I decided to stay home and walk to the villages of Cloghane/Brandon and maybe Mount Brandon. After I wandered into the nice little church I hiked back to what I by then considered “My beach” where I was met by a lady with a dog and eyes full of curiosity. Well dear, I was wondering when I would finally run into you. Being met by my somewhat incomprehensible stare, she continued: you’re staying in the Green House aren’t you? I nodded. Apparently she knew all about me and we started an easy conversation walking along the beach, dogs running ahead of us. There is something here in the people that I have not encountered before. A gentle kindness and welcoming attitude to all creatures that I have not seen matched. It made me feel utterly at ease, at home, welcome and turned me quiet; almost jealously asking myself why we all cannot be like that.
Then the storm came in the middle of the night and heavens, how. The rain slashed violently against the windows with the wind howling around the cottage. Doors and windows rattled and I had to lock up for the first time. The short sandy road from the cottage had turned into a small river gushing down to the main village road. There was nothing else to do but stay in until I had to take the dog out. Having a well-trained dog is sometimes a pain. He just didn’t want to use the elaborate garden, just like at home. Apparently our nice Green House had also become his.
Calm after the storm
The storm had taken a full 24 hours but I kept on sleeping like a log at night. Does this country have the right medicine for insomniacs and people that worry endlessly if they do it right? I wondered.
My last day. The skies had cleared but the storm’s presence was still there. The small spring that ended under the bridge at the beach had turned into a violent current spewing water into the Atlantic. We braved our “river road” but I had to persuade the dog it was safe to cross the bridge. Walking the by now familiar path along the beach I looked up at the mountains and discovered that the tops were covered with a thin layer of snow. When nature does something slightly dramatic it is a wonder to see. I pondered my stay and the two day journey back home ahead of me. The week had flown by and had given me more than I had dared to hope. Not only the detour from my world, the peace and quiet I had wanted but it had also given me back the spark for life I was slowly losing along my wandering way.
Fortunately not every wanderer is lost and to borrow words from one of Irelands’ most famous poets, W.B. Yeats: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”. The Dingle peninsula is like that, waiting for you not to only look but also see.
He also wrote: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t met yet”. Indeed, I came as a guest and left, feeling a friend.