Monday, March 9, 2015

County Kerry: Muckross and the Ring of Kerry

The car park at the end of the rainbow in Killarney
Nancy approached the shower this morning with some trepidation, because it was the first time we had encountered one of those energy-saving, heat-on-demand things so beloved of European tourist accommodations. That is, it was the first time we had encountered one of these contraptions on this trip; Nancy had had some memorably uncomfortable experiences with them during her travels abroad in the 1970s. Today, however, she was relieved to find that heat-on-demand shower technology apparently has improved in the past four decades. Once the power was turned on, all she had to do was figure out how to set a desirable temperature in Celsius, then press a button, and voilá! Consistent, pleasantly hot water!

Because it was Monday—wash day—and because we knew Killarney and environs would offer plenty for us to do, we booked two nights at Ryebrook House, and then found a laundromat where we could drop off our dirty clothes and forget about them until the end of a busy day.

Nancy and our Nissan Micra
Mary made pancakes (more like crêpes than the thick American kind) for our breakfast, served with strawberries that actually tasted like strawberries, and bananas. (The Irish must have a thing with bananas, because they are always available at breakfast.) We took our laundry to Tru Care Cleaners and then headed toward Muckross House, located only a few kilometers south of town in Killarney National Park. When the GPS told us to take a sharp right, we obeyed, even though there was no sign posted to show that this was the entrance to a major tourist attraction. Thus we found ourselves driving through a stone archway and then up a very narrow, muddy road that led to Muckross Farm, part of the estate that we knew was currently closed.

Muckross House
From there, we could see a large parking area about two hundred meters away, but it was on the other side of a fence with no visible entrance. A man came walking up the road as we were standing there trying to figure out how to get into the car park, so we asked him if he could direct us. He in turn asked how we had managed to get on a service road that was supposed to be open only to estate personnel. Apparently the GPS had led us on the “shortest route” to the house, unconcerned about the fact that it wasn’t meant for visitors, and the gate at the service entrance just happened to have been left open. After retracing our route back to the main road, we went a bit farther and found the well-marked visitor entrance.

Sadly, no servants lined up outside to greet us
when we arrived for our visit
After buying tickets, we had about forty minutes to walk around before our scheduled tour began. The Muckross estate occupies the spit of land between Lough Leane and Lough Muckross, which means that there’s nothing to block the splendid view across both lakes—but also nothing to block the wind on a day like today. It had rained hard during the night and was still drizzly, but the forecast had called for partly sunny skies this afternoon and we were hopeful that it would soon clear. In the meantime, Nancy reminded Michael to tuck his pants into his socks so they wouldn’t drag in the puddles we encountered as we wandered through the extensive gardens. Ireland’s average temperature is mild enough to allow a wide variety of plants to thrive, including some subtropicals like palms and ferns. Right now, crocuses and daffodils are providing most of the color besides green.
Wild rhododendrons are seen as invasive weeds
in Killarney National Park

Muckross House is a stately Victorian mansion built in the 1840s for Henry Arthur Herbert, a member of Parliament whose family had lived on the property for several generations. Not long after the house was finished, Queen Victoria, having heard accounts of County Kerry’s singular beauties, announced that she wanted to see them and invited herself to stay at Muckross House six years hence. The Herberts immediately began preparing for her visit, installing the formal gardens, redecorating the house, and royally upgrading the wing that would be devoted to the queen and her ladies-in-waiting. Six years and millions of pounds later, the Herberts finally welcomed Victoria and her entourage—who stayed for all of two days. Mary McDonough, our delightful tour guide, explained that given the heightened political tensions between England and Ireland at the time, the queen’s bodyguards thought it would be unwise for her to remain very long in one location.

Torc Waterfall
Mary also shared a lot of fascinating information about the servants at Muckross as we toured their basement workrooms and living quarters. (We half expected to find Mrs. Patmore ordering Daisy around in the kitchen, or Carson sending a footman scurrying up the stairs to answer the bell.) A couple of rooms on the ground floor constitute a gallery of paintings by Henry’s wife, Mary Balfour Herbert, who was quite an accomplished artist.

