from Cork to Macroom
The day dawned dark and overcast. It didn’t look like an auspicious start to our bike trip. In fact, it looked ominous. I met Len downstairs for breakfast at 8:30. There was no hurry, since the bike store didn’t open until 10:00am. I had been trying to read the Irish newspaper, but there wasn’t a single thing that I could relate to. It seemed funny how the world outside the hotel door was not that different from life at home, but the stories in the newspaper about political doings and cricket matches were as foreign to me as something from another planet.
This was our first Irish breakfast. At the hotel in Dublin we had requested a simple buffet in the interest of speed, but for the rest of the trip the breakfast everywhere was the full Irish kind – a cold buffet with fruit, bread, yogurt, and cereal, together with cooked (fried) eggs, bacon (ham), sausage, and tomato. This was more than I could handle, so I always settled for the fruit, eggs, bacon, and toast. Even so, it was a lot more than I’m used to. Len did likewise with one major difference. At each hotel he would ask a perplexed waitress to have his eggs scrambled, but only the whites. The waitresses would screw up their faces and make like they didn’t understand his accent. Sometimes later they were really proud that they or the cook had succeeded in doing what he wanted. Pleasing customers seemed to be in the Irish blood. Towards the end of our trip, though, I noticed that Len gave up on this morning dialog and simply cut the yokes from his fried eggs.
As the waitress poured our coffee I asked if it would rain. “Definitely,” she said in a lovely Irish accent, but that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. At least she could have equivocated, I thought. “Maybe so” or something like that. But no – she says definitely.
Len asked if I had watched television in my room, complaining that there were only three channels, none of which had anything at all interesting. When was he able to watch television, I wondered? Something like this became a trend in our trip -- each night Len would stay up until one or two o’clock, working on the phone or whatever, while I would go to bed and not sleep. I blamed my lack of sleep on jet lag and the uncomfortable bed, but I had trouble everywhere adjusting to the time change.
Back up in my room I eyed my duffel bag, trying to decide how I would pack the panniers on the bike, while I waited for the bike store opening. There was a clash of thunder, and then the sound of pouring rain outside. I knew it. She did say definitely, didn’t she? At least this settled what I would choose to wear for this first day – it would be full rain gear.
We left our bags in our room and walked in the pouring rain alongside the river towards the bike store. With the hood on my rain jacket and my rain pants I felt impervious to the wet onslaught. Still, this was not the way I had imagined it would be. We crossed the river away from the town center and proceeded up a hill lined with small, dingy stores. Cork had resumed its industrial character. At the top I kept walking, but Len had stopped. He was standing in front of the bike store. “This is it,” he said. I didn’t even understand what he meant, and it took me moments to realize that we were there. This was, after all, “it.”
Bike Store in Cork
At least there was a bike in the window, but this didn’t look like a place that was going to have our rental bikes. Could I really have corresponded with this place on the web? Their web page was as big as this place.
It was exactly 10:00am, but the shop was locked. More than just locked, it had the look of having gone out of business. There were two young men huddled in the doorway of the store, like us waiting for it to open. At their feet, pushed against the door, were their duffel bags. They also had arranged to rent bikes here this morning. Could this place possibly have four bikes ready, I wondered? I was thinking maybe we should have beaten this pair to the door. I could see them getting the only two bikes, and us coming up empty.
The two young men were Germans from Bavaria, and they seemed pleasant and well-spoken. I was interested that one of them had a duffel bag that would turn into a pannier. He had solved the bag problem in a nice way, although it remained to be seen how good it was as a pannier. They were planning to head southwest to Kinsale, which I had read was thought to be the prettiest town in Ireland. However, they complained that it was much too expensive to stay in Kinsale, and that they had reservations instead in a nearby town.
I often thought about the differences between the typical college student’s European trip and what Len and I were doing. I had missed out on the college opportunity, as had most of my peers, and I have since often envied the kids with backpacks and railpasses and the freedom to roam aimlessly through Europe. In contrast, Len and I lack the freedom. Our time is precious to us. Moreover, we’re too old to forgo our conveniences. We couldn’t stay in hostels, camp out, or cook our own food from cans.
What we lack in age and adaptability, however, we make up for with money. Our time is so precious that there is no point in skimping on any extravagance in the name of convenience. We would stay in the best places, eat at the best restaurants, and in the event of any emergency, take out a credit card. Such is life in the old lane. For example, if this bike store didn’t have our rental bikes, I was fully prepared to buy a new bike there or at another store, and then to sell the bike, even at a significant loss if necessary, in Galway. After all the preparation, this trip was going to go down one way or another.
At about 10:20am a young man showed up at the door with a keyring. “Are you Aidan?” I asked. No, was the terse answer. The four of us watched silently while he fiddled with the lock. Inside, out of the pouring rain, I explained that we had reservations for bikes. The Germans were quiet, and I thought maybe I should have let them start. The man got out a ledger book that was all scribbled in pencil with things crossed out and random annotations. “What did you say your name was?” he asked several times. He kept staring at it and turning pages. I didn’t even think he was on the right month.
After quite a bit of random browsing, he came upon a loose slip of paper with my name on it. But there was some problem. It seemed that the Germans had reserved under the name “Luchish”, or something like that, for exactly the same time. So they had thought that the Germans and we were the same party, and they had garbled the name. Hey, just give us the bikes and let us get out of here, I thought.
This guy was real casual. There were two bikes hanging from hooks by the door. The store was so small that there wasn’t enough room to turn bikes around. Apparently, we were going to get those two bikes. I don’t know about the Germans. I probably should have said to give those bikes to the Germans, but I didn’t. In fact, I was a little too anxious and I took the first bike that he took down. This, as it turned out, was the one with the smaller frame, and should have been Len’s bike, since he’s the shorter of us. But I kept the first bike, and sometimes going up hills later I felt that I was on a tricycle. The frame of my home bike was much longer and seemed to give me more leverage. But at that little store in rainy Cork, I just wanted two wheels and to get out of there.
