Ireland Part Three – Last Days on the Dingle Peninsula

Dingle tips uphill from a busy marina on a large protected harbor with just a narrow opening to Dingle Bay. Once known for smugglers, Dingle is now popular with tourists for seafood, still-spoken Gaelic, and lively pubs with Irish music.

On our day there, we made wet trips (the storm hadn’t finished with us) to and from our guesthouse to see the town, to do laundry, and to purchase practical Irish wool hats (and a dear fisherman’s knit sweater for Baby brother). The Bob received a thorough bike shop repair of its front wheel. Cold wind and rain discouraged a walk to the harbor entrance, but Lady B and I visited the local aquarium. I’m always curious to see her take on things, what will puzzle her, what will engage – penguins being the highlight here.

The next morning we woke to glorious and welcome sunshine! The van dropped us at the beginning of Ventry Beach, with its miles of broad, hard-packed sand. The little people ran and ran, chasing each other, and pausing to examine beach discoveries. Narrow metal bridges lifted us out of a marshy area, and just before the trail headed inland, we stopped to eat our sandwiches.

After crossing the busy main road (road encounters are few but sometimes scary), we climbed uphill for the rest of the day, skirting the side of Eagle Mountain and approaching Slea Head. We negotiated a narrow, rutted path, climbing up and down and around rocks and over stiles (a tough go for the Bob’s handler). Contained by stone fences outlining a patchwork of fields on the hillside, sheep kept us company.

Sweet Baby walked and talked the whole seven miles, pretending to be teacher or nurse, helping and encouraging student or patient (her mom and me) over rocks, close to sheep, and informing us that the farmer had given permission for this trespass.

As we rose above the coast, the views grew ever more spectacular. We were so lucky with the sunshine, clouds hovered at the horizon, but the day stayed dry and clear, and we could see the beauty of this part of Ireland. Gorgeous vistas of sea, sky, and distant mountains spread out behind, beside, and in front of us, and, one after another, the largest Blasket Islands come dramatically into view.

The next day, our last on the Dingle Peninsula, we toured the Blasket Center – a stunning modern building with exhibits giving a glimpse of a vanished way of life. Long isolated from the rest of Ireland by wild ocean and distance, the culture and language of old Ireland survived on the Blaskets for far longer than on the mainland. In good weather you can visit the islands now, but residents had all left by the 1950s.

We walked another great beach in the afternoon and built a structure of stones to leave behind. We ended the day in the wrong pub for pickup, but another cozy, fire-warmed, inviting space.

I’m grateful for all these days and our intrepid family! You could spend much longer in this way, way west of Ireland where only the wild Atlantic lies beyond the shore. You could hope for the Camp to Inch route with clear skies, for Dingle days without rain and wind, and sail to the Blaskets on favorable seas. And for sure you could eat more delicious vegetable soup in pubs along the way (in any weather)!

Ireland Part One – Arrival

My mother’s parents came separately from Ireland to America in the late 1800s (part of the huge emigration caused by the potato famine). My great-grandmother, Kate Barton (only 14 when she left), met and married Thomas Scanlon here. Although unknown to each other in Ireland, both came from the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, from hamlets near a short spit of land in Dingle Bay called Inch.

When I read about the beauty of the Dingle Peninsula, I began to dream of another family walk. Wonderful Ireland Walking Holidays, the company we used to walk on the Wicklow Way last year, offers a route along the Dingle Way (a 100-mile long-distance trail around the peninsula, linking footpaths, beach traverses, and small roads). Peter Galvin, the helpful owner of Wonderful Ireland, tailored a route for us, selecting portions negotiable by the Bob stroller.

We all arrived in Cork on the south coast of Ireland on the same blustery day – the Alaskans via Reykjavik, Dublin, and a tough, three-hour bus ride. The rest of us touched down at Heathrow and flew on to Cork.

By evening, as the first rain in Ireland for months settled over the city, we ate together at a pizza place in the old part of Cork. The reunited cousins were so glad to see one another, and Baby Brother spotted the first of many pieces of heavy equipment – luckily internationally available to please this two-year old. For a jet-lagged crew, spirits were remarkably high.

The morning brought an uproarious breakfast – if you are six and three and two, a repeated silly phrase brings noisy peals of laughter – in this case occasioned by Sweet Baby renaming her grandfather “Papa Jammy.” (So much fun to hear all that laughter.)

