Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Irish Retreat

While the Tour de France riders have been putting the final touches on their form before The Race, now less than a week away, at altitude training camps or scouting out crucial Tour stages, I made a retreat to the southwest corner of Ireland with Janina to taper my miles while hanging out with our English friends the Dodds at their seaside cottage out on the Beara Peninsula in the county of Kerry just north of Cork.

I've gotten in some good climbing miles on quiet roads, able to ride extra hard on my bike stripped of all its gear as if I were a Tour rider. This is a semi-mountainous region of Ireland with ten of the country's thirteen mountains over 3,000 feet in the county of Kerry, including the highest, Carrauntoohi at 3,405 feet.  One superb fifty-mile circuit took me from sea level on one side of the peninsula to the other and then back again over two passes of one thousand feet--Healy and Caha.  Both passes had spectacular views of rugged scenery.  If I were truly a Tour rider I could ride this circuit two or three times a day and be able to compare my times from year to year to gauge my fitness.

Caha is topped by a tunnel and goes by a carved Druid looking out upon a cairn on a ridge that is tipped by the rising sun on June 21, one of many sun-oriented rock formations in the region.

Healy was built in 1847 to bring relief to victims of the potato famine.  It is one hundred feet lower than Caha, but steeper and more challenging.

Although I got in some good hard miles and ate exceptionally well, my coach would not be pleased with all the hiking I did with Janina and Geraldine and Mike, going off on a daily hike that included a picnic lunch. The hikes were invariably prolonged by lengthy conversations with the ultra-friendly folk we met along the way, including some fascinating old-timers with accents we could barely decipher.  The locals are so welcoming they leave the doors to their homes wide open when the weather is nice. The Dodds said when some friends come by their home they just walk in without even knocking, the Irish way.  

One of our hikes took us to an ancient circle of rocks on a sheep farmer's property.

Our sojourn overlapped with the weekly Wednesday music night at a small pub two miles from the Dodds out in the country.  We had a wonderful meal of chowder and just caught fish and chips before the musicians began assembling at nine pm.  This, like every dinner at the Dodds, ended with pudding, except it wasn't pudding as Americans know it, as pudding is the English/Irish term for dessert.  Here it was a lemon pie with cream, another dazzler of the taste buds, putting us in a fine mood for the music.

This wasn't a performance for tourists, but rather a gathering of anyone who wished to play their instrument, just as table tennis players or card players have a weekly get-together. There is a nucleus of three or four woman called "Noreen and Friends" who are joined by anyone with an instrument or a set of vocal chords.  By the time we left at midnight there were fifteen playing, still going strong on their flutes and fiddles and accordions and harps and keyboards and guitars and drums.  If there had been a tug-of-war between musicians and the audience during an intermission, the audience would have been outnumbered. No one seemed to be in charge.  After a song a different musician seemed to be given the opportunity to start up the next number with everyone else joining in.  The room resounded with their lovely tunes and good natures.  

 A young American woman, who was spending the summer interning at a nearby organic farm, sang a couple of songs a Capella. Afterwards Janina commented how brave she was to step up and sing.  Geraldine wasn't surprised at all.  "She is an American," she said, "So she would be bold, wouldn't she."  The "wouldn't she" wasn't said with a question mark, but an affirmation, one of a number of charming English expressions she would attach to something she might say to add a little emphasis such as the French do with "voila" and "d'accord."

It was that American boldness in Janina that cemented their friendship on the Queen Mary a few years ago.  They were dinner mates, but it wasn't until they were sitting together on the deck one day when a couple of eccentric older guys in matching brightly colored outfits walked by that they had been seeing and wondering about that they truly recognized Janina as someone they would want to get to know better.  Janina blurted out, "What is it with you guys?"  The Dodds were astonished at her brashness.  "We never would have done such a thing," Geraldine said.  But they were impressed that Janina had.  The two guys were artists from Philadelphia who are known as Art in Tandem and have a website promoting themselves.  They were pleased to get to know these fascinating characters thanks to Janina.

When we tore ourselves away from the fabulous music at midnight it was drizzling.  I had come by bike and had my raincoat, as I did whenever I went out, though I didn't often have to use it.  The bar owner offered me a reflective vest for the ride home, one of the many acts of great neighborliness that personified the Irish.  The Dodds enjoy their time so much in Ireland, they would love to sell their house in England and stay there full-time.  All that prevents them is their wish not to be so far from their two children, although their daughter is about to go off to Australia for a couple of years to work for an advertising firm. The Dodds are thrilled for her.  They just hope she doesn't return with an Australian husband.  About the only thing worse would be marrying into royalty.  They greatly admire the Queen, but wouldn't want their daughter to have to endure constantly being in the public eye as a royal.

