Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Paradise Park

Now that I'm done recapping my spring Ireland trip, it's time to post some hiking pics!  Making up for being waylaid with plantar fasciitis last year, I've been hiking a lot this summer.  My focus has been to follow the wildflowers wherever they've been blooming.  And as you'll soon see, I think I've done a pretty good job.

Timberline Lodge and Mt. Jefferson

One of the summer's memorable hikes happened just two weeks ago when my buddy Young and I tackled the long trail to Mt. Hood's Paradise Park.  One of my favorite summer wildflower hikes, health issues had forced me to miss this annual trek for the past two years.  

I'd gotten intel from one of the local Facebook hiking groups that wildflowers were peaking in Paradise Park and putting on a spectacular show.  That was all the motivation I needed.  I texted Young and we agreed on a day and time to get up there.

Not much snow left on Hood!

There's lots to like about the hike to Paradise Park.  For one, it starts at Mt. Hood's famous Timberline Lodge.  Not only scenic, but the place also has bathrooms, water, and acres of parking.  Just uphill from the lodge, Young and I caught the Timberline Trail/Pacific Crest Trail (they are one in the same for several miles north of Timberline Lodge) for a couple of fast downhill miles.  Not far from the trailhead, we ducked under a ski lift.  It was still running for summer skiing high on one of Mt Hood's glaciers, although there didn't appear to be much snow left.  As a matter of fact, the summer ski season ended just a week later.

A fine patch of asters

The flower show began almost immediately.  We oohed and aahed over several patches of purple asters carpeting the nearby slopes.

Aster close-up

A few strands of pink fireweed also added color to the surroundings.

Fireweed bloom

Traversing a couple of rocky gullies, we finally arrived at the top of Zigzag Canyon.  Beyond this point, the trail dived down for a steep mile until it reached the Zigzag River.  Being a fast-moving glacial stream, getting across was sometimes tricky.  But Young and I took a break and watched where other hikers crossed.  From our observations, we were able to determine the best rock hopping route to the other side.  No problem - just a bit of wet feet for me (but my boots were waterproof.)  

Nice morning light on this canyon

Now safely across the river, Young and I concentrated on ascending the steep bank on the other side.  The temperatures were starting to rise as we huffed and puffed our way uphill.  After climbing for a mile, we came upon another trail branching off the Timberline trail.  This was the path to Paradise Park.  We were almost there!

Paradise Park's main meadow was especially colorful

But Young and I still had a bit of climbing to do.  Up and up, we wound through alpine meadows, frequently stopping to catch our breath and admire the scenery.  Flowers bloomed here and there, but not in great quantity.  This part of the trail seemed to go on forever.  When would we reach the main meadow?

We hit peak bloom

Then, turning a corner, there it was!  Paradise Park's famous wildflower meadows spread out before us.  And it was one of the best blooms I'd seen in many years.  Purple lupine stood out prominently, accented with yellow Goldenrod and white, puffy pasque seedheads.  The concentration of flowers was astounding.

Higher up, orange Indian Paintbrush stole the show

Aside from the high concentration of wildflowers, one of the great things about Paradise Park's main meadow is it also features a nice view of Mt. Hood.  And lucky for us, it was a blue-sky day - no clouds or fog obscuring the mountain. 

Young is all smiles

As I crept through the meadow, snapping copious photographs, Young followed another hiker on a narrow user trail that appeared to head uphill towards Mt. Hood.  Engrossed in my photo session, after a few minutes I looked up and realized my friend had disappeared over the first rise.

Interesting wispy cloud over Mt. Hood

There was only one thing to do - follow Young uphill.  I didn't want us to get separated!  As I trudged up the path I noticed the wildflowers transitioning from lupine to pasqueflower seedheads, beargrass, and patches of the most brilliant orange Indian paintbrush.  Wow, this was just as good as the main meadow!  A tiny, wispy cloud hovered over Mt. Hood and it was so unusual looking that I made sure to feature it in several shots.

