This past summer, I returned to Ireland for another bicycling trip, this one a tour of the Southwest County Cork area. I booked it with Irish Cycling Safaris, a Dublin-based company that sponsors week long tours in seven different regions of Ireland. Rides average 30 to 35 miles per day, with the nominal tour leader transporting luggage, setting up bed-and-breakfast accommodations and passing out maps of our daily cycling routes.
My tour mates' ages varied from 25 to 63, with England,
Austria, Germany and Spain represented, in addition to the United States.
We began in Cork City and pedaled our way to Gougane Barra (a beautiful
lakeside monastic setting), Bantry (with its beautiful bay), remote Ahakista,
Schull, Baltimore (no Cal Ripken sightings to report), Clonakilty and finally
Kinsale on day seven.
I have enjoyed two previous tours with Irish Cycling Safaris. Recalling these past experiences, actually recalling the pain of these past experiences, got me to spend a fair amount of time on my bicycle preparing for my Tour de Cork. The memory of a behind that feels like it has just been branded with an outline of a bicycle seat is a great motivator.
So what did I learn on this tour? The first lesson is the Irish do not believe in street signs. No, let me amend that statement. They do have street signs, but in Cork City at least, said signs are embedded in the sidewalks near most street corners. This works just dandy for pedestrians, unless the streets are crowded. But is useless for cyclists or drivers unless you enjoy pulling over every couple of blocks, heading for the street corner, and peering down to check where you are.
Forsaking street signage and asking for directions is also the beginning of another grand adventure. The Irish use landmarks -- go left at the brown barn, cross the alleyway and then head right past the yellow house. Be forewarned -- the colorblind should stay far, far away from this isle.
Gastronomically, eating in Ireland, even for a vegetarian like I am, is a surprisingly enjoyable endeavor. Most restaurants offer pasta or rice dishes in the evening, and wonderful soups were always available in pubs during our noontime breaks. In Dingle, on a previous trip, I enjoyed the variety at the World Cafe, which featured entrees from 10 different countries.
On the other hand, in out-of-the-way Ahakista, our bed-and-breakfast hostess did her damndest to fulfill my request for a vegetarian entree. I believe all four of my courses featured one common ingredient: mayonnaise. Thankfully, dessert did not.
But that's why the Irish have Guinness - to make what is wrong, right. Or at least to forget about it for awhile. Guinness is considered a cure for anything and everything. Digestive problems? Have a Guinness. Arthritis? One Guinness coming up. Marriage problems? Drink two, three if necessary.
The Famous Irish Pubs
Speaking of imbibing means speaking of pubs. Irish pubs are like coffeehouses here, or even more appropriately, community centers. This is especially true in the smaller towns and communities. One time in Gort, I noticed an elderly couple coming in at 10:30 p.m., just as I was leaving. I guess it's never too late to have that nightcap and catch up on the town gossip.
Remarkably, there is no pressure to make a purchase when you enter a pub. Unless you go to the bar and place an order, you'll enjoy uninterrupted conversation and music. But don't bother asking about no smoking sections--there are none.
Musically, the standing joke on this tour was there really is no traditional music played anymore in Ireland. Every time we stepped into a pub to inquire about music that night, the answer was "ye be wanting to come around tomorrow night" or "sorry, last night, now that was a session."
Listening to the people talk can be a bewildering experience. Irish men can seemingly have a conversation simply be using vowels. Two men meet and bystanders hear 'aaaaaaa,' 'oooo,' 'eeeee' in various combinations and intonations, and then they shake hands and one of them just bought a horse.
The Irish also tend not to pronounce the letter 'h' when speaking. The phrase "three thousand cattle" becomes "tree tousand cattle." Check out the next Irish band that comes to town -- see if I'm right. I also learned a new word that's great for multiple uses: dodgy. A bad drink is a dodgy pint. A bad lie on the golf course is a dodgy lie.
Other Irish phrases of note: A botched operation is a "medical misadventure." To offer to "knock someone up" means to be willing to knock on their door to awaken them in the morning. Asking someone to "go for a ride" is a much more intimate request than one involving a bicycle. Substitute what you thought "knocking someone up" meant for "going for a ride" and you have it.
The Irish may be a bit shy at times but they love to talk, and a complete stranger will do just fine. Accommodating is another word that describes the Irish. Nothing is too large or small to request. One could probably ask for an audience with the Pope and they would get right on it.
And whoever said the Irish are a pessimistic lot should have to explain this phenomenon -- almost every freestanding house in this wet climate seems to have a clothesline in use. My guess is it's to give the clothes a second washing.
In closing, cycling in Ireland requires accepting these absolute truths: 1) the cycling route always heads towards the darkest clouds and 2) no matter which way your wheels turn, there's a head wind (and a pub). Slainte.
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