Len and I were inspecting our bikes, while the Germans waited patiently by. They were really polite. Len had brought a printed set of instruction on how to test rented bikes before you left the store. You were supposed to pull this and that, twist things, etc. But I just told him to forget it, and let’s go. This, as you will see, was a mistake.
The bike store guy began pulling out the accessories that we would need – panniers, lock, tool kit, spare tube, pump, and tire tool. These were all brand new and were removed from their original boxes. The black panniers looked especially impressive, and seemed much larger and more adaptable than the ones I had at home. About this time a gentle, older man came into the store. This, then, was Aidan. He was about 65 years old, had a soft voice, and had a calm, unruffled air. It was like the store was a hobby or something, and not to be taken seriously.
Len and I had been wondering about our one-way bike rental and how they would get the bikes back from Galway, so we asked Aidan about that. He said that they had to truck the bikes back from Galway, since there were very few rentals that went from Galway back to Cork. “Ninety-five percent of the rentals go from here to there,” he added.
I was thinking at the time that traffic flow was dictated by the prevailing wind, since that was why I had chosen to bike northwards myself. Later I reconsidered. It didn’t seem reasonable that such a large proportion of the bikers had thought to check the prevailing winds. Maybe instead it had to do with Cork being more of an arrival port for European bikers. On the other hand, Galway is near the large Shannon Airport, so maybe people do know about the wind.
I suggested that Len buy a map of the Cork area, since that was one of my missing routes, and when we said that we were heading first towards Blarney, Aidan told us how to take a secondary route by turning off the main road right after we saw a McDonald’s. We gave them our credit cards, signed the papers, and pushed our bikes out into the rain. I didn’t give a thought to the Germans then, but I am now. I hope they got their bikes.
So there we were, at the top of a hill, on a narrow street in the pouring rain with unfamiliar bikes. There were cars parked along both sides of the street, and there was barely enough room for a moving car to pass in the middle. There was a fair amount of traffic. To ride or to push the bikes? Len was for riding, as he always was, while I was the conservative one in spite of my experience. We pushed our bikes down the hill and across the bridge. On the other side we mounted our bikes for the first time and hesitatingly began riding along the busy streets. I say “hesitatingly”, but that was only for me. Len was already a block ahead, seemingly ignoring the cars and pedestrians and threading the obstacles towards the hotel. I was just finding out that he was fast and fearless. I had been worrying about him, but I was discovering that I was going to have to worry more about myself.
Back in my hotel room I pondered the new panniers. This was one continuous black bag with pouches on each side and a large, zippered compartment on top. It was to be placed across the rack on the back of the bike and held in place by five adjustable straps. The side compartments looked small to me, and I ended up putting socks and miscellaneous things in them, while putting almost all the clothes in the top compartment. Using a couple of the bungie cords I had brought, I attached my mashed-up duffle bag on top of the panniers.
I later discovered that I had packed very badly, as all of the weight was unstable on top, and too high up on the bike. Len explained to me that the side pouches held much more than I had thought, because they extended upwards past the zippers, where I had thought they ended. But that was later. For this day I was unstable. Moreover, the bike was very unfamiliar, and I hadn’t realized that the back tire was quite low.
Before we left the hotel there was quite a bit to do about our rearview mirrors. I had never used a helmet-mounted mirror before, and I couldn’t get the thing anywhere near adjusted correctly. It always seemed to look up into the sky whatever I did. Len had some experience with them, and managed to get mine somewhat adjusted. However, I spent more time fiddling with it that day and all the other days than it was worth. I never seemed to be able to adjust it, and time and again Len had to help. He had some kind of magic touch or understanding with the thing that I lacked. But on this first morning Len had his own problem too – his mirror was lost somewhere in or around the hotel. Eventually, with the help of a chambermaid, he found it. We each mounted our handlebar bags, I attached my GPS, and finally, at 12:45pm we were ready to roll. I was already exhausted!
the Hotel in Cork
There are two things to notice in this picture. First, notice how badly my panniers are packed with everything on top. Next, notice that while Len took this picture his own bike fell over. With all their loads our bikes were pretty unwieldy, and the kickstands couldn’t be trusted to hold them aloft. Even walking the bikes along city streets was awkward, but that’s what we had to do now to get out of Cork.
It was lunchtime in downtown Cork, and the streets were full of traffic and pedestrians. It was still pouring rain, and I had no idea how to get out of the city. All I could think of was to head north across the river, but facing that direction all we could see was a giant hill on the other side of the river. This was starting to be a nightmare. Len, as usual, was all for riding the bikes, but I thought this was impossible under the conditions even if I had been used to this bike, which I wasn’t. So we pushed them awkwardly through the crowds and across traffic. Seeing an alleyway that at least went towards the river, we started down it, but a man stopped us. “You can’t go that way,” he said, and pointed us back from where we had come. I wasn’t sure whether he meant that it was impossible to get through or whether it would just be difficult on bikes, but back we went. I was also getting hungry, and there was no prospect of food for sometime. We just had to get out of there.
We eventually walked the bikes across a bridge and faced the big hill. Prevaricating, we rode parallel to the river for a block, looking for a better approach to the hill. At the next traffic light there was a major road that sloped up the hill, and before I could question anything, Len was off in this direction. At least the road didn’t attack the hill directly, but angled gently upwards. It was also away from Cork, which was my major objective. That was the good news. The bad news was that this was a busy, 4-lane highway with no shoulder, and it was pouring rain. I kept thinking that