Young in a flower-filled meadow (she's on the trail)

It was really, really hard to tear myself away from this gorgeous, flower-filled meadow.  But, after catching up with Young and snapping photos as we descended, I knew we had to move on.

We came upon this huge patch of lupine

So we continued on the Paradise Park trail, and the flower show continued with us.  Paintbrush and asters joined in as we contoured around a couple of small hills.  They were nice but not as impressive as that colorful meadow.  Surely nothing else would compete with the grand flower show we'd just witnessed.

This meadow was also full of pasque flower seed heads

Oh, but it did!  We rounded another bend and came smack-dab into an enormous wildflower patch, thick with lupine and pasqueflower mop heads.   

Field of purple

The meadow was absolutely packed with lupine!  It colored the entire slope purple.  I'd never seen such a high concentration of this wildflower before.  And Mt. Hood peeped between the trees to join the scenery.

Wildflower close-up

Wowza!  All forward progress ground to a screeching halt for several minutes.  I'm embarrassed to say how many images I snapped.....and it was really hard to whittle them down to the four I've included here.

Another happy hiker

I think the thing that finally tore me away from this spectacular meadow was my grumbling tummy.  It was nearing noon, and we were both definitely in need of some food.  From previous visits, I knew of some nearby campsites that made good lunch spots.  So I packed my camera and hiked on.

The flower show continued in the next canyon

Reaching the campsites required climbing into and out of a drainage area.  As Young and I headed downhill to the very small creek crossing, again we were distracted by more wildflowers popping out of the hillsides.

Young getting photographs

A great vantage!  Tons of colorful blooms with Mt. Hood rising above the canyon.  How could we not resist another photo stop?

Monkeyflowers blooming by a small creek

Only our hunger kept us from taking another extended photography break.  Again, I packed the camera away and we crawled back up the opposite bank.  On top were several campsites, with nice logs to sit on.  Perfect for a lunch break!

Young picks the perfect lunch spot

Paradise Park is also a very popular backpacking destination.  It being Saturday, we'd seen many folks on the trail shouldering huge backpacks - some hiking the PCT, some the round-the-mountain Timberline Trail, but several had Paradise Park as their destination.  The problem for us was that many of the sites we'd hoped to use for our lunch break were already taken by backpackers.  A few tents were already staked at some of the more popular places.  But lucky for us, we did manage to find an open campsite.  Young quickly claimed a nearby stump and leaned her back upon it.  She then propped her feet up on an adjacent tree.  It looked quite comfy!

More of the mop-heads

My PB and J sandwich helped restore some energy.  After downing more food, along with lots of water (it was getting hot out here!) Young and I packed up our lunch things and continued down this flowerful path.

We took a side trip to Split Rock

We passed by fields of purple asters and more mop-headed pasqueflowers (I fondly refer to them as "hippy on a stick.")  Now out of the woods and above treeline, the sun beat down upon us.  

Flower garden below Split Rock

One of the local landmarks in this area is a huge boulder that is cracked down the middle.  It sits prominently on the barren alpine tundra above Paradise Park Trail.  Nicknamed "Split Rock" I often take the side trip to visit this unusual sight.  I asked Young if she was interested in seeing Split Rock up close, and of course she said yes.  Unfortunately there were two guys camping right next to the rock, so we didn't linger long.

The scenery was absolutely fantastic!

The final mile of this lovely alpine wonderland wandered through another flower-filled meadow.  It was all so beautiful!  I wished I'd thought to bring overnight gear - I didn't want to leave!  

Crossing a rocky gully on the return trip

But finally our path dived steeply downhill to meet up with the Timberline/Pacific Crest Trail.  From here it was a tough 6 mile trek eastbound on this trail back to Timberline Lodge.  By now it was mid-afternoon and the sun was beating down upon us.  Temps were nearing the 90s.  Although there were a few areas of forest that provided shade, much of this return trip would be in full sun.  And uphill.

Getting ready to navigate the Zigzag River crossing

There was only one way to get through this - put our heads down and hike.  So that's what Young and I did.  Although we passed by a few nice wildflower patches along this trail, nothing compared to the floral show we'd witnessed in Paradise Park.  