Geraldine spoke of teaching their son how to add one plus one at the table we were sitting at and now he tries to explain to her the math he is working with for his PhD in aeronautical engineering.  She and Mike worked as scientists in the pharmaceutical industry and review the papers he is working on.  He just has a couple months to wrap up his dissertation before he starts working for Rolls Royce in October.  I didn't need to feel guilty that I was fraternizing with the parents of someone who was about to give up his soul to the automobile industry, as Rolls Royce no longer manufactures cars, just jet engines.

The nearest town of Kenmare, ten miles from the Dodds, is home to one of the seventeen Carnegie Libraries in Ireland.

The next nearest was in Killorglin, fifty miles from the Dodds.  It would have made a fabulous day ride out and back, over and through the Killarney National Park, but I couldn't separate myself from our merry times that long no matter how good it would have been for my Tour preparation.  

My Irish Carnegie tally had to end with three of the four Carnegies in and around Dublin that I was able to search out during our three-hour layover waiting for the ferry to Wales after taking the three-hour train from the Dodds to Dublin.  The central library was two-and-a-half miles from the train station.  I strapped on Janina's fifty-pound backpack and she pushed my bike.  We both wished we knew "Ulysses" better, as we knew Joyce would have commented on our surroundings.  We saw one plaque on the sidewalk with reference to his book with embedded footsteps leading to more, but not in the direction we were headed.

The library was a little further from the central district than we had hoped, so Janina had to resort to a taxi rather than a bus for the final five miles to the ferry while I had an hour to track down two neighborhood Carnegies.  It was a bit frantic but I managed it with five minutes to spare.

The Pembroke library had just closed at one for a lunch break when I pulled up in front of it, so I couldn't ask about it or get good directions to the next one in Rathmines, instead relying on my trusty GPS device.

When I asked directions from one guy he would barely let me go asking one question after another beginning with the usual, "Where are you from?"  I hated to be an American in a rush, but I had no choice.  The Rathmines library was covered in scaffolding.  It had celebrated its one hundredth anniversary the year before.  Above the entry was a plaque acknowledging Carnegie's "munificence," another of those ten-dollar words the English use whenever they can.  The Hanwell Carnegie outside London used the word "benificence" to describe Carnegie's generosity.

Janina and I boarded the ferry separately, me wheeling my bike down below with the cars and she walking on with the foot passengers, and met up at the information desk aboard the ferry for our final two hours together.  She would take the train back to London while I would bike to Leeds, one hundred and fifty miles away for the start of The Tour.  We sat with a couple from Yorkshire who had just spent a week on a sailboat traveling the Shannon River.  The Tour would be passing less than half a mile from their home on Stage One.  They said there had been intense excitement for months throughout the region.  The Tour coming to Yorkshire was the best thing that had happened to it in years, they gushed.  

They were disappointed England had been knocked out of the World Cup, but at least it meant everyone could focus all their attention on The Tour.  I offered them an English flag, even one with the antennae still in tact for their drive home, but they declined.  The only person I met in Ireland who would accept one was an English friend of the Dodds who wore a full-size English flag draped over his shoulders whenever England played along with wearing a pair of English flag socks.  He was a hardy, adventuristic soul, going for long hikes and climbing mountains all over the world.  One of his most noteworthy was climbing Mount Whitney in California and continuing on the John Muir Trail to Yosemite.  He would love to do the Appalachia Trail, but next up is a jaunt through the Pyrenees.  


dworker said...

George, your first time in Ireland? I thought the people were wonderful too. I ferried to Cork, then cycled to Gaulway. Rain and wind all the way. Did you get to Blarney Castle, to kiss the Blarney Stone?

george christensen said...

Dwight: I had just a nibble of Ireland in 2007 before the start of The Tour in London. I biked from Dublin to Belfast on my way up to Findhorn in Scotland, hardly getting a taste of the country. This was a full immersion. It almost seemed as if everyone was in the employ of each local tourist office trying to make the experience of every visitor as idyllic as possible. No Blarney Stone nor anything on the tourist circuit.