Saturday, March 7, 2015

County Clare: The Cliffs of Moher and Bunratty Castle

O'Brien's Tower
Martin, our ex-military B&B host, accomplished an amazing feat this morning: he not only prepared two perfect omelets for our breakfast, but elicited a compliment acknowledging their perfection from Nancy, who is notoriously particular about the way eggs should be cooked. Bravo, Martin!

This is how hard the wind was blowing
The winds that howled outside all night and were still slamming rain against the windows indicated that we’d best put on as many layers as we could before we ventured out. As we mentioned earlier, the voyage to the Aran Islands that we had hoped to take this morning had been ruled out, not only because of today’s weather but also because other recent storms had left the channel in need of dredging. So instead of going to the ferry landing in Doolin, we got back on the WAW and headed toward the Cliffs of Moher.

The Cliffs of Moher
Although clouds and rain limited visibility of the cliffs and completely obscured our view of the Aran Islands just ten or twelve kilometers offshore, the weather added to the drama of our encounter with this spectacular exhibit of nature’s craftsmanship. The Cliffs of Moher (mo-HAIR) are an undulating, five-mile stretch of rugged black rock that drops seven hundred feet straight into the Atlantic, which hurls its waves against the bare walls. No doubt the waves crashed more violently today than usual, and the wind was so intense we not only had trouble keeping hats and hoods on our heads, but feared for our very lives when we climbed the steps to walk a little way along the top of the cliffs. The footpath was muddy and very slick, so we turned back as soon as the low stone safety wall ended. We did, however, climb to O’Brien’s Tower, situated on the cliffs’ highest point, which is not hard to reach from the visitor center.

The view from O'Brien's Tower

The visitor center itself is something of a wonder: it’s built into the side of a hill under a grass-covered roof, so if it weren’t for the adjacent car park, you might not even notice it. Inside are exhibits on the history, flora, and fauna of the region, as well as a fifteen-minute Imax-style video presentation simulating a flying seagull’s view of the cliffs—and, when the seagull suddenly takes a dive, the underwater world beneath them. Except for the cries of birds and the slosh of waves, the soundtrack is silent, so the total effect creates a slightly eerie, out-of-body experience.
The view from the other side, looking back toward O'Brien's Tower

Oh La La! in Ennistymon
Bunratty Castle
As we drove inland across County Clare, we happened to notice a small crèperie called Oh La La! in the equally small town of Ennistymon, and decided to stop there for lunch. Michael had a gallette (a large crèpe made with buckwheat flour) filled with brie and bacon; Nancy’s gallette contained goat cheese and ratatouille. 

County Clare is divided from County Limerick by the River Shannon, which runs diagonally through the heart of Ireland. Situated between the cities of Shannon and Limerick on a bluff above the river is Bunratty Castle. Michael had passed the castle when he came through the area a couple of weeks ago, and although Bunratty is not listed among Fodor’s starred attractions, it looked intriguing enough that he decided to put it on our itinerary. After visiting, both of us felt it was worth a “Fodor's Choice” designation. The castle itself, originally built in 1460, has been fully restored with period furnishings and tapestries; if you reserve ahead (which we had not), you can attend a medieval banquet that undoubtedly features a lot of meat and a lot of mead. We were to content to simply imagine the menu as we walked through the banquet hall a couple of hours before the meal was to be served—although later, when we saw the musicians who would provide entertainment for the banqueters beginning to arrive with their harps, pipes, and bodhrans, we kind of wished we could stay.
The South Solar in Bunratty Castle

The Great Hall of the Castle

A farmer's house in Bunratty Folk Park

Colorful poultry in the farmyard

The type of haystack Monet liked to paint

The chapel at Bunratty
The pasture at Bunratty
Bunratty's collection of vintage farm equipment

An antique lawnmower
Even better than the castle was the adjoining Folk Park, which consists of several historic homes, shops, and public buildings that have been moved to Bunratty from other locations and fully furnished to create an authentic-feeling nineteenth-century Irish village. It’s kind of like a small Williamsburg, or Nauvoo without the LDS missionaries. Because we visited during the off-season, we didn’t get to see the cooper or the blacksmith demonstrate their trades, but it was interesting to note that the main difference between the rustic homes of the simple farm folk and the slightly larger ones of the better off seems to be that the latter didn’t have to share living space with their animals.
There is a lot to take in at the Folk Park; but because Bunratty is privately owned and funded, the antique structures, furniture, and textiles are not as well protected as they are at sites administered by Ireland’s Office of Public Works. Nancy was alarmed to see vintage clothing and priceless tapestries displayed in rooms that were completely open to sunlight and damp air. We hope Bunratty’s treasures will somehow manage to survive prolonged exposure.