Flower-filled gully near Timberline Lodge

The worst part about hiking the Paradise Park loop is that the final 3.5 miles are all uphill.  After Young and I safely crossed the now-raging Zigzag river, we knew there was a tough climb out of the canyon ahead.  We promised each other that after this hike was finished, we'd head to the nearest brewpub for a well-earned adult beverage.  As Young and I struggled through the final hot, tough miles, our mantra became "think of the beer!"

Beer always tastes best after a long hike!

Nothing tastes better after a hot, dusty trek than an ice-cold brew.  Our reward for covering 13.7 miles and 3000 feet of climbing.  A steep price of admission to Paradise Park's incredible wildflower meadows.  I'd say it was totally worth it!


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Ireland - An Epilogue

 (Final recap of my late April Ireland trip.)

How do you say goodbye to a country you've fallen in love with?  The green fields, dramatic ocean shorelines, amazing ancient ruins, friendly people, lively music, fantastic beer (and lots of it!)  I had such a wonderful time in Ireland, I didn't want my trip to end.  But nothing good lasts forever.  Before I knew it, departure day arrived.

It was a beautiful sunny morning as our plane lifted off from Dublin's airport.  Flying low over green patchwork-quilt fields, I snapped my final images from the airplane window.  A few tears may have been shed.

Final view of the Emerald Isle (sniff!)

Ireland gave Kim and I one final parting gift.  While sitting in Boston during our (ugh!) 6-hour layover, Kim's throat started to feel sore.  Then she began developing a headache and sinus congestion.  My symptoms hit about an hour later.  By the time we boarded our final flight home, both of us had full-blown colds brewing.  We masked up, and spend the duration of our flight sleeping.  It was a doozy of a cold - we were both sick for an entire month.  I had plugged ears for nearly three weeks.  (And, no it wasn't COVID - we both tested negative.)  I'm pretty sure we caught this monster cold from our tour-mates - a couple of them were sick in the final few days.  Oh well, at least the cold waited until we were on our way home before it struck us down.  And Kim and I both agreed, despite getting sick, the trip was totally worth it!

I've never seen milk in a stick before! (Courtesy of Aer Lingus airlines)

Now almost four months later, the post-trip illness nearly forgotten, my memories of Ireland are full of good times and sights from this beautiful island.  Although it's taken several months, I've enjoyed sorting and editing my photographs.  Writing these blog posts has recaptured the joy and wonder I felt each day of the tour.  It's been a great way to memorialize the trip before I start forgetting everything.  I created these posts mostly for myself, but if a few of you have enjoyed reading them, so much the better (bonus points if you've read all the way through every one!)

I almost bought this shirt!

I'd like to first extend a huge thanks to Pascal - our tour guide extraordinaire!  He was an excellent storyteller, a wealth of information about all things Ireland, and an all-around nice guy.  Thanks to Pascal, I learned so much about Ireland.  He also kept us on time, made sure our accommodations were taken care of, and that our group was properly fed.  Pascal's love of his country shone through in every story he told, and in every attraction we visited.  I sure hope our paths cross again!

Holding a falcon (photo courtesy of my buddy Randy)

I was impressed with our Rick Steves tour.  Not only did we have an excellent guide, we stayed in nice hotels, ate at good restaurants, and got to see a lot in our 8-day tour.  My only complaint is that some days were a bit rushed.  I wish we could've spent more time at few of the places we visited.  But that's the price you pay for seeing a lot of things!  We had a great group of people on our tour - they were all very considerate (no one late for the bus because they had to take a smoke) and everyone seemed to have a good sense of humor.  Kim and I made a couple of friends and I hope we get to travel together again sometime.

(Disclaimer - I have not been compensated in any way by Rick Steves tours.  These opinions are my own, and the same thing I'd tell friends and family.)