A perfect place to recover for a day, Cork is friendly and unpretentious. The historical part of the city sits on an island formed by two strands of the River Lee, and we walked a circle to see local landmarks. We learned about the history of Cork at a small museum, and at the 17th Century Elizabeth Fort, the youngest three were eager to scale the ramparts (but taken aback by realistic models of heads on pikes). We looked in at the English Market (full of local produce and meat), found a good playground and bookstore, and retreated from rain to a Mexican comfort dinner next to the hotel.

The next day in spite of valiant efforts, we missed our scheduled train from Cork to Tralee. As frequently happens in Ireland, helpful people (train staff in this case) pitched in to help with the baggage and direct us to an alternate train. On the train we ate lunches, played UNO, and saw the first of a multitude of sheep, many vacas, and an occasional crane truck or excavator. In Tralee, a van, pulling a trailer (suitcases, strollers, and backpacks in duffle bags) picked us up, and delivered us to Camp Village on the north coast of the peninsula.

For dinner, we walked uphill to Ashes pub – a 200-year old building welcoming with a real fireplace ablaze, cozy lighting, lots of locals, good beer and food. I asked our server about the names Barton and Scanlon, and she said, “Oh, you’re in Scanlonland around here!”

In the morning we would begin by walking up and over to cross the interior of the peninsula to Inch Beach!

Three Days With Lady B and Many Dinosaurs

Lady B came to visit – by herself! A week ago Sunday I met her and her mom at the airport, and after big hugs for her mom (flying on to Oregon), we set out for the train, our first walk of the 15 plus miles we were to walk in the next three days. Lady B let me take her backpack but pulled her roller bag, up stairs and curbs, through crowds, and while holding hands to cross streets (for my sake). She listened to the station announcements, predicted our stop by the route map, and (after placing her ferry ticket for the scanner to read) pulled her bag onto the boat.

Comfortable is the word most coming to mind for her demeanor – even that first day. At ease and brave really – never having been away from home without her parents and never having been to our new house! It’s smaller, but painted red like hers, and full of familiar things. She settled right in.

Relegating the early-rising student to the room upstairs, Lady B and I had a slumber party in the bedroom downstairs. She slept on a blow up air mattress on the floor, cozy with stuffies from here and ones from her suitcase.

We filled the days with reading (an A-Z mystery about London and Windsor Castle), and painting (pottery plates at a cheerful shop on the Winslow Green – hers decorated with a triceratops and mine memorializing the visit with the date and a so-so stegosaurus). On our many walks to and from town, we were always careful to not step on sidewalk cracks (she changed the “break your mother’s back, which bothered both of us, to a zillion other rhyming variations, the best being, “get a pat on the back”).

With summer sunshine every day, we ate lunch in town outside under an umbrella, saw the marina and the historical museum (her request because of various artifacts outside the building) and the art museum (to pick out a stuffed otter for baby brother because “he loves otters,” and take a quick look at the book arts room).

One day we drove to a playground with structures for climbing and pretending, and stopped to visit my young friend and her mom. We borrowed their motherload of Lego bins – two generations worth – perfect for quiet times with Poppa Jim in the afternoon. We mostly ate dinners here – spaghetti, mac and cheese, corn on the cob, a lot of watermelon, and one lousy homemade pizza (my failed attempt, quickly replaced by a burrito).

The highlight? A Seattle day to visit the Burke Museum on the UW campus. We walked to the ferry (I was in awe of Lady B’s walking with nary a complaint – 6.2 miles this day), rode the light rail to the U, walked across campus to the museum, and met Poppa Jim after his class. We sat on the Quad beneath huge trees, ate sandwiches, grapes, and chips, and watched groups of potential students on campus tours. (We overheard one of the tour leaders declare the most popular class at UW to be “Dinosaurs.”)

Last summer in Montana, paleontologists from the Burke Museum discovered the remarkably well-preserved head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The staff works on it now (behind a glass window) removing the surrounding sandstone and rock and reconnecting displaced parts to get it ready for display. We were thrilled to be able to enter the room and talk to the head preparator. He told us the texture of the fossil is “classic T. Rex skin” (textured and leathery looking). We peered up its nostril, examined teeth and eye sockets, and learned you can tell the sex of a dinosaur – sometimes.

