Monday, June 29, 2015

Ireland: Day Trips to Newgrange, Wicklow Mountains/Glendalough and Trip Wrap-up

When we were planning our vacation in Ireland, we looked around for interesting day trips that we could take from our home base in Dublin.  Being able to drive out for a short distance, tour around all day, and then return back to Dublin to sleep, would allow us to save money on accommodations for the trip.  We quickly found two trips in opposite directions that would each take about 1 hour to get to–Newgrange to the north and Wicklow Mountains to the south.  Accordingly we allocated two separate days on our schedule to make each of these visits.

Our thinking changed quickly once we reached Dublin and found out about the cost and aggravation of the M50 Ring-Road Toll Highway.  It was not so much the price of the toll, which was 3.1 Euros each time you used the highway, but rather the onerous administrative process of trying to pay the toll on time (sometimes you have less than 24 hours) and the 30 Euro fee that is charged if you are late.  Who needs such pressure while on vacation? So when we realized that Newgrange was right on our path as we returned home from our Northern Ireland road trip, we decided to tack on an extra day to that trip and stop at Newgrange before heading home.  Although it meant staying another night away in a B&B, the cost was minimal at 50 Euros and it avoided the hassle of paying for two more trips on the M50.

Brú na Bóinne (which means "Palace of the Boyne") is a World Heritage Site located at the bend of the River Boyne in County Meath, 40 kilometres north of Dublin.  It encompasses one of the largest and most important sets of passage tombs dating back to the New Stone Age 5000 years ago, making them about 500 years older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids. The largest and most well known of the over 40 tombs are Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.  A passage tomb is a megalithic structure consisting of a stone-lined tunnel that leads to one or more inner chambers where the remains of the deceased are kept.  After exploring the Brú na Bóinne Visitors' Centre, we would be taking a guided tour of the Newgrange and Knowth sites, where the tombs are known for the intricate symbols and motifs carved in the giant megalithic stones.

While in the Visitors' Centre, we were given a preview of some of the symbols that we might see carved on the stones including circles, spirals, arcs, wavy lines, chevrons, diamonds, crescents, serpentine and other shapes.  Some were possibly symbols of fertility, phallic shapes, life and birth while other patterns look like they might be related to nature, including cycles of the sun, water or rivers and even wild life such as snakes, birds and larger animals.  We also saw some examples of how the Stone Age people lived and dressed, as well as a diagram of how they actually built the passage tombs using a pulley system.

The tours of the Knowth and Newgrange passage tombs are booked for scheduled time slots and during tourist season, the crowds get quite large and the wait time grows longer and longer as the day goes by.  This was another advantage for staying overnight at Donore, which was literally a 5 minute drive from the heritage centre as opposed to the hour drive from Dublin.  We arrived at the Brú na Bóinne site 20 minutes before it opened to try to beat the crowds, but there were already six people in line in front of us.  We did manage to secure the first time slot for Knowth and the second one for Newgrange.  From the Visitors' Centre, we had to walk across a long suspension bridge to reach a large parking lot where shuttle buses waited to take us on a ride of approximately 10 minutes to reach each site. 

Completed in the Neolithic Age between 2500 to 2000 B.C., the passage tomb at Knowth consists of a large mound that is 12 metres (40 feet) high and 67 metres in diameter (220 feet), surrounded by 18 smaller satellite mounds.  The large mound has two passageways leading east (40 metres/131 feet long) and west (34 metres/112 feet long) into burial chambers where bones and cremated ashes are laid out on stone basins.  The remains of two hundred bodies from the Neolithic Age were found here. Archaeological evidence shows that the cremations took place outside of the tomb and the remains were brought in after the fact.

We learned that the stone basin seemed to be built first and then the chambers and mound were built around it, since the basin is too big to move through any of the passage openings.  As part of the 30 years of excavation activities that took place from the 1960s-2002, a staircase was installed leading to the top of the mound, from which you can see the countryside, the Dowth and Newgrange mounds and the Hill of Tara, rumoured to be the seat of the High King of Ireland.

Positioned around the circumference of the large mound are 127 massive slabs of Greywacke rock measuring approximately 2.5 metres (8 feet) long.  They were probably towed by boats from the banks of the River Boyne. Most of  these kerbstones have symbols and motifs carved onto them, with the most prominent images found near the entrances.  One stone in particular is identified as a calendar stone that marks phases of the sun moon and stars, with an image resembling a sundial or lunar calendar.  About 250 more carved stones can be found inside the passages, including a couple in the Eastern chamber that have graffiti scribbling from early Christian times.

For safety purposes, access to the passage chambers is blocked off and closed to the public.  We were able to stick our cameras in behind the bars to get a photo looking down the Eastern passage, which apparently leads to a chamber in the form of a crucifix and has a layered corbelled roof, which we would see an example of during our Newgrange tour.