Posing by Fungie

Finally, a shout out to my good buddy Kim for sharing this adventure with me.  Thanks for putting up with my late night journaling, endless photography sessions, and my general dorkiness!  It was fun traveling with ya, girlfriend!  I think we made a good team.

My really bad statue imitation

One last thought - on our bus trips Pascal always explained bits of Irish culture to the group.  As we were heading into Dublin on our last bus ride, he addressed the Northern Ireland conflict, known as the "Troubles."  Pascal lives in the northern part of the Republic, not far from Northern Ireland.  Growing up during this turbulent time, Pascal gave us an insider's perspective on the conflict.  He told of going into Northern Ireland as a child for sporting events, and having to call his parents to let them know of his safe arrival.  Pascal said the war wasn't over religion, as most outsiders believed, but a difference of some Irish people (mostly Protestants) wanting to stay part of the UK, and other Irish groups (mostly Catholics) that wished for the entire island to be united as one republic.  The peace agreement in 1998 thankfully brought an end to the conflict and both Irish countries have since prospered.  However, the recent passage of Brexit threatens to destabilize this truce.  Pascal said he didn't think anyone in Ireland wants to return to the days of the Troubles.  I certainly hope that both countries can continue to live in harmony.  Now that I've visited the Republic of Ireland I'd hate to see this wonderful country thrown back into the throes of war.

Kim is much better at selfies!

And so with that I'd like to thank Ireland for showing this yank a good time!  This trip just left me wanting more.  There's so much on my "for next time" list that I'm already scheming a return trip. 

Kim and I had such fun traveling together that we've signed up for another Rick Steves tour.  Get ready Switzerland, we're coming your way in September 2024!

In case you missed any posts from my Ireland trip, here are links to each one:

Day 1 - Exploring Ennis, Ireland

Day 2 - Ennis, Day Two

Day 3 - The Cliffs of Moher

Day 4 - Down to Dingle

Day 5, Part One - Slea Head Drive

Day 5, Part Two - Dingle Day Two

Day 6, Part One - The Rock of Cashel

Day 6, Part Two - On to Kilkenny!

Day 7, Part One - Glendalough and Powerscourt

Day 7, Part Two - The Metropolis of Dublin

Day 8, Part One - A Walking Tour of Dublin

Day 8, Part Two - Afternoon Fun in Dublin

Day 9, Part One - Glasnevin Cemetery

Day 9, Part Two - Guinness and Goodbyes

Day 10 - Brú na Bóinne

Monday, August 14, 2023

Brú na Bóinne

 (Day ten recap of my late April Ireland trip.)

Our last full day in Ireland!  For the final hurrah, Kim and I had scheduled a trip to view the ancient passage tombs at Brú na Bóinne, a famous archeological find and also designated UNESCO world heritage site.

Tour-mates Debbie, Kim, and Alicia had also decided to stay an extra day.  We'd had so much fun with these ladies, that at first I was sorry I'd booked this trip.  After ten days in Ireland, Kim and I were nearly toured out, and a free day with our new friends sounded like a much better option.  But our Rick Steves guide Pascal said Brú na Bóinne was fantastic and encouraged us to go.  

Empty Dublin streets on a Sunday morning

So we arose the following morning and walked through the now-familiar streets of Dublin to meet up with our tour.  It happened to be Sunday, and the downtown area was deserted.  After enduring shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic here for two days, this felt weird!  However, the rubbish from a rowdy Saturday night of partying was everywhere.  Trash and broken glass littered the streets and sidewalks.  Our hotel was right across the street from several popular bars, and we'd heard the revelry until the morning's wee hours.

We said hi to Molly Malone

The meet-up location for our tour group was at the Molly Malone statue.  Kim and I had already passed by here on our first night's orientation tour given by Pascal.  He had informed us that it was good luck to touch a certain part of this statue.  A glimpse at Molly's shiny, well-worn bosoms tipped us off as to where this was!  While waiting for our guide to arrive, I got a kick out of watching people walking up to the statue and giving her a caress.  (And I must admit I did the same - who doesn't need a bit of good luck?)