Adare Manor Hotel (photo from hotel website)
This is not where we stayed.
One of the many thatched cottages in Adare
(photo from
The sun was low in the sky when we arrived in Adare, which Fodor describes as “cute as a Fisher-Price toy village, a thatched-roof jewel laid out with characteristics that conjure up the English rather than the Irish countryside.” This “once-upon-a-time-ified” town obviously knows how to market what it has, because even though it is small, there were a lot of people walking up and down the main street, looking in shops, and checking restaurant menus. Well-heeled visitors stay at the Adare Manor Hotel, a Victorian Gothic mansion that was once home to nobility and now sports a prize-winning golf course on its huge estate. We had booked a room at the much humbler Adare Village Inn, which was right on the main highway downtown, above a pub also owned and operated by our hosts, Sean and Bridie. The inn’s website had said there was on-site parking, but when we arrived we couldn’t find it; we had to park on the street a few blocks away while Michael walked over to register. When he inquired about parking, Sean showed him a narrow alley just past the pub—barely wide enough for the subcompact Nissan Micra we are driving. The alley led to a postage-stamp parking area behind the inn, with access through a gate that was even narrower than the alley. Michael managed to maneuver the Micra into the space, and we hauled our luggage up the steps and through the back door to our room.

Adare Village Inn
Our window is behind the sign
Sean, Bridie, and their three teenage children also live above the pub, with access to their flat through a door right next to ours. Sean assured us that even though our windows overlook the busy main street, we wouldn’t hear any traffic during the night because they had installed two complete sets of windows, one on top of the other, to keep out the noise. (It worked!)

Although Sean and Bridie invited us to have dinner in their pub, we had decided to try the “acclaimed” Mustard Seed restaurant at Echo Lodge, which Fodor describes as “a Victorian yellow-stucco jewel set atop a small hill overlooking Ballingarry, a village that time forgot, deep in rural Ireland.”  This description—as well as the crowds milling around Adare—motivated us to reserve a table at the Mustard Seed and then make the half-hour drive to get there. Michael was relieved to find that although the road between Adare and Ballingary was narrow, it was  surprisingly straight. Because the only address we had to go by was “Village Center, Ballingarry,” we had some trouble locating the Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge, and because it was dark, we couldn’t really enjoy the view once we found the “yellow-stucco jewel” on the hilltop, but we were looking forward to the “memorable” meal that Fodor promised.

The dining rooms at the Mustard Seed were elegantly appointed, with crisp white linen tablecloths, bouquets of fresh roses, and sparkling china, crystal, and sterling silver. Other patrons were dressed in stylish suits and cocktail dresses; good thing we had at least changed out of our cargo pants and muddy hiking boots. When we were seated and the hostess had presented us with copies of the menu, both of us gasped. We had planned (as we often did) to order a couple of starter dishes and then share one main plate, but the Mustard Seed’s table d’hote menu didn’t include any à la carte items; our only option was a full four-course meal at a fixed price that was twice what Fodor had led us to expect, and nearly six times what we had paid for our very satisfying dinner last night in Doolin. This obviously wasn’t the sort of place where you could ask for an extra plate and share one generous order of fish and chips. But we’d reserved a table; we’d driven half an hour to get there, and now we were seated, so what else could we do but suck it up and order two lavish four-course meals?
We sat in this corner of the dining room at the Mustard Seed
(photo from Trip Advisor)

Here’s what we got, in all the glorious detail of the printed menu. (Unfortunately for you, dear reader, the ambiance at the Mustard Seed was so refined that it would have been terribly gauche to pull out a camera and take photos of the food, so you will have to use your imagination.) Michael started with a terrine of wild boar and foie gras, served with slices of brioche, and garnished with a prune and beet couli. This was followed by a salad of local organic greens with mustard and Newgrange rapeseed aioli. Meanwhile, Nancy was enjoying slow-cooked breast of Longford lamb on baby gem lettuce with black olives and roasted red pepper sauce; then came a divine, palate-clearing scoop of pineapple-passion fruit sorbet. The main course for Michael was poached John Dory (a type of white fish) with wild garlic emulsion, seared Kerry scallops, tapioca, liver fritter and lime gel; Nancy had the guinea fowl (pan-fried breast and smoked leg roulade) with pickled heirloom beetroot, carrot air, charred spring onion, and artichoke purée. Finally, for dessert, Michael had chocolate mousse with fennel sorbet and a meringue kiss; Nancy had a slice of broiled pineapple with iced coconut crème and paper-thin caramel crisps. Everything was delicious and exquisitely presented, but was it worth the price of a fully loaded Cuisinart? Not really. We’ve had plenty of meals that we enjoyed just as much, which were presented with similar panache, at a fraction of the cost. But we must admit that the experience was memorable.

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