We explored the rest of the museum, and as we headed back across campus to the train, I asked Lady B why she liked dinosaurs so much. The answer came quickly, “because they are really old and dead but it’s not sad, and they’re interesting!” We got off the train near the Pike Place Market to watch the fish guys toss a salmon, take a photo of Lady B sitting on the giant brass pig, and best of all, get gelato! We walked along First Avenue in the warm shade past Hammering Man, eating our delicious gelato, and speaking of dinosaurs, friends, and super heroes.

It’s always been companionable to be with Lady B, she’s an observer and a good sport, she’s inquisitive and plucky – a fine traveling mate. My painter friend said Lady B made a lot of good memories – I hope so – I know how many she made for me as we walked the routes I take every day, now enriched by her comments and her laugh.

Our last afternoon she packed her bag for an early departure Thursday morning, then made a book for her brother – a complete story of the two of them riding a Triceratops and encountering a T. Rex – with her own handwriting and spelling and, of course, her illustrations. (One is used here by permission.)

 

 

 

Un Lieto Fine – Roma

In Rome, the Val d’Orcia heat persisted as we joined other tourists near famous sites: an impenetrable cluster around the Coliseum, mobs being shushed in the Pantheon, people packed around the Trevi Fountain. But the eternal sites are still rewarding.

One day we all rode the Hop-On Hop-Off sightseeing bus, and Lady Baby and her family pedaled around the Borghese Gardens in a “surrey” – a family bike. Another day they took a tour of the Coliseum geared to children, while Baby Brother sat happily on a comforter on our apartment’s tile floor. He played with his traveling toys, empty boxes, plastic bottles, and utensils scavenged from the kitchen. The day her parents toured the Borghese Gallery, Lady Baby learned the rudiments of chess from her Uncle Tu Tu and dissolved into private laughter with her cousin.

The Testaccio neighborhood might be the place to stay in Rome – quiet streets, few tourists, lots of interesting food, and a fine playground. On an early morning run, Mr. Carson discovered Testaccio’s Nuovo Mercato, and led us back later. Mrs. Hughes and I sifted through piles of riches in a stall selling vintage linens – white cotton tablecloths and pillowcases embroidered with images of teacups or countryside flowers, with and without lace – deciding who would like what.

Trips usually include the unexpected – but countless warnings predicted our first pickpocket experience: at the Barberini metro station, crazy busy on a Sunday evening, two girls oddly pressing close as we boarded the Metro, then Poppa Jim discovering an empty front pocket.

And that mishap led to another new experience – filing a police report in Rome (not in hopes of recovery, but perhaps insurance). We learned the appropriate agency was not the carabinieri but the polizia – where we were initially turned away from the station, told to sit on the curb and wait, and then finally admitted. A helpful officer took our information, covered a copy of her report with official stamps, and remarked: “You don’t expect us to do anything about this, do you?”

We retreated to Eataly, the enormous Italian food emporium where you can sit at one restaurant, gather food from any other, and eat together. Sweet Baby’s parents bought us dinner and groceries, and we called the credit card companies.

On our last day we set out early, stopped at a nearby “bio-café” for chocolate croissants, then followed the Trail Boss to the quiet neighborhood of Trastevere and the beautiful, 16th Century Villa Farnasina – few other visitors, windows open to the gardens, and walls covered with frescos by masters like Raphael.

The next morning we awakened at five a.m. to help the Alaskans depart for home. As the taxi waited in the early darkness, a sleepy Lady Baby stood still for a hug from each of us, then grabbed her mom and cried. So me too. The rest of us left Rome a few hours later.

It was such a privilege to be with all of these people I love for this long adventure – I am very grateful.

 

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A Walk In The Val d’Orcia II

In Pienza we had an extra day: time for a laundromat and a break from daily walking for the little travelers. Both Pienza (a “masterpiece of human creative genius”)and the Val d’Orcia (a “well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscape”) are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You experience both while standing in Pienza’s perspective defying, trapezoidal 15th Century square and glimpsing, through openings past the cathedral, the valley landscape. We could view the sweep of the Val d’Orcia from Pienza’s “balcony,” a low-walled walkway running the length of town, and trace our route, from hilltop to hilltop.

