Sunday 6 April 2014

Bunratty Castle & Folk Park, the Cliffs of Moher and Co. Galway

Dinner at Bunratty Castle had been an exciting affair that gave us a brief taste of feasting in the 15th century, and the next morning we were back on the grounds in order to properly explore the Folk Park surrounding it, to get a glimpse of Irish life circa the 19th century. One can quibble over the degree of historical accuracy to be found at heritage tourism sites like these, but I've always particularly enjoyed visiting places that attempt to recreate the past. Apart from what's on show, it's also interesting to note what hasn't been put on display, which can often be quite telling in its own way. 

As usual, we were the first in, taking advantage of the early hour to see as much of the Park as possible without jostling with other tourists. Pat had spent much of the previous day extolling the virtues of the fresh baked goods available at the Folk Park, especially those prepared during the many live baking sessions held throughout the day as part of their showcase of traditional crafts.  So compelling were his descriptions of tart, flaky apple pie and fluffy, warm scones being pulled out of ovens and served piping hot with pats of butter that once we entered the Folk Park, we immediately piled en masse into the pink-walled thatched house where the demonstrations were to take place. 

For all our enthusiasm, at a little past nine in the morning, we were far too early for even the first round of baking. The ingredients for scones had been laid out, but there was nary a baker in sight. The house itself was fairly interesting though, a recreation of a rich farmer's residence from that time period. We basked in front of a rather generously stoked peat fire, and ambled round the multiple rooms to have a peek at the furnishings. The other houses around the compound showcased typical dwellings of people across the social spectrum - the fisherman-farmer for instance lived in a rather more shabby building with fewer trinkets and a smaller stack of turf for burning. 

The 26 acre Folk Park includes a section dedicated to the typical Irish village or small town of the 1800s, and in every pamphlet and online page on the matter you'll see a line or two mentioning their fully functional pub as a must-visit. In a move that will seem terribly out of character, I completely skipped McNamara's pub, spending most of my time away from the urbanized areas. This probably meant I didn't get as much out of the experience as I could have done, considering that the village and its numerous attractions are the heart of the grounds, but the rural bits had their own charm. 

Of course, the rural setting in the Park was far more sanitary than it was likely to have been in the 19th century, and it's nigh on impossible to get a sense of the deprivation of the time. Still, it was fun. As a city dweller I derive a great deal of enjoyment from my rare encounters with animals that aren't pigeons, and I got a whole bunch of cheap kicks terrorizing a gaggle of geese by slowly but steadily stalking them as they waddled on. 

There's a very fine balance between heritage promotion and the realities of operating within a commercial environment, and it's so very easy to dismiss places like Bunratty Folk Park for being too touristy, but I think Shannon Heritage have done quite well in developing and running the estate. 

I dragged M & D with me all the way to see the Walled Garden at the far end of the Park, which proved to be a fairly underwhelming experience, but along the way we ran into the man who was doing the feeding rounds for the animals. We were wondering why the sheep had been so friendly when we'd walked past their enclosures, and now we knew the truth. Mercenaries, the lot of them. 

The three deer who call the Folk Park home likewise trotted up to us when we shimmied through a gap in the bushes to get up close with them, but soon grew aloof once they realized we weren't carrying grub with us. 

The Georgian manse overlooking the deer looked grand but rather spooky from our peek through the windows, so we didn't try too hard to find an entrance in. We took in the grounds instead, which were rather more impressive than the Walled Garden. 

M vanished, as she is wont to do, around the time we saw the display of antique farming equipment, while D abandoned me after we encountered the massive Irish Wolf Hounds, so I wound up alone as I unsuccessfully attempted to take pictures of more wildlife, this time a postcard-worthy specimen of a robin that was hiding in a hedge.  

Still on my own, I finally wound up in the village area, though not for long. My walk through Main Street was brief in large part because at the first house I entered - that of the Doctor - I encountered who I assumed to be the Doctor's Wife. She was doing a round of sweeping in his absence, and when she saw me she started and asked what I was doing all the way over there when the baking demonstration was happening that very moment. After thanking her, I took off and sprinted as fast as I could back to the pink house, but it was too late. All that was left was what remained of the scone batter, which sat there silently mocking me. 

By this point, the Tea Rooms were finally open. Even if I couldn't witness the baking, by Jove I was still going to have my scone. M & D popped out of the woodwork as if on cue, and we made our way into the quaint little cafe together, placing the first scone order for the day. 

We also got a helping of apple pie with a dollop of fresh cream. I compare all apple pies I eat against that of Winkel 43 in Amsterdam, and while this wasn't quite as good, it was still enjoyable all the same, and seemed to be made almost entirely of apples, with just a hint of pastry. 

