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June 1, 2003 (Our 1-year anniversary and first day cycling)
This morning we have breakfast at the Merriman. It's like a hotel with breakfast, but the breakfast is still the full Irish breakfast. We are served by a young man who turns out to be here for the summer from France. He came to Ireland to "work on his English." He seems pleased though, to have a moment to talk to Carolyn in French.
We had an appointment with Fidelma in the morning for some last-minute changes and adjustments - trying different helmets for sizing, etc. That goes well enough, and we set off on the bicycles. At first, we're a little worried because we head out of Kinvara on the main road, but, as indicated by the size of Kinvara, it doesn't turn out to be particularly busy. And, of course, we need to get used to riding on the left. This is a little disconcerting at first, but we never accidentally err. That said, it did take longer to get in the habit of reversing the direction order for looking to cross the street, and turning at intersections.
We turn off the "main" road out of Kinvara quickly enough and are soon meandering through the lush green Irish country side. One of the first things that struck us was the amount of construction. Perhaps it is a mini-boom spurred from Ireland's entry into the EU, but whatever the cause, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of new homes going up throughout our tour. I wonder how long those roads we traveled will remain back roads.
A few miles into it, we come to a funky 'K'-shaped intersection, and our directions tell us to head left. Peering that way, we see our first major climb of the trip. It doesn't turn out to be very long, but it is a pretty steep climb as we work our way up from the coastal area into the Burren. "Burren" comes from the Irish word "Boireann" meaning "rocky place," and this part of the county lives up to its name. The amount and color of the exposed stone gives distant ranges the appearance of being covered with flowers of heather rather than being (as they are) about 80% exposed rock with various grasses and plants fighting their way up in the remainder of the space.
Our turn off of this climb comes before we reach the top (and we're none too sad about this!), and we turn onto a (the?) "green road". Fidelma is waiting for us here where we try yet another helmet for Carolyn trying to get the sizing right. She tells us that the green road is an old cattle road more-or-less the same as it was centuries ago, only different by the size and shape of the wheels that travel over it. Stonework walls snake across the landscape here (and most of our destinations actually). These walls are impressive partly just for the quantity, and partly for the construction techniques. I think about the labor involved to pick up each stone and put it in its new place in the wall, and it boggles my mind. Then, I look at the wall itself and see that it has stood the test of time completely without mortar. It's just rocks skillfully piled one on top of the other, and there they have stayed for hundreds of years. One of these walls is near the crest of a hill that we are riding along below, and sky can be seen through the stones where they don't match each other.
After departing the green road, we wander through the countryside, past a church just getting out and eventually we find our way up to the ruins of Corcomroe Abbey. It was an abby of the Cistercian monastic order and Carolyn was curious to compare its shape to Cistercian abbeys that she had seen in France. The grounds of the Abbey are still used as a cemetery, and we were told that Easter Mass is still celebrated at the Abbey.
At this point in the day, we'd been on bicycles for a few hours and Carolyn was starting to tire. Unfortunately, this is also when it began to get hillier (or at least up-hillier :), so partway up one hill, we take a bit of a break by walking some of it. Partway up the next hill, Carolyn takes a break by collapsing at the side of the road and curling up. I start to be concerned that the 30-something mile days that we have planned were more aggressive than I thought.
By early afternoon, we climb our way up to the "Croide na Boirne" (Heart of the Burren) where we have lunch. We share a basket of chips secure in the knowledge that we'd earned them, I had a tuna sandwich and Carolyn had crab cakes. The Croide na Boirne had been a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) station built for the British in 1840 as a base for Burren patrols. It was operated as such until it was burned down in 1920 by Irish Volunteers. 6 years later it was rebuilt as a Garda (Police) barracks which lasted there until 1955. Finally, it came into its own as a public house which is how we enjoyed it. It did have quite a view over the surrounding "Turlough" (an area with a high water table - usually a lake in Winter, and prone to flooding any time of year).
Having gained sustenance, the afternoon seemed much brighter, and maybe doable after all, though we still managed to have to start out uphill again. It wasn't long though before we were traveling along the ridge with countryside rolling away from us in all directions. As we went along, a couple of cyclist passed us in the opposite direction and let us know that we had a wonderful descent coming. Sure enough they were right, though doubtless it was more of a climb for them than a descent for us. I took a picture of Carolyn about to head down the descent -- the road seems to disappear down before her. As a more aggressive cyclist, I was down the descent and partway up the next hill pretty quickly, and so I turned to see where Carolyn was, and sure enough there was a yellow speck barely visible on the road behind me as she worked her way down the mountainside.
The terrain got a bit more gentle in its rolling, and we came to the Naughaval Church ruins. This church was from the 12th century and also was still an active cemetery. In this case though, there was quite a range of headstones. In some cases, that's literally all they were, small-ish, unmarked rocks in the ground only knowable as headstones from their location and spacing. In other cases, there were engraved stones with elaborate celtic crosses on them.
A few more miles brought us to the Burren Center in Kilfenora (population 125). We picked up a couple of postcards there, but at this point, I was starting to get worried about our timing, so we didn't stay long. A couple more miles brought us to a larger road down out of the Burren via "Corkscrew Hill". Corkscrew Hill lived up to its name. It was a steep descent with frequent switch-backs. According to the information we'd gotten from Cycle West, it is a venue for the Galway Motor Club's annual hill climb event. On the way down, I hit a top speed of 33mph which really felt like something on this touring hybrid with luggage bouncing all over the place. Our B&B awaited a bit past the bottom of Corkscrew hill, and we were quite happy to see it after about 36 miles and 9 hours of bicycling and tromping around ruins!
We have dinner at Monk's Seafood in the village of Ballyvaughn, about a mile further along from the B&B. We get a ride into Ballyvaughn from a friend of the proprietors, and we're invited to give the B&B a "ring" (call) for a "lift" (ride) back. But we have 2 different phone numbers for the B&B (same suffix) and no idea how to use the phone. Further, we don't want to put anyone out, so we just walk back. I have a shower, but Carolyn relaxes in the bath, and we end the day of our first anniversary with me rubbing Ben-Gay into my wife's hamstrings.
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