Downstream from Torc Waterfall
After the tour, we had lunch at Muckross’s Garden Restaurant, where sunlight was beginning to stream through the big windows. Michael had vegetable soup and carrot-raisin salad; Nancy chose the shepherd's pie with fresh, lightly steamed green beans and carrots on the side.

This afternoon we had time to drive the eastern arc of the Ring of Kerry. Just down the road from Muckross is the majestic Torc Waterfall, which tumbles down a rocky ravine into a stream that flows through a tangle of moss-coated trees. A stone stairway leads to a path up to the top of the falls. Having taken a cab home last night instead of walking a couple more miles, Michael did not feel too sore this afternoon, so he accepted the challenge of climbing to the top. Even though it was a bit of a hike, he was able to reach the summit without becoming incapacitated—and the views of the lakes and mountains beyond were well worth the effort.

Moss covered rocks and trees
Stone steps to the top of Torc Waterfall
The Ring of Kerry continues through the woods along the Upper Lake in Killarney National Park—another stretch of narrow, winding road deemed “unsuitable for HGVs and buses.” Our atlas also states that “it is advised to travel in an anti-clockwise direction around the Ring of Kerry,” presumably to help tourists avoid too many close encounters with oncoming traffic. We took our chances driving clockwise because we didn’t have time to do the whole Ring, and the only ways across the Ring are tiny, unpaved mountain roads that undoubtedly would be riskier than the Ring itself. Fortunately it’s the off-season, so traffic was light and we didn’t run into any road-sharing problems.

Ladies' View
There’s a pull-off area just before you leave Killarney National Park where you can get an absolutely fabulous view looking back across the lakes toward Killarney. The spot is called Ladies’ View because it was the favorite vantage point of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. After taking some photos there, we followed the road around Peakeen Mountain toward Kenmare. The terrain and vegetation through this area were markedly different from that around the lakes: the brown hills and purple mountains made us feel as though we could have been driving through Utah or Idaho. At Kenmare, the Ring of Kerry turns west to follow the shore of the wide Kenmare River—yet another complete change in scenery. When we reached Sneem, near the bottom of the loop, we turned north off the official Ring road and drove back toward Killarney through the foothills of Macgillycuddy’s Reeks. (Isn’t that a great name for a mountain range?)  Although we were near the Gap of Dunloe, its rock walls famed not only for their beauty but also for their ability to produce amazing echoes, we didn’t have time to go there because we needed to get back to Killarney before 6 p.m. to pick up our laundry. The Gap is now one of the first things on our list for “next time.”

Ruins of Muckross Abbey

Muckross Abbey
Muckross Abbey Refectory
Instead, we stopped to explore the ruins of Muckross Abbey, located just off the main road back into Killarney. Considering how old the structure is (mid fifteenth century), it’s in pretty good shape—all the walls are still standing and none of the stone floors have caved in; it’s just missing the roof. There are a lot of dark passages to investigate, towers to climb, and lookouts to peer through. We had just remarked to each other that our kids would have loved this place when they were younger, when we saw a young mother approaching with two little boys.

Layout of Muckross Abbey
New burials still take place in the
Muckross Abbey Cemetery
“We were just saying what a great place this would be for kids to play in,” we told her. (One does not hesitate to speak to total strangers in Ireland.) “We wish our grandchildren were with us.”

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “I bring my boys here several times a week!"

Muckross Abbey Nave
Muckross Abbey Cloister
We made it back to Tru Care Cleaners before 6, collected our laundry, and then took it back to the B&B to sort and fold. A little later we drove into town for dinner. Mary, our B&B hostess, had recommended the bar at the Fáilte Hotel (“less expensive but just as good as the restaurant”), where Michael had fish and chips and Nancy had tagliatelle with asparagus and tomatoes. We decided not to get dessert there because we had planned to go back to a gourmet ice cream shop we had passed last night. (They were giving out samples, which were delicious.) To our dismay, the ice cream place had closed half an hour earlier. Oh well. After all, it’s mid-March, and it’s Monday. Looking around, we realized that Killarney’s mid-week nightlife scene must be about as vibrant as Cincinnati’s.

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