Getting there

Getting there

Monday, February 21, 2011

Have You Been to Cashel? (or "Why I Hate Travel Guides")

Rock of Cashel
Photo used under Creative Commons from adactio

I'll admit it. I'm not a fan of travel guidebooks. I often buy them before we head out on a holiday but very rarely read them or even consult them. I suppose I find them a bit dry and, well, boring. I do tend to like armchair travel, that genre of literature that allows you to travel to exotic destinations vicariously through the author. Before we left for Ireland I loaded up my iPad with travel guidebooks with the honest intent to read them on the plane or consult them while there, and never did. I was too busy enjoying Ireland to read about it, I guess. When I returned home I picked up a couple of armchair travel books on Ireland as well, anxious to compare the authors' perspective and experience of Ireland to my own.

While reading one of the armchair travel books I came to a chapter on Cashel, County Tipperary, and I thought "Marvelous! Can't wait to hear what he thought of Cashel! I loved it!". The chapter started with the author getting out of his rental car at the Rock of Cashel, which refers to both the natural hill and the astounding ruins that tower over the town of Cashel. The Rock of Cashel has an amazing history, which the author covered quite thoroughly. I was a bit concerned, though, as the end of the chapter was rapidly approaching and he still hadn't said anything about Cashel itself. The chapter ended with him getting into his rental car...and driving away from Cashel. This was his trip to Cashel?!?

You see, I've been to Cashel. The funny part is that we weren't even able to go inside the Rock of Cashel buildings as due to the cold temperatures the pipes in the administrative offices had burst and they were closed for repairs. And you know what? That didn't diminish my experience of Cashel one bit.

When we arrived in Cashel we checked into lovely Ladyswell House, a B&B situated right at the foot of the Rock of Cashel. I was delighted that our room had a view right up the hill, and Beatrice, the charming proprietress and wife of our Ireland driver, assured us that the lights at night on the ruins were magical.

We decided to explore Cashel right away, and our first stop was Cashel Palace Hotel, which is famous as the place where Guinness was first brewed and served (for the Bishop, no less). My husband was completely delighted at this bit of history, and insisted on photos of himself with a pint of Guinness in hand at their Guinness Bar in the basement of the hotel.

 Our driver in Ireland had arranged for us to dine that night at Chez Hans, a restaurant serving some of the finest food we had in Ireland. The restaurant is housed in a beautiful old church built in 1861, complete with stained glass and amazing architectural features. The food was spectacular and the decor wonderful. I ended the meal with "Gordon Ramsay's Rice Pudding", and after having dined at two of his establishments in London can say that it was quite up to his standards.

Night had fallen by the time we finished our meal so in the dark we walked up the hill to the Rock of Cashel and took  photos of the old stone walls and the town below. Beatrice was right - at night the ruins are bathed in an amber glow that lend them an absolutely ancient and ethereal feel. It's one of those places in Ireland that seems utterly other-worldly, leaving you wondering at the history this place has seen, and wishing you'd been there to see it, too.

With our driver and his son we headed to Mikey Ryan's Grocery and Pub, where I had to trust the bartender had a steady hand as we sat at the bar and the business of selling and distributing pints was conducted directly above my head. We had walked by this place earlier, but seeing the grocery sign assumed it was a convenience store. When our driver and his son led us there I was initially perplexed and then delighted to see that the "grocery" was really a quaint little pub. How many men in Cashel have told their wives they were just going to nip out for some "groceries"?

We walked back from the pub and I noted the almost absolute silence at night in Cashel - no car noises, no loud music - just the sound of our feet clicking on the pavement, and the quiet murmurs of our conversation as we made our way. We ended the night back at the B&B where we shared more conversation and a final drink with the son of the owner. The family's beautiful Irish Setter sat at my feet, helping to make me feel less homesick for my own beloved dog.

In the morning we enjoyed a delicious leisurely breakfast at the B&B before departing Cashel - without ever setting foot inside the Rock of Cashel ruins. And yet I felt that I had experienced Cashel - walked the streets, ate at the restaurants, visited one of the locals, and met some of the people. The Rock of Cashel is obviously a huge part of the town in both a physical and cultural sense - but it's not all that there is to Cashel, not by a long shot.

After I finished that chapter on Cashel in the armchair travel book I grabbed my iPad and decided to see what the travel guidebook I had loaded had to say about Cashel. It said this : "Other than the Rock of Cashel, there is nothing of interest in Cashel". No mention of Ladyswell House, or Chez Hans, or Mikey Ryan's. It had taken a whole charming little town and dismissed it as "disinteresting". I was so angry I almost threw my iPad (and instead deleted the guidebook on the spot). This, my friends, is the problem with guidebooks, and maybe even with those who travel and write armchair travel books after reading guidebooks - they don't come close to capturing the heart and soul of a destination. The only way to do that is to toss the guidebooks in the trash and get out into the place.

I'm thinking that some day I might write an armchair travel book about Ireland. It would require several more visits to the country, of course, and I will need to see the inside of the Rock of Cashel ruins in order to write about them. In my chapter on Cashel it won't end with me leaving the Rock of Cashel and driving away, though. It will end in a local pub with men who've nipped out for a few groceries.

Cashel at night

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