Next to the large mound is a recreation of a "Timber Circle" (like a wooden Stonehenge) which originally would have been built around 2500 B.C., probably for ritual or ceremonial purposes.  Traces of more modern settlements were found on this site including people from the Iron Age (1200 - 1000 B.C.), Early Christian Age (800-1200 A.D.) and the Norman Age (1200-1400 A.D.)

While touring the ancient mounds at Knowth was fascinating, we were in for an even bigger treat when we next visited the Newgrange site.  Like the one at Knowth, the large oval-shaped mound at Newgrange was built in the Neolithic period between 3000 to 2500 B.C., spanning 1.1 acres of ground with a length of 76 metres (249 ft) and a height of 12 metres (39 ft) high. The mound was originally built of alternating layers of earth and stones with grass growing on top.  Archaeological research showed that the outer circumference was once covered with a facade made of small, flat, white quartz stones, which was recreated when the mound was excavated between 1962-1975.  Inside the mound is passageway 19 metres (60 feet) in length, leading to a cross-shaped main chamber with 3 small wall openings that each contain a basin stone for holding bones and remains.

Again like in Knowth, the base of the Newgrange mound is surrounded by 97 kerbstones with Megalithic art carved on them, the most detailed and elaborate ones positioned near the entrance.  The guide indicated that the carvings were made using bones, stones and wood, and proposed various possible interpretations for the markings.  The theories included the possibility that they were maps of landscapes, territorial claims, or maps of the path of the sun.  The three-spiraled motifs (resembling a "triskele" -  typical Celtic symbol), found on the large rock in front of the entrance might represent the trilogy of birth/death/rebirth or the three mornings before the winter solstice.

While experts believe that the mound was built for religious purposes as a temple or place of worship, there were also astronomical considerations possibly related to rituals of sun worship.  This is because it was discovered that the entrance of the mound was meticulously positioned so that on the several mornings around the winter solstice (December 21), as the sun rises between 8:59 to 9:15am, the sunlight forms a beam that shines straight down the passageway, into the main burial chamber.

The shaft of sunlight is directed into the chamber through an opening called a "roof-box", specifically built on top of the entrance.  As the sun rises higher, the beam of light widens and travels deeper into the chamber, illuminating the tri-spirals carved on the walls until it eventually ends up shining on the stone basin in the alcove directly facing the entrance.  This feat of architectural, astronomical,  and engineering knowledge, to precisely calibrate the path of the sun, was achieved 5000 years ago, proving the intellectual sophistication of these people.
While hearing about the construction of the Newgrange tomb was fascinating enough, what made this experience even more exciting was that this time, we were actually allowed to enter through the passageway into the burial chamber.  We saw first-hand the corbelled roof made of multiple layers of larger rocks, filled in with smaller stones, more stone carvings, the three recesses with the stone basins and examples of Early Christian graffiti.  Then came the grand finale. To demonstrate the interaction of the sun with the tomb during the period of the winter solstice, the tour guide turned off all the lights and our group of around 20 people stood in total darkness. Then he triggered a lighting system which shone through the roof-box and slowly grew brighter to simulate how the sunlight entered the chamber.  The light source acted like a laser beam, running straight along the passageway, through the middle of the chamber, ending up in the alcove directly in line with the entrance.  Standing there in this ancient tomb watching this phenomenon, it felt like we were in the middle of an Indiana Jones movie and  I wished I had brought my fedora and whip.

There is a lottery each year, entered by over 35,000 people, that allows 50 lucky winners to actually stand in this chamber during the real winter solstice.  That would be some experience but I would imagine it would be quite cold.  I was quite happy with our amazing simulation held during the pleasant warmth of early summer.

Our visit to Glendalough, situated in the Wicklow Mountains National Park  was actually done as a day trip from Dublin, as originally planned.  Meaning "Glen of Two Lakes", Glendalough is a Medieval Christian settlement that was founded by Saint Kevin in the 6th Century.  It was expanded upon throughout the centuries and became a mecca for pilgrims who came to worship.  Miracles were attributed to St. Kevin from the time he was a baby.  Legends tell that an angel decreed that he be named Kevin, meaning "fair-begotten", and that a mysterious white cow appeared at his family's front door every morning to supply the child with milk.  As he grew older, more miracles occurred including sheep magically reappearing after he gave them away to the poor, turning water into ale and restoring an injured man's sight with his blessing. Saint Kevin's Feast Day is celebrated on the 3rd of June.

Most of the buildings are in ruins today with the best preserved structure being St Kevin's Church, a nave and chancel church built in the 12th century.  It is also known as St. Kevin's Kitchen since the little round bell tower rising from the west end of the stone roof resembled a kitchen's chimney.  The most famous landmark is the 33 metres (108 feet) tall Round Tower, built around the 10th Century as a bell tower, lookout post, beacon for pilgrims and a place of refuge for the monks if they came under attack.  This was a really interesting structure since it felt like you were looking upon Rapuzel's tower and wanted to call up for her to "let down your hair".  A small building mostly in ruins is known as the "Priest's House" which was possibly built as a shrine for buried priests, since several tomb stones lay inside.

