Wednesday, September 16, 2015

County Donegal

Our flight to Donegal was on a tiny propeller powered plane that the taxi driver told us they would load in a slingshot for take off. County Donegal on the north west coast of Ireland is where our Cassidy ancestors are from, so although it's not a big tourist destination it was a must see for us.
Our gate was about a mile away down three different escalators and back to the basement level of the airport (albeit a brighter and more inviting section of the airport than customs and baggage claim had been).
There was some seriously great people watching in that area of the airport. I didn't see it, but apparently my mom got a full moon from a rather large man when he stood up and his pants slid down significantly. She had a look of utter shock on her face and then struggled through a moment of silent laughing processing what she'd seen.

We were all able to have short naps on our hour long flight to Donegal. I think there were around 10 people on the flight plus the flight crew.

When we landed at the airport and saw how small it was Anne and I began to wonder if it was even possible to have a rental car place inside.

Yeah. That's pretty much the whole thing. Minuscule. We were wondering if we would have to walk a mile or two down the road to get to the rental car place but sure enough there was an Enterprise counter inside. We got our car rented (despite the fact that the guy working was really quiet and hard to understand) and the stress adventure really began.

Proof that the airport was, in fact, large enough to have a car rental counter.
Going into this trip Anne and I had talked about renting cars and driving in certain areas. She was a lot more reserved about the notion but I thought "no problem! We can do this easy". There were several factors I hadn't considered though. I knew we'd be driving on the left with the driver's seat on the right side of the car but I had no idea how narrow and windy the roads would be. I didn't take into account that I would be driving a manual transmission--something that I know how to do but hadn't done in nearly fifteen years and that I would be shifting with my left hand; I didn't pause to consider that this would be an unfamiliar car I was driving or that the markings on the road would be different and it definitely didn't occur to me that all the road signs would be in Gaelic because Donegal is a national language preservation heritage area or something like that. I also didn't think about the fact that even though Donegal is one of the least populated parts of Ireland the road we would be mostly driving, "The Wild Atlantic Way," is a major tourist route and the busiest road in the whole region. What was I thinking anyway? I guess I wasn't.

Almost immediately upon leaving the airport parking lot there was a large hill. I killed the car halfway up the hill because I didn't remember how to drive a stick uphill. There was panic. There were tears and desperate thoughts of "Oh, crap! There's a car coming the other way" and "what have we gotten ourselves into?!" before I listened to the calm voices of my mom and sister telling me to put it in neutral, let it roll to the bottom of the hill and try again. I made it the second time.

I drove very slowly and carefully flinching every time a car came of a hill towards me on the other side of the road. Every. Single. Time. My nerves were fried. Somehow we took a wrong turn and ended up going down a tiny road only wide enough for one car to pass at a time. I came within centimeters of taking off the passenger side mirror because I didn't realize how close I was to the wall. We made it through the alley-like road and ended up on another hill. I tried to turn the car around so we could get back on the right track but we couldn't figure out how to put the car into reverse.

We were near a steep drop off and every time we tried to put the car into reverse I would carefully ease up on the clutch and press down on the gas and then have to slam on the brakes because we were still in first gear. I was also mostly blocking the road, sitting nearly perpendicular across two lanes of traffic. More tears.

A truck approached and Mom hopped out of the car and went to ask for help. She told the driver that we were Americans and we didn't know what we were doing and could he help us put our car in reverse. He had a good chuckle and very kindly came and put the car into reverse for me and showed me how to do it and then pointed us back in the right direction.

View from our balcony looking west.
Eventually we made it to our bed and breakfast (a place called Woodhill House in the town of Ardara) after a couple more wrong turns another scary, narrow, steep road through town and stopping to ask directions a couple of times. The drive took us about twice as long as it should have because I drove so slowly. We were all totally wiped out and hungry since we hadn't had anything substantial to eat since eating at the Buttery at Trinity earlier that morning. Our harrowing journey to get there was rewarded by breathtaking views from our room and the fanciest meal we had the entire trip.

View from our balcony looking south.
Woodhill House was once owned by the last commercial whaling family in Ireland. It has a main house that is the restaurant (and according to the proprieter this is the main attraction-- a restaurant that just happens to have a bed and breakfast with it) and then rooms that I think were once servants quarters; it also has a lovely walled garden that we walked around after dinner.

The far left room on the second level was ours. Via.
Our bathroom had a bidet. One of us tried it out. I won't say who.
Our first night's accommodations in Ireland.
Dinner started out in the bar with a nice peat fire burning in the fireplace. We just wanted water. The charming Irish bartender offered sparkling or still. I guess that's a thing there in UK. Anytime you ask for water you specify sparkling, still or tap. I've grown quite fond of sparkling water now. It feels fancier and it reminds me of our trip but it doesn't have all the sugar of soda. It's my new favorite treat.

Woodhill House bar
Peat fire burning in the hearth.
Mom checking out the menu. 
My still water. Isn't the label pretty? And doesn't "Ballygowan" sound so very Irish?
No one wanted to be in the photos because we were jet lagged, frazzled and looked a little travel worn.
The dinner was a three course meal: appetizers, main course and dessert. I started out with fresh Donegal Bay mussels. Anne had cream of asparagus and sweet potato soup and Mom had chicken liver pâté  and melba toast with cranberry and red onion relish. 