Entering Brú na Bóinne visitor center

A few months ago I'd booked a trip with a local tour group called Hilltop Treks to visit the ancient burial mounts at Brú na Bóinne.  The tour also included stops at Trim Castle and the Hill of Tara.  Well, about a month before our departure, the company emailed me that due to road construction they were changing the itinerary - now we were only touring Brú na Bóinne and nearby Monasterboice Cemetery.  I was a bit disappointed.  One of the reasons I'd booked with this company was because they offered Trim Castle and Hill of Tara tours in addition to the scheduled burial mounds visit.  But afraid if I canceled I wouldn't find another group with openings, Kim and I opted to keep our reservation.

These ancient burial mounds were older than the pyramids!

Before long a white minibus with the words "Hilltop Treks" emblazoned on the side pulled up.  A thin, strange man wearing knee-high leather boots popped out and introduced himself as our guide.  Kim and I squeezed into two seats of this tiny and very cramped minibus.  The vehicle only held 18 passengers and that's exactly the number of people we had.  After riding in a spacious full-size bus all week that was only half full, this was definitely a downgrade.  To top things off, the lady sitting directly in front of us began hacking a deep raspy cough and didn't stop the entire trip.  Kim quickly donned a mask (and in hindsight, I should've too.)

The River Boyne

After everyone had arrived and squeezed inside the van, our guide hopped into the driver's seat and we were off.  The van wound through the streets of Dublin until it hit a main highway.  We traveled through a long tunnel and then a toll road getting out of the city.  It took about 45 minutes before arriving at the Brú na Bóinne visitor center.

A friendly bird who posed for me

After having such a fabulous guide as Pascal for over a week, today's tour guide was an utter disappointment.  He had the personality of a rock and dismal communication skills.  Once everyone had unloaded from the van, our guide simply said "follow me" and took off towards the visitor center.  When we got inside, he left us by the front door and disappeared.  Our group waited for several minutes, not knowing if we could take a bathroom break or not.  Kim peeped through a nearby door to ask him, and he practically snarled at her to stay put.  Finally the guy emerged with our wristbands.  He said we had 45 minutes to check out the visitor's center before our tour began.  He then motioned us to gather round.  When we didn't get close enough for his liking, the guide admonished us to get closer.  He then stressed we had to be at a certain door by 10:35 or we'd miss our tour.  To make sure no one forgot, he wrote the time down on a notebook and had us repeat it several times. (It felt like I was back in kindergarten!)  His final instruction was that when the tour was over, we were to head straight back to the van, no stopping in the visitor center for anything.

Knowth burial mounds

The visitor center was well done.  It explained that Brú na Bóinne was comprised of three sites - Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth.  In all three places archeologists had discovered ancient passage tombs.  Today's tour would take us to Knowth and Newgrange.  The tombs were over 5,000 years old - older than the pyramids in Egypt!  Kim and I enjoyed looking at all the exhibits, but we hurried our way through.  Our guide had put the fear of god in us.  Not wanting to miss our tour, we made sure to be at the specified door extra early (as did the rest of our group.)

The mounds were fascinating!

When our tour time came, we were ushered out the door, down a series of outdoor walkways and a bridge spanning the River Boyne to a waiting bus.  The bus transported us to our first passage tomb site, Knowth.

Intricate stonework

Once off the bus, our group was handed over to an on-site guide, who led us onto the grounds of Knowth.  This site had one large passage tomb surrounded by several smaller round tombs. 

Sundial outside one of the mounds

The tombs were incredible!  The smaller ones looked like rounded grassy mounds.  They blended well into the green landscape.  Thought to be built in 3,200 BC, our guide told us that all these mounds had been buried over the years, and were recently rediscovered and excavated.

Another burial mound

The largest burial tomb had extensive rock work on its sides.  A wall of small rocks fronted by huge stones encircled the site.  Some of the larger rocks had been inscribed with petroglyphs.