The largest structure is the remnants of the Cathedral to Saint Peter and Saint Paul, built in phases between the 10th to 13th Centuries.  There was a nave, chancel, sacristy, large decorative arch, multiple windows, a wall cupboard and a stone font.  Early Christian tombstones can be found inside, including one that is still clearly legible–"Here lieth the Body of Luke Tool of Anamoe ... friend of the unprotected, father to the orphans, his door ever open to the poor."

 The Gateway into the monastic settlement with its dual granite arches still stands, although the timber roof connecting the two arches is gone.  Inside the gateway, a stone with a cross carved into it signified that this was a place of sanctuary and refuge.  A 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) tall cross with a circle representing the sun is known as St. Kevin's Cross and was carved from a single granite stone.  A local legend states that if you can wrap your arms around the entire width of the cross and connect the fingertips of your two hands, then your wishes will be granted.  Unlike other Celtic Crosses found in the cemetery, St. Kevin's Cross does not have holes punctured at the intersection points between the cross and the circle.

Following the hiking trail that leads from the monastery settlement towards the Lower and Upper Lakes, we gazed upon the stunning views of the Wicklow Mountains National Park in the distance.  When St. Kevin first arrived at Glendalough after being ordained as a priest, he was looking for solitude in order to pray and practise self-denial.  For seven years he lived as a hermit, sleeping on a rock "bed" in a cave that is now known as St. Kevin's Bed.  The cave is only accessible by water, so we did not get to see it and had to settle for looking up photos on the Internet.  St. Kevin was eventually convinced to return from isolation to spread the teachings of Christ to his followers and establish the monastery at Glendalough.

Leaving Glendalough, we followed a section of road known as the Wicklow Gap Road which crosses the Wicklow Mountains from east to west and is known for its beautiful scenery.  We stopped at a lookout point and walked a little bit of an ancient route known as "St. Kevin's Way", a 30km pilgrim's path from the village of Hollywood to the medieval monastery in Glendalough.  Along the way, we crossed a wooden bridge and passed several ruins.  The trail follows the route that Saint Kevin took to cross the Wicklow Mountains in order to arrive at Glendalough, a journey that became a popular pilgrimage for visitors.

As we were driving away to leave the Wicklow area, we spotted a charming sight up in the hills on the other side of the road.  It was the most stereotypical image of an old shepherd wearing a brimmed hat, tweed coat, plaid shirt and rubber boots.  He was calmly seated on a rock smoking a pipe, with a walking stick tucked under his arm, while his sheep dog ran around in circles, herding the sheep and making sure they did not wander too far afield.  We could barely make out blue markings on the sheep, which we got a closer look at later as we spotted a couple of them grazing on the road.  These must have been the ones that got away from the dog, but they were clearly labelled to identify their owner.

This ends the last blog for our 2015 vacation which spanned the months of May and June, starting with two weeks in Amsterdam followed by four weeks in Ireland.  To read about or look at the photos of the entire excursion in chronological order, you can start with the first entry in May 2015.  I have some closing thoughts to summarize the trip.

Amsterdam and Ireland were both wonderful but totally different experiences, which made for an eclectic, varied and entertaining trip.  In Amsterdam, we enjoyed the canals and extensive culture, while Ireland captivated us with its gorgeous landscapes and its extremely volatile history.  This was our first time flying between to European Union countries on the same trip to Europe.  We decided to buy a return flight from Toronto to/from our original destination (in this case Amsterdam), and then purchase a second internal return flight between the first and second destinations (Amsterdam to Dublin).  Although this took a bit more travel time, it was significantly cheaper than trying to arrange an international flight from Toronto to Amsterdam to Dublin to Toronto.

This was the second year in a row that we took advantage of our retirement freedom and traveled for 6-7 weeks consecutively (in 2014 we went to the South of France).  I've come to the conclusion that this might be a bit too long a time to be away from Toronto, as I have missed the entire spring for two years in a row.  As much as I enjoy vacationing abroad, I also really enjoy spending time in our own city and all it has to offer.  Perhaps 3-4 weeks per trip would be more appropriate?  We will consider that for future years.

It is probably apparent that when we visit a new location within the world, we like to explore it really thoroughly as it is likely we will not return soon if ever.  There are so many different places on our bucket list to get through that we most likely would pick a new destination over repeating one we had already done.  The exceptions of course are New York, London and Paris, which we could go to again and again and still have more to see.

We do so much on a single vacation that it takes me a long time to write about it all. Not having the greatest memory, I've come to understand that if I don't take a photo of it, then it didn't happen because I will have forgotten about it by the time I get around to writing about it.  This is my main purpose for this travel blog, so that I can look back in years to come and relive our wonderful times. Although it took over eight months to record all of our adventures, I was determined to finish before the start of our next exciting vacation, planned for 2016... Mission accomplished.

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