Part 2 of 5
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The cities of Cork and Dublin are two fantastic stops on the Irish landscape. Between the Republic of Ireland’s two largest cities lies the M8, a road most people regard as an inconvenience between Dublin and Cork. But the road is more than just a means of connecting the capital and the Wild Atlantic Way. Often the journey is as exciting as the destination, and in this case it’s true too. With remarkable stops along the way, this is a journey to take in the slow lane. So I’ve done the research for you and compiled some great stops along the way.
Granted, it’s not the Amalfi Coastal drive and it’s not the Wild Atlantic Way. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t backdrops of mountains and forests and waterfalls and castles to explore. If you have time on your hands, this otherwise straightforward drive can be turned into a cultural treasure chest. I recently drove along this route with three amazing ladies and we thoroughly enjoyed the drive and the various stops we made on our way from Dublin to Cork as we relocated to the Wild Atlantic Way.
I suggest you leave early and refuel yourself along the trip, which is what we did by making a brief stop for breakfast in the coastal town of Bray, Ireland’s own version of England’s Brighton. We then headed to Powerscourt Waterfall, Ireland’s highest waterfall at 121 metres, where we each paid an entrance fee of €6.50 at the main gate. As you drive from the gate lodge towards the waterfall, you are surrounded by Beech, Oak, Larch and Pine trees, some of which were planted over 200 years ago. Look out for the Giant Redwoods, which are native to Northern California and grow up to 80 metres high!
It was a bit confusing and rather busy when we arrived as the site had been turned into a film set. Apparently, the film was about some animal that found a bag of cocaine or so we were told! We then asked a couple of people for directions as we could see no signs, and we quickly set off to see the waterfall.
The short walk from the car park is pleasant and the area is surrounded by lots of trees and shrubs with a stream leading away from the waterfall. The sound and motion that the water produces is relaxing and the area has unusual tree species and some of the highest trees in Ireland. The magnificent waterfall cascades down over the granite rocks from the peatlands above. The crystal clear water flows down to the river below where it continues on its journey out to sea at Bray.
Wicklow Mountains National Park
After spending around an hour at the waterfall, we headed to Kilkenny Castle via the Wicklow Mountains National Park. It’s worth the detour, especially if you’re interested in hiking. The mountains are coated with heath, blanket bog and grassland, while in the sheltered valleys you’ll trek through mossy hardwood forest. On your way you could see deer in the wild, and merlins and peregrine falcons are commonly spotted overhead.
Prehistoric glaciation carved out amphitheatre-like corries (cirques), and at Lough Bray, half an hour west of the town, you can visit two wonderful examples both containing lakes. Unfortunately, we had no time for a walk but we did park up close to Lough Tay and walked a short distance along a ridge with a spectacular vantage point of the lake. The lake is located along the Sally Gap Drive and you’ll be treated to magnificent views of its inky black water as you approach from either side. Its dark, peaty water, combined with an oval shape and white-sand beach makes Lough Tay look rather like a giant pint of Guinness! After a very brief stop at Lough Tay, we kept on driving along a very scenic route to Kilkenny Castle.
Kilkenny Castle was built in 1195 and was designed to control a fording point (where water is shallow enough to be crossed on foot by wading) of the River Nore. The castle was one of the first Norman castles to be constructed in Ireland soon after the Normans conquest of the country and over a massive period of eight hundred years, many changes took place with the building being subject to rebuilds, extensions, and adaptions.
Fast forward to the modern days of the 21st century and the castle has become one of the most famous castles in Ireland. In its current incarnation, the building has largely been remodelled by the Victorians to resemble its original thirteenth design. In the nineteenth century, a few elements were added to the area surrounding the castle such as woodlands, a rose garden and a man-made lake which really added a uniquely distinctive appeal to an amazing historical scene.
Admission is free until the end of 2021 but you do need to pre-book online before going there. I loved it here as it was a great opportunity to see the grand interiors of a 12th century castle with its beautifully restored and presented rooms and wonderful and knowledgeable staff. Make sure you check out the Long Gallery, a dramatic room with painted ceilings before leaving the castle. We spent about one hour here before heading off to the Rock of Cashel, a popular tourist attraction.
On the way, we inadvertently passed by St Mary’s Cathedral in the city of Kilkenny and we were so impressed by it that we felt we had to stop for a brief photo shoot! Even today, the cathedral still dominates the landscape of Kilkenny with its great tower visible from all approaches to the city. It is situated on the highest point in the city and is a significant local landmark.
The Rock of Cashel
Prominently perched atop a green, rocky hill rising from a grassy plain, the Rock of Cashel is a collection of medieval fortifications and religious buildings, their stone walls still strong and imposing though centuries old, and has everything you could want in a castle experience. Otherwise known as Cashel of the Kings or St. Patrick’s Rock, it is one of the most popular castles in Europe. There is no admission fee until the end of 2021 but make sure you pre-book online first.
The Irish tradition of building on top of rocks is no better seen than here at the Rock of Cashel. The Rock of Cashel definitely makes a great stop on any trip from Dublin to the southern cities of Waterford or Cork. As soon as you take the turn off from the Dublin to Cork motorway and approach the town of Cashel, the massive site looms over the town. It draws the eye in and builds the excitement (certainly for me).
It was a sight that filled me with wonder when it came into view – just the type of scene I expected to see on my first trip to Ireland. There is plenty of parking at the base of the hill but be forewarned, the steep climb up the hill to the Rock will get your heart rate up! Entry to the site is through a path which runs alongside, that then takes you through the restored Hall of the Vicars Choral. When you emerge it really occurs to you what a magnificent place it must have been in its heyday.
