Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Croagh Patrick

As we near the end of our time in Ireland, I find myself thinking back over the highlights of the trip.  The coldest that I have ever been (at a Gaelic football game), the best upper body workout that I’ve ever had (surfing in a bodysuit), the first Guinness I ever drank…the list keeps growing.  And as of last Tuesday, I can gladly (if slowly) add the newest of the Irish life experiences.  The hardest I have ever worked to go just under one, tiny little mile.  It took three and a half hours and my knees may never be the same.

Croagh Patrick is known as Ireland’s Holy Mountain.  It rises from the countryside like a rugged pyramid, shadowing a bay of the Atlantic Ocean and providing a landmark for any wandering around the Westport/Louisburgh area.  The peak rises 762 meters above sea level and can easily be seen from Louisburgh on a clear day.  Since first arriving here, I have used the mountain as a beacon—especially when returning from one of our long trips from across Ireland.  When I see Croagh Patrick, I know that I am almost home.  I have looked upon it with a mixture of respect and intimidation, because I have also known that eventually I was going to climb it.  Now that I am comfortably massaging my weary feet in front of our empty fireplace (I simply don’t have the energy to build one right now), I can only think back to when I stood at the very top of the mountain and shake my head.  This was the experience of a lifetime.

Hikers begin the climb from a small car park eight kilometers outside of Westport.  Beginning the climb is intimidating to say the least.  The trail snakes up the side of a shorter rise next to Croagh Patrick, the mountain itself being too steep at this point for hikers to safely climb it.  The path is made from sharp, loose rocks that roll and shift underneath the unwary hiker’s boots.  By the time we reached the crest of the first rise, I could feel my calf and thigh muscles burning and I was more than happy to take a short break.  The view, even from this midway point, was breathtaking.  The island riddled bay glistened to one side of the mountain while the other side harbored rolling mountains, dark patches of pine forest and (of course) small, rock lined pastures filled with grazing sheep.  It was when I turned to look at Croagh Patrick, however, that I felt my heart sink.  The mountain looked steeper and more daunting than ever.

At this point, we walked along the narrow crest of the shorter mountain until we reached the side of Croagh Patrick.  Many of the people in front of us were nearly crawling as they scrambled up the steep side, loose rocks rolling beneath the hikers.  As we started to climb, I could feel the backs of my hiking boots protesting against my heels and I knew that it would be hell to pay once I made it to the top.  One of the most difficult parts of the climb was the fact that for every step I took, I lost half a step when the rocks I stepped on shifted down the mountainside.  I honestly don’t know how the mountain hasn’t completely shifted into the sea after all these years of traveling hikers and pilgrims. 

After an hour of this, I didn’t have to worry about my feet anymore: I could no longer feel them.  I did however feel (and regret) every single croissant and doughnut that I’ve ingested during this three month period (and it’s no modest amount, because quite frankly the pastries here are amazing).  The last leg of the climb is the steepest and when my two friends and I heaved ourselves onto the mountain’s peak, we were all out of breath and wobbling about on very shaky legs.  However, the view quickly trumped my need to collapse.

It was a mildly hazy day, but even so I could see Louisburgh in the distance, along with Westport, the Atlantic and, of course, the surrounding mountains.  The clouds cast startlingly beautiful designs across the sun lit bay, dancing amongst the islands like an ever changing puzzle.  The wind was incredible and while I had been getting very warm while hiking, I was quickly chilled as I soaked in the view.  Soon we were beginning the slow climb back down and while I was certainly glad to no longer be going up, I still was amazed by the strain this descent made for my already shaky knees (not to mention that I spent much of the downward progress on my rear, since the rolling rocks were still…well, rolling).

It has been two days since we made the climb and I can still feel the aftermath on my very red heels and extraordinarily stiff shoulders.  Climbing Croagh Patrick reminded me of three very important things.  First, the world is a magnificent, beautiful place.  Second, the greatest things in life are often the hardest to achieve.  And finally…

 I am laying off the doughnuts.


Monday, April 22, 2013

Medieval Banquet

Note: Because I was unable to carry my camera with me, there are saddly no pictures of the banquet.

Bunratty Castle sprouts from a web of housing, businesses and parking lots.  It dominates the town, shadowing the people with its massive walls and violent memories.  A piece of history too strong to be torn down, this castle continues to enliven the town’s life by creating a tourist interest for County Clare in the Republic of Ireland.  And it’s not just written history.  Here at Bunratty Castle, history lives, eats and breathes.