We were often in awe of Lady Baby on this trip – neither adult nor easily carried baby, but unfailingly patient and loving with her cousin and brother, and much of the time, an engaged tourist. Through headphones, she listened intently during a tour of the Renaissance Papal palace, elaborate rooms and a courtyard with herb garden, and inquired of the guide, “Exactly where is the sarcophagus?” Standing in Pienza’s cathedral with head tilted back, camera ready, she studied the frescoed walls and decorated ceilings and pillars, asking questions and making comments. Happily for all, a recommendation from the palace guide led us to Buon Gusto – another best gelato ever.

Early the next morning – wearing our Francigena T-shirts printed by Mrs. Hughes – we posed for a photo on the balcony and set off on the final leg to Montepulciano via Monticchiello (a revised plan to shorten to six a hot 13 kilometers).

Hide-and-seek by the side of the road and lifts from parents helped us to Monticchiello. We ate our sandwiches in a shady playground below this tiny, fortified town (important in the long rivalry between Florence and Siena), then walked about. In a bar we paused for ice cream and coffees, and the proprietor called us a van for the rest of the dusty, steep road.

In Montepulciano we stayed in the beautiful 12th Century Palazzo Ricci in a high up room, overlooking the city and countryside. Montepulciano’s playground improbably included a box hedge maze, and the cousins ran until dinnertime. We ate outdoors at a windy restaurant tucked up into the walls of the city, where a canopy overhead flapped vigorously, sounding like a tent on a mountainside. Some had a last ribolitta, and finally, the carnivores shared a long-desired bistecca florentina.

The Sweet Bride, Sweet Baby, Lady Baby, and I retreated from the dinner table and sat on the cathedral steps on the austere Piazza Grande, empty at dusk, surrounded by venerable palazzos. I said, in the way of adults, “Oh isn’t this amazing! “Just a town,” replied Lady Baby. I said “Really? Like Anchorage?” She said, “Anchorage has trees and grass!” I came back, too quickly, with something flip, then begged her not to tell her parents what I said. Nothing is more ruthless than a five-year old with power over you! I’ve never seen her laugh so hard – “I’m gonna tell them!” she shrieked and giggled, as I tried to convince her she’d get me in trouble – more peals of laughter.

I like to think of her someday bringing a grandchild to that historic square – and laughing.

A Walk In The Val d’Orcia – Part I

Arriving in Montalcino, a small and walled hill town, famous for Brunello wine, we piled out of the van into midday heat and were led down a little street to our apartments in an old building (angled walls, wide wooden floorboards, and high ceilings). Later in the afternoon, we climbed to the ramparts of the fortezza for stunning views, walked part way around the town walls and up to the Duomo, and had a cheerful dinner on the edge of the town square. Under our windows that night, cars roared and accelerated up the narrow streets, noise amplified by stone buildings.

So the next morning a sleep-deprived group set off for our first day of walking – 11 kilometers to Castelnuovo del’Abate – up, along a ridge, and then down, often through forest on a rough track littered with stones slippery underfoot. The heat was a dehydrating bludgeon. (At some point on this journey, Mrs. Hughes allowed as how “choosing to be uncomfortable on a trip” was a Gilmore thing. Some truth to that.)

At first, kicking a soccer ball with the little travelers on the strade bianche and lots of snacks helped us along. But soon Mr. Carson loaded Baby Brother in the Ergo on his front, Lady Baby into the backpack, and then ferried his sleepy children the rest of the way! We carried so much water, but bottles nearly emptied by lunch where we stopped in the churchyard of a tiny hamlet. A passing resident led us to a spigot.

Exhausted, we arrived at the base of Castelnuovo del Abate at a guesthouse with kind owners. While the girls ran about the courtyard (using stored energy), dinner revived us, and we talked about the next day. An ominous warning in the route booklet: “please note this is probably the most demanding leg of your walk” – led Mr. Carson to offer to ride with the baggage and his children. Then we all decided to ride, except Mr. Carson who opted to run.

Always in Italy, comfort and delicious food can mitigate much self-inflicted hardship. In San Quirico d’Orcia, we found the Tuscan hotel you dream about – Palazzo del Capitano – with cool, spacious rooms and a beautiful garden fragrant with rosemary, lavender, and jasmine. Near the town square we ate the best chickpea soup ever, followed by vegan pistachio gelato! Soon enough Mr. Carson appeared, dusty but happy, confirming that the route would be brutal and relentless as a walk – all down, all up, and all hot.