To embrace the essence of the Rock of Cashel step inside the Cathedral. As I walked around inside the cathedral, I imagined the empty window frames filled with stained glass, shining colourful rays of light into the cold, stone interior. Elegant arches and niches lined the halls, open to the gloomy sky above. Curious about the grounds, I then headed outside to wander around the graveyard. There were several high crosses, intricately sculpted in Early Medieval tradition.
Make sure you also take in the scenery of the countryside from the hill as you will be able to witness breathtakingly beautiful views of the Tipperary countryside. Ruins and ancient sites easily capture my imagination, but the view from the Rock of Cashel was just as gratifying. I loved gazing across the green fields from this mighty location.
Eventually my attention shifted from the cemetery to the cathedral’s round tower. Built in the 12th century, the 28 metre tall round tower is the oldest surviving building on the Rock of Cashel. It was constructed soon after the church received ownership of the Rock and has stood strong since, with only the roof needing to be rebuilt in the 19th century.
Our short visit here was so interesting and beautiful, with the perfect combination of Irish history and scenery, that I didn’t want to leave. However, the site was about to close anyway and we were also feeling rather peckish so we headed to the town centre, where we found plenty of cafes. There are many historic and important heritage sites throughout Ireland which should be on everyone’s bucket list to experience. As one of Ireland’s most visited, the Rock of Cashel is certainly worth your visit.
After having spent our first night in Cork, we decided to head to Blarney Castle. Consistently ranked as one of the best places to visit in Ireland, you absolutely cannot miss Blarney Castle. A visit here is one of the most popular things to do in Cork, so it’s fairly straightforward to drop by. However, there are a few need-to-knows that’ll make your visit that bit more enjoyable.
It’s a magical-looking medieval stronghold that was built some 600 years ago though a castle has stood on the site since as far back as 1210AD, ensuring plenty of history for you to uncover. Thousands of tourists make their way here each year to kiss the renowned Blarney Stone. Rumour has it if you climb the 10 stories to the top then hang upside down to kiss the stone you’ll be fortunate enough to get the gift of eloquence.
It is not clear where the stone and its legend originally comes from. However, there is no doubt that the stone attracts people from all over, thanks to its magical powers: over 200.000 people each year go and kiss it! The stone sits in a peculiar position atop of the castle and to kiss it, it is necessary to lie on your back and bend over backwards over a sheer drop between the castle top and the ground below. To do this, you hold onto a railing and you also have staff to hold onto you: depending on your height, you are not really dangling down, however, the top part of your body is, hence my note about only doing it if you are not afraid of heights.
In my case, I did not really feel in the mood of hanging upside down to kiss a stone, despite the iron bars below and the fact that a member of staff is holding you up to make sure you are safe. And as I have been told in the past, I already possess the gift of eloquence in any case! I preferred to admire the stunning views from the top instead.
Once you’ve kissed the stone and explored the castle be sure to take some time to admire the 60-acre floral garden. In fact, one of the things that make a visit to Blarney Castle so worth it is that there are woodland walks all around the castle. The walks don’t require any especial equipment or level of fitness and it is peaceful and beautiful.
I was not expecting Blarney to be as beautiful and impressive as it is and I can say with confidence that it is one of the most beautiful places in Ireland and one that is 100% worth seeing. We spent around three hours here but we could have easily spent the whole day! While we really liked Blarney Castle and the gardens, make sure you visit first thing in the morning when it opens, as we did, so as to avoid the bus loads of tourists! We paid €18.00 each to enter but it’s a little bit cheaper if you buy your tickets online.
We then headed off to Cobh (pronounced ‘cove’), a colourful and quirky waterfront town and cruise port stop. The town may be small, but it’s absolutely worth a visit especially if you’re planning a visit to Cork. From its history with the Titanic, to its picturesque colourful houses, and of course the friendly Irish pubs, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Cobh. Cobh also has the second largest natural harbour in the world. When we arrived, the promenade was alive with people, music, and flowers.
Cobh is overlooked by the enormous St Colman’s Cathedral, one of the tallest and most dramatic buildings in Ireland, where we also had a quick peek inside. The Cathedral is fairly new all things considered as construction ‘only’ began in 1868 and took 47 years to build.
It’s a brilliant example of neo-Gothic architecture and has extraordinary features, such as a bell weighing 3.6 tons and an organ with 2,468 pipes. I just love beautiful Gothic churches. Entry to the Cathedral is free but please make sure you observe the rules as this is an active church and there may be folks praying or other services taking place.
However, our main aim was to see the colourful row of houses in West View Street, famously known as the ‘Deck of Cards’, a row of 23 homes “stacked” up the hill like a deck of cards. The homes, built in 1850, are one of Cobh’s most recognizable features and the place of many an Instagram post. Certainly a photographer’s delight but in our case we were sorely disappointed due to the fact that parked cars, wires and traffic cones marred the view.
We then headed back to our accommodation in Cork via the beautiful marshland of the Cuskinny Marsh Nature Reserve. It has an array of habitats within a relatively small area, from shoreline to lagoon and grassland to woodland. These support a great variety of wildlife including common wetland and woodland birds which are found throughout the year. In fact, the possibility of seeing some large birds was the main reason we paid a short visit to the reserve as both Pat and Doris, two ladies in our group, love to photograph birds with their long zoom lenses!
Another beautiful day in Ireland!
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