            The forest pathway toward the draw bridge glittered with fine rain and tiny lights, the gravel crunching beneath the boots of twenty-six Americans.  It was a chilly night and I tucked my coat tightly around my shoulders, my eyes wandering up the stone walls of the outer keep.  We were running late, so we had the drawbridge and wooden stairs up to the entryway to ourselves, the wood cracking and groaning as we mounted the aging steps.

            At the doorway, we were greeted by the first of this evening’s many ‘servants’, the worker wearing green tights and a medieval styled shirt.  He handed our tickets and we continued inside, where we were quickly directed up a narrow set of winding stairs.  Originally built to enhance the castle’s defense, whoever had designed these stairs could not have imagined that a thousand years later, groups of tourists would be climbing them to replay what medieval life would have been like.

            And that was precisely what we were doing.  As we neared the reception hall, I felt a building sense of curiosity.  The medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle had been the highpoint of my interest since I first saw it on our group’s tour schedule.  What kind of food would we be eating?  Who would be there?  Would the workers be in costume?  Would we really be dining in a castle?  Already two of my questions had been answered, unless the man at the entryway thought that tights were the latest of men’s Irish fashion.

            We emerged in the reception hall to be greeted by the haunting sound of an Irish harp, the laughter of over a hundred guests and a cheerful serving lady in a long blue dress, carrying a tray full of clay cups.  Accepting one, I made my way into the room, looking over the tapestries that lined the walls.  A massive fireplace rested in the back wall, a harpist and violinist standing in the center of the room while they enchanted their guests with ancient melodies.  The hall was packed tightly with people, their laughter bouncing off of the vaulted ceiling undoubtedly the same as it would have hundreds of years ago.  Sipping my drink, I found that it tasted distantly of a weak brandy.  It was mead, I was later told, an ancient beverage that people made from fermented berries and honey.

            After the music, we were lead into the dining hall.  This room was larger than the last, with several side passages and a low stage.  Several long, bench-lined tables stretched from wall to wall, an extra dining area set on a platform near the front of the room.  This, we were told, was the Earl’s table, the man selected from the guests only minutes before.  After we were seated, the butler stepped up to an overlooking balcony and addressed his guests.  He informed us that the large clay pitchers on the tables were filled with red and white wine and that we would be enjoying several courses over the evening.  The soup, he said, would be drank from the bowls as the medieval guests of an Earl would have done.  As for silverware, we had our knives and fingers for the remaining courses.

            “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” said the butler, “prepare yourselves to step from reality and into your fantasies.”

            Assuming that I was hidden within the crowd, I elbowed my friend and snorted in a very unladylike fashion into my hand.

            “Not those kinds of fantasies, my lady!” exclaimed the butler, barking a laugh.

            The hall burst into laughter, a hundred guests twisting on their seats to get a look at the bold American.  Shrinking into my seat, I attempted to hide my burning face in my hands.  I should have guessed that this was only the preface to a very interesting evening.

            The first course to arrive was a blended vegetable soup and several loaves of hearty bread.  The room was bubbling with conversation and as the wine gradually soaked through the diners, our mirth became more and more boisterous.  Soon the servants cleared the table and replaced our bread with massive platters heaped with barbequed pork ribs.  They were delicious, so I was covered in red barbeque sauce when the butler decided to pay me a visit.

            “I hope that I didn’t embarrass you too badly, my lady,” he said, resting a hand on my shoulder and grinning.  “But I looked down and saw your smiling face and I couldn’t resist.”

            I assured him that I thought it was hilarious and that I was glad to have been able to contribute to the night’s festivities.  Noticing a rather unruly member of our group at the end of the table, the butler leaned down and asked, “Is he bothering you, my lady?”

            Assuming that he would make a joke, I answered that he was.  Before I knew it, the ‘young lord’ was hauled out of his seat and escorted into the dungeons, where we were told he would remain until he favored the court with a song (or was beheaded).  He seemed to opt for the song.

            The next course was chicken with vegetables and an herb sauce.  After this our dessert of chocolate mousse garnished with fresh mint came, the tables quieting down at the request of the butler.  The musicians then favored us with half an hour of traditional harp and fiddle music, the violinist playing ‘Danny Boy’ with every bit the expertise that the Earl of an olden court would have expected.  The butler also sang and he made it a point to gesture widely at me every time the chorus that contained the line ‘blue-eyed girl’ came up.

            By the end of the evening, with our hearts lightened with mirth and wine, the guests made their way back down the winding staircase.  The ancient walls rang with laughter, like an echo from the past.  I have never had an experience like the medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle.  I have to say that it is among my favorite in Ireland.