The rocks surrounding some mounds had designs carved into them

We were told the big burial mound had its doorways aligned with the rising and setting sun of the spring and fall equinox.  I thought it was amazing that these primitive peoples had not only figured this out, but were able to build their passages to align perfectly with this seasonal event.

The people give an idea of size

One of the large mound's doorways had a sundial and a large area of white quartz rock on the ground directly outside.  Our guide said that this quartz came from the Wicklow Mountains, over 70 km away.  How these ancient people managed to transport such a large volume of rock so far is just one of the mysteries about this place.

The largest mound had a staircase so visitors could walk on top

Although visitors weren't allowed inside any of these burial chambers, they were allowed to go on top of the largest mound.  For this purpose, a staircase had been built onto one side.  After circling around this tomb, our guide directed us to the path that led to its grassy roof.

The clouds were fantastic that day

On top of the large mound, we were treated to sweeping views of the surrounding green farmland.  A boardwalk led visitors around the tomb's perimeter.  A great place for photos, I took full advantage of my time here.

Kim is ready to go on top of the mound

Again, we lucked out with fabulous weather.  Although the day had started out overcast, during our tour the clouds began to break up.  Blue sky peeped between large, fluffy clouds.  Kim and I both oohed and aahed over the lovely sky.  The clouds were so amazing!  Being on a high point made the sky views even better.

Climbing up....

View from the top

More phenomenal clouds.....

Fabulous views of the surrounding countryside

From this high perch, I even got a nice view of an adjacent smaller burial tomb and the weathered stone building that served as the restroom and visitor center building.

Top view of one burial mound

The last item of interest on our tour of Knowth was a replica of a wooden circle of posts, called a "henge."  Thought to be used as a ritual area, little is known about what activities actually went on here.

Replica of a ceremonial circle or "henge"

Our tour of Knowth took about an hour, and we'd enjoyed every minute.  What an incredible piece of history!

Newgrange burial mound

After our tour of Knowth was over, the group reboarded another bus that took us down a narrow, country road to our next destination, the huge burial chamber called Newgrange.

This mound had white rock on the outside

The most well-known and impressive of the burial chambers at Brú na Bóinne, Newgrange was the star of our tour.  A gigantic, white, stone-faced structure, this particular passage tomb was even more breathtaking in person.

Tomb entrance

As we had at Knowth, our group was assigned a local guide to give us a tour of the site.  She led us up a steep hill and around the side of the mound, until arriving at the tomb entrance.

Another view of the entrance

Although we couldn't walk on top of the Newgrange mound, our tour was allowed inside the burial chamber.  But interior space was extremely tight, so only half of the group could go in at a time.  The guide split our tour into two.  Kim and I were in the second group, so while the first party went inside, we walked around the exterior, taking in the tomb's exquisite rockwork and the fabulous surrounding scenery.

Walking around the perimeter

The exterior was faced with the same Wicklow quartz that we had seen at Knowth.  Again, these ancient people somehow transported all this rock from a far distance to build this tomb.  Newgrange's dimensions were staggering - 279 feet (85 meters) in diameter, 43 feet (13 meters) high, and about one acre in area.

Another stone hut

Looking out towards the adjacent sheep farm, I spotted a low stone hut.  I'm not sure what the hut was used for, or its age, but it was really interesting and made for a great photo op.

The views from here were wonderful

Kim and I wandered the entire perimeter of the passage tomb and then hung out at the entrance, waiting for our turn to go inside.

Close up of the rockwork

When the first group exited, the rest of us lined up by the wooden stairway.  Our guide advised us that the passageway into the chamber was narrow and the floor uneven.  We'd have to wiggle through some of the tighter openings.  She told us to carry our backpacks in our hands and no photography was allowed inside.

Our turn to go inside!

While waiting my turn to go in, I admired the large kerbstones lining the entrance.  Petroglyphs had been carved into some of them.  A man was stationed at the doorway and his job was to make sure no one hit their head entering or exiting the low opening.