The next day, nine kilometers to Pienza, followed stretches of the Via Francigena – for hundreds of years a major route from Rome to the north, and now small gravel and dirt lanes. The floor of the Val d’Orcia is a series of steep, short, ups and downs over clay hills, the roadsides ablaze with red poppies and yellow broom smelling like sweet peas and jasmine.

Every once in a while someone would exclaim, “ooh!,” – a reminder to look up at Monte Amiata in the distance, scattered cypress near farmhouses perched on hills, and wheat fields – all orderly, all beautiful. Occasional cars passed – stirring up clouds of white dust until they saw us (crazy Americans, the Italians must think). The topo map would indicate a little patch of trees near a stream, but we’d find a dry dent and scrub shrubs.

At lunchtime, we deviated off the road to an empty farmhouse and a tiny chapel “dedicated to the Madonna di Vitaleta – the suckling Madonna.” Because our group included one so honored, we excused our probable trespass, and gratefully ate in the shade of a lollypop-shaped tree.

And this leg Lady Baby walked almost the whole way, with only occasional lifts from one of her parents. She speculated about an abandoned farmhouse with an outer staircase intact but no wooden floors, an echoing empty well, and a stone outbuilding with a large oven. Toward the end of the day, water bottles reduced to hot dregs, we stopped at the 10th Century parish church of Corsignano, once the center of paths and roads on the Via Francigena, with a spooky crypt to explore and a fountain outside for thirsty pellegrinos.

Up a little road, walls looming on either side, to the square by the gate into Pienza. All the hilltop towns amaze, but Pienza is perfecto!

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An Afternoon in Siena

Six big and three little travelers generate a pile of luggage: three car seats, two strollers, two baby backpacks, two hefty large suitcases, a couple of duffels, some smallish roller bags, and assorted carryons containing toys, snacks, and approved electronics. That pile and transport by train, bus, and van created complex logistics as we headed toward our walk in Tuscany.

In the Rome airport while we waited for the Alaskans (having endured a 20-hour journey, they landed an hour behind us), we purchased train tickets and food for lunch. After a warm reunion of the little cousins, we headed north to Florence, and then trekked across the Santa Maria Novella piazza from train station to hotel, our first encounter with heat that the Italians called unseasonable. Our late arrival left just enough time for dinner on the windy piazza, a walk around the Duomo in evening quiet, and first gelatos.

At breakfast the next day, Lady Baby inherited a camera of her own and Sweet Baby a child-size pair of binoculars. With carrying cases strapped around their necks, they looked like true explorers as we crossed the piazza again to catch the bus to Siena. (The Trail Boss rode in a taxi with the mountain of baggage.)

In Siena, we shuttled our belongings to a nearby hotel, and set off along Siena’s narrow streets to find lunch. While the others visited the Palazzo Pubblico to see Lorenzetti’s “The Allegory of Good Government and Bad Government,” I stood in the archway of the Palazzo in the cool and watched people on the Campo, Siena’s tilted arc of a piazza and site of the famous Palio horse race.

It was Sunday and local youngsters demonstrated judo and gymnastics – huge pads softening the landings of their flips. The Campo resembled a beach, where families lounged on the bricks, heated from earlier sun, but shaded in the afternoon. We also sat, and I stretched my legs out (like sitting on a heating pad) and held Baby Brother in my lap. He grew sticky in the heat, and we stripped first shoes and socks and finally shirt. He’d grin and grin, catching the eye of any passerby (particularly the pretty girls), as he flirted with his Princess Diana, head-tucking smile. Jet-lagged, nap schedule in shambles, he remained cheerful and game (always).

In part, that’s because their moms anticipate and meet all the needs of these little travelers. Both masterful packers, they remember all the favorite possessions (Baby Boy, Baby, and a blanket known as “blank”), various drinking vessels, sleeping accompaniments, and clothes for every contingency from Irish mist to blistering Italian sun. Mrs. Hughes brought a miraculous stroller, weighing only nine pounds, collapsing to fit in a daypack, and holding a 50-pound little person in a pinch, and the Sweet Bride always pulls out, of a purse or pack, the exact thing to soothe a situation.

The time change caught up with the Alaskans, and they retreated to their little hotel balcony with pizza and beer, then early to bed. The rest of us found a favorite restaurant (from another visit) and ate bowls of ribollita.

In the morning, a van driver would pick us up for the ride to Montalcino and the start of a four-day walk in the Val d’Orcia.

 

 

 

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