For my main course I chose "Premium Sirloin Steak of Irish Angus Beef with Pepper Sauce." It sounds slightly boring but I really needed protein and it really didn't taste boring. It was pretty fantastic.

Mom selected "Duo of Quail Breasts with Gratin Potato, Pear and Ginger Ju, Monk Fish Wrapped in Serano Ham on Tourraffulla Black Pudding, Lemon Cream Parsnip Shavings"

Anne decided to go with "Fillet of this Season's Local Wild Atlantic Salmon, Mussels, Chorizo, Pea Risotto, Crab Bonbons with Chablis Lime Cream"

For dessert we chose the Carrageen Moss Pudding with fresh vanilla ice cream and raspberry and mango purees. It was phenomenal. Moss pudding sounds pretty awful but it was kind of like a panna cotta with little flecks of the carrageen moss--which grows in the sea--in it.


After dinner we went to say hello to the sheep. They were having their own dinner. I had never seen such a woolly sheep as this one. He looks like you could knit a pair of mittens out of him just like this without any shearing, carding or spinning.

All the locals kept remaking on what fine weather we were having. Enjoying the glorious evening was balm to my spirit after the harrowing driving experience of earlier in the day. The walled garden was beautiful and peaceful and it smelled heavenly too.

I've heard that pink roses smell the best. I liked this double rose variety and took pictures so my husband has ideas of what to plant in our yard.

The herb garden was lovely. I really want an herb garden and when I have one I will be sure to grow lavender and lovage. Have you ever smelled lovage? Divine.

See that flowering archway above the stone path? The proprietor told us that when that whaling family, the Nesbitts, lived there used to be an archway made of whale bones. Incredible.

Glengesh Pass--I drove up that little windy road you can see making it's way up the pass.
The next morning after a nice breakfast we talked to our host about our plans for the day before checking out. He pulled out a worn map and offered some suggestions. We were headed to the coast to Glencolmcille (glen-collum-KILL) and the folk village there. We knew the Cassidy family was from that area of Donegal, although maybe not that exact town. There were nine sons. They began to leave Ireland during the potato famine and the folk villiage would be a great way to see what life had been like for them before they came to America.

When I learned that I was going to have to drive over a mountain pass I was not super excited. I was still worn out from driving the day before. The host at Woodhill House told us to make sure to stay on the road no matter what so that we wouldn't sink into the blanket bog. Don't know what a blanket bog is? We didn't either. Unlike regular bogs that exist in low lying areas, blanket bogs are peatland that can form anywhere where there is a lower level of evaporation than rainfall--even on mountain sides. See the patches where the grass is more khaki colored? Blanket bog. Awesome--another factor to add into the already stressful driving.

We stopped on our way out of Ardara and bought some cheese, fruit, rice cakes and bread for our lunch and found two red "L" signs to put in the front and rear car windows so that other drivers would know I was a learner and cut me a little slack. Then we made our way to the narrow, winding Glengesh Pass.

Most of the time I drove at around 1/2 to 3/4 of the speed limit. Anytime I saw another car coming in either direction I would pull as far to the left as I dared and wave them around. It made for slow going but my confidence started to increase a little and my knuckles weren't quite as white as they had been the day before. My main concern was not to kill us by falling off a cliff or sinking into the blanket bog.

The Glencolmcille Folk Village is located right on the Atlantic ocean. We took a minute to check out the sea and breath in some salt air before buying our tickets to see the attraction. The village has several buildings with thatched roofs: a school, several houses showing the progression of how the Irish people lived through the centuries, a village museum and pub as well as a hedge school, sweat lodge, standing stone and other artifacts. There is also a modern tea shop and gift shop.

Inside one of the homes.

View of thatched roof.

More photos of the village HERE.
Primitive hearth/fireplace in one of the homes.
Whisky jug--Tullamore Dew
I can't wait to try these recipes when rhubarb is in season again.
Path to scenic overlook past standing stone, sweat lodge and hedge school.
We were able to talk to a couple of women that work in the gift shop as we were mailing a couple of packages home. One was very helpful with information about the Cassidys. She said there are still Cassidys in the nearby village of Teelin who are probably our relatives. We wanted to go find out and to also see Slieve League (the highest sea cliffs in Europe--three times higher than the Cliffs of Mohr) since we were so close but unfortunately we needed to leave right then to make the two hour drive back to the Donegal Airport in Carrickfinn in time for our flight back to Dublin. We decided that this just means that we have to go back for sure now.

We made it back to the Donegal Airport with no major problems--just a couple of wrong turns. My confidence in driving was getting a little better all the time but I was very happy to turn in the rental car. We didn't hear the announcement for our flight so someone came and found us and told us it was time to board (that would never happen in Atlanta. Just sayin'.). We had Cadbury hot chocolate and crisps on our hour long flight back to Dublin and then we caught another taxi to our lodging for the evening at Amberly Guest House in Dublin city center.

To Be Continued. . .

1 comment:

Ida said...

You are so lucky to have been able to do this trip. Ireland is on my "Bucket List" of places I'd like to visit. - I enjoyed your photos and post very much.