Another view of the tomb entrance without people

And inside I went!  It was dark and I had to squeeze through a couple of very tight openings.  One of the larger men in our group had a difficult time.  Not for the claustrophobic!  The passage went back into the tomb for about 60 feet before opening up into a central room.  The room had three smaller chambers off to the sides and was topped by a a 20-foot high stone dome.  It appeared the tomb had been constructed using stacked rocks - no mortar.  Ancient carvings had been hewn into the rock walls of the chamber.

Watching a storm come in

The amazing thing about the Newgrange burial tomb is that it was built with an opening above the doorway oriented so that on the winter solstice a beam from the rising sun shines through this window. The light then enters the central chamber, illuminating it for 17 minutes.  Our guide shut off all the lights and demonstrated this event with her flashlight.  It was a very cool phenomenon to witness.

Such an amazing place!

Kim and I filed out of the tomb, jazzed by what we'd just experienced.  Later we learned tours inside of the Newgrange tomb had just recently been allowed again - they had previously been closed for nearly three years due to COVID.

Selfie after touring inside

Both tours had lasted about an hour each.  So it was well past noon when we finally finished up at Newgrange, and I was hungry.  We were supposed to get lunch at our next stop, so after our tours were done, Kim and I hurried back to the van.  I kind of had to go to the bathroom, but remembering our guide's stern instructions, I dutifully skipped the visitor center.  However once back at the van, we found our group was missing two members.  Everyone waited and waited for the errant people to arrive.  Finally, the man of the couple boarded and said his wife (or girlfriend?) had to stop and have a cigarette.  What???  Here I'd bypassed the bathrooms to get back in time.  Needless to say no one on the bus was very happy with her.  When she finally did show up (reeking of smoke -ugh!) our guide didn't say a word to her.  Kim and I gave her lots of stink eye though.  How inconsiderate to make your entire tour group wait!  Our Rick Steves tour-mates would have never done anything like that.  It made Kim and I appreciate our RS group even more.

Shamrock flavored chips?

Now that we finally had everybody, our guide zoomed down the road to our next stop - the Battle of the Boyne visitor center.  Since the place had a cafeteria it was our lunch break spot.  We filed out of the van and our grumpy guide told us we had an hour to eat and look around the place.  

Now starving, Kim and I hurried off to the cafeteria.  However, the food choices were strange, so we ended up sharing a sausage roll.  It wasn't very good, but we were hungry so it got consumed anyway.  I spotted a bag of "Shamrock and sour cream" crisps (what the Irish call potato chips) that I couldn't resist trying.  Not sure what shamrocks are supposed to taste like - the sour cream flavor overpowered everything else.

Gardens at the Battle of the Boyne

There was a lovely garden outside the cafeteria area.  After finishing our lunch, Kim and I walked around checking it out.  It was nice, but nothing spectacular.  However as we were wandering around, I noticed huge thunderclouds building overhead.  It looked like rain was imminent, so we decided to head back to the van.  We were almost back to the parking lot when the skies opened up.

Monasterboice Cemetery

Once everyone was back in the van, our guide decided to give us a history lesson.  As the rain pounded our vehicle, he droned on for several minutes about the Battle of the Boyne, an Irish hero named Thomas Meagher, and something else I don't remember.  Our guide was such a terrible speaker, rambling from one subject to the next, that after a short time I began to tune him out.

This sign explained the Celtic cross inscriptions

Finally, the guy shut up and returned to the driver's seat.  By now the rain shower had passed and the sun was coming out again.  Our guide turned the van towards our final stop of the day, the ancient cemetery at a place called Monasterboice.

The main Celtic cross

Monasterboice cemetery is built on the ruins of an early Christian monastic settlement.  A national monument of Ireland, it features the remains of two churches and a round tower.  But it is most famous for the number of high crosses still in good condition.  

Inscriptions in the cross explained Bible stories to the illiterate

Upon arrival, we all filed out of the van, and followed our guide up a small hill into the cemetery.  The guide stopped at a very tall Celtic cross, full of intricate carvings.  This 5.5 meter high specimen was known as Muiredach's High Cross, and as our guide told us, it was regarded as the finest high cross in all of Ireland.  It's carvings were the best preserved specimens of all the Celtic crosses.