I've encountered far prettier scones, but sometimes all you need in terms of looks for baked goods is that lovely golden brown colour on the outside, even if the rest of it is rather blobbily misshapen. This scone had been prepared earlier in the day, and while it wasn't piping hot, it was still warm out of the basket it had been fished out of. 

The matter of what ought to be put on a scone and in what order is a subject that has been endlessly debated and remains terribly divisive, but my personal preference skirts the main jam-or-cream-first controversy entirely - I don't believe in slathering jam on my scones at all. Where possible, I have just scone and cream in a 3:1 ratio, and failing that, scone and as much butter as I can layer on. With just a serving of butter available, it had to be carefully rationed between the three of us, and I wound up appropriating some of the cream from the pie for scone-related purposes.  

Luck was on the side of the three fellow Singaporeans on the tour, who managed to catch the baker as she was serving up the freshly made scones, and back on the bus they told us all about their magical best-scone-ever experience. I can imagine it must have been amazing, given how tasty our scone was even as it rapidly cooled - moreish and with enough body to it without being too dense.  

With scone and pie and tea in our bellies, D & I went to explore Bunratty Castle while M headed for the gift shop. Dinner the night before had taken place across only the two main rooms of the Castle, and we wanted to check out what we'd missed. More steep steps like those we'd experienced in Blarney Castle, but this time the climb seemed far less precarious, likely because Bunratty wasn't missing chunks of wall. 

When people think of castles, it's rather common to have a Disney-influenced mental picture, or places like Versailles. These however, are palaces, designed to look beautiful and be comfortably inhabited. Castles on the other hand are defensive buildings, primarily built as fortified bastions of safety. Judging castles based on their looks misses the point entirely, when you ought to be looking at how well they can stand up to an attack. While making our rounds, we came across the murder hole, a feature of many a castle. Conveniently located above the main entrance of the castle, large stones or boiling oil could be chucked down on unwanted visitors should the doors be breached. 

We made it all the way up to the top of the Castle, from which we could see the river from which the Castle derives its name. Because the river flows into the Shannon Estuary via which Limerick can be accessed, the Castle occupies an important strategic location. It's also fairly scenic. 

Bunratty Castle is special for being the most complete medieval fortress in Ireland, both outside and in, with authentic furnishings from the 15th and 16th centuries adorning the rooms and some Early Modern armour. The 7th Viscount Gort is responsible for purchasing the Castle and saving it from ruin, and today the trust set up in his name continues to manage the artifacts housed within the Castle. It's a splendid collection, with everything from Cromwellian breastplates and massive tapestries to Flemish oak cupboards and box chairs. I particularly liked the sassiness of the figure in this carved panel.  

From Bunratty, we travelled to the Cliffs of Moher. The name derives from "mothar", the Old Irish word for ruined fort. The first fort stood in the first century, right where the crumbling stones of Moher Tower are now on Hag's Head, at the southern end of the Cliffs. 

With the sun making a surprise appearance, even from the northern end of the 8 kilometre stretch of cliff wall we could make out Moher Tower near the tip of the furthest visible cliff. 

Moher Tower South End of Cliffs of Moher

The winds were strong enough to blow sea spray up along one stretch of the cliffs, creating a sparkly mini rainbow and catching some visitors by surprise. 

After all the stairs we'd navigated earlier in the day, we weren't particularly keen on climbing some more to the top of the O'Brien observation tower, admiring it instead from a distance. 

I have friends who could tell you all about the layers of sandstone and shale that constitute the Cliffs and the processes that led to its creation, but it's not quite my thing. I'm more likely to say "Oh look! Some pretty rocks!" Even if geography doesn't send me into paroxysms of delight, the Atlantic facing West Coast of Ireland remains a breathtaking sight to behold. 

Looking back inland, the view there wasn't too shabby either.  

The guided walking tour option wasn't provided for Galway, so we made our own way around the city, witnessing possibly the worst busker in the universe (He was so bad a couple of proselytizers unfortunate enough to have been next to him packed up and moved on), eating some rather disappointing oysters, and unsuccessfully hunting for YSL lipstick for M in shade 52. It was a rather blind sort of wandering round the main areas of town, and fairly overwhelming on a busy Sunday afternoon, so it was with some relief that we hopped back on the coach to make our way to the hotel. 

For the next two nights we stayed at the Connemara Coast Hotel. The Wi-Fi signal was rather patchy from our room, so we spent much of our time sitting out in the airy lobby.

Given the early check-in, we asked reception about walks round the area, and were encouraged to have a stroll round the hotel's private beach - the rest of the walking paths were a bit of a distance away, but there were scenic enough vistas right in our back yard. 

I was thankful for my sturdy boots while clambering up the rocks on the beach. For all that I like shoes I tend to treat mine rather poorly, putting them through all the paces.

The sky was clear enough that we could look across the waters to the coast of Co. Clare. We walked along the beach till it was time for yet another pleasant but all-too-filling dinner back at the hotel. 

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