The center carving depicts Christ's crucifixion

Named after a former abbot, Muiredach mac Domhnaill, the cross featured carvings depicting stories from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  It dates from the 10th century.  The biblical scenes carved on this cross were used as teaching aids.  Since most people from this time were illiterate, monks used these carved pictures to instruct their flock on Bible stories. 

This carving is supposed to be two old men pulling each other's beards

A large sign nearby explained the meanings behind the cross carvings.  Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham, and Christ's crucifixion, were some of the stories depicted.  However, at the base of one side was an image of two old men, pulling each other's beards.  No one knows why this got carved on the cross.

This person obviously loved soccer

After our guide rambled for 10 minutes about the Muiredach High Cross he finally shut up and let our group wander around the cemetery.  Although I'd seen so many burial grounds on this trip, this one still intrigued me.  I roamed through the gravesites, snapping photos of unusual tombstones, and locating the other two large high crosses.  Apparently burials here continue to this day, a fact I noticed when checking dates on some of the headstones.

Round tower and Celtic cross

The round tower on the premises was another interesting specimen.  Although the top appeared to have crumbled away, the rest of the stonework seemed intact.  And there was a doorway on the first floor, something not seen on the other towers I'd visited. 

This cross depicts the crucifixion

After walking around Monasterboice for a good 15 minutes or so, I suddenly realized I was the only person left in the graveyard.  I didn't remember our guide telling us when we had to be back at the van.  Uh-oh!  I snapped one last photo and hightailed it down the hill.  About halfway down I ran into Kim, who had come back to find me and make sure I wasn't left behind.  Kim said she didn't recollect our guide giving us a meet up time either, so we decided to get back to the parking lot.

This round tower had a door near ground level

Lucky for us, the guide seemed to be in no hurry to leave.  So we had time to make a quick potty stop before loading up and heading back to Dublin.  I was quite ready for this tour to be done!  Although we'd visited some very fascinating places, our guide and the behavior of some of our tour-mates put a huge damper on the experience.

One final look as I was hustling back to the van

The ride back was uneventful, save for Kim telling me later that she'd glimpsed our guide's face in the rear view mirror, and he appeared to be struggling to stay awake.  Oh boy!  I've never been so glad to be done with someone as I was with that man!  I surely won't be recommending Hilltop Treks to anyone.

Drinks with our tour buddies!

It was nearly dinner time when Kim and I arrived back at our hotel.  Knowing that our buddies Kim, Alicia, and Debbie were still in town, I texted them all to see if they were interested in joining us for dinner.  The answer was a resounding yes!

The Kims and Alicia trying to locate our restaurant

So we enjoyed the company of our new tour friends for one more evening.  Alicia's Kim made a reservation at a nearby restaurant, and after a quick drink in the hotel bar, we ladies set out to find the place.

Dublin streetscape

Kim's Google maps had us ducking down an alley directly across the street from our hotel.  On the alley's opposite side we were suddenly in a different world, away from the tourist hot spots.  This was the Dublin where the locals hung out.  After more Google consultations both Kims guided our group to the chosen restaurant.

I had a most excellent seafood salad

The place was fairly new.  It didn't serve liquor, but patrons were allowed to bring their own drinks.  The menu was huge and varied.  I ordered lamb chops and the meal came with the most delicious seafood salad.  The salad was a meal in itself!  The other entrees ordered by my friends all looked good too.  After dinner, we walked back to our hotel, and not ready to say goodbye to our friends just yet, we all enjoyed a final nightcap in the hotel's bar.

One final nightcap with our new friends

Ireland was such a wonderful experience!  I'm glad I got to share it with my good buddy Kim.  It was gonna be hard to say goodbye to this magical country tomorrow morning. 

Join me for one final wrap up post - I still have a few thoughts and stories from this trip of a lifetime.  If you're not sick of my Ireland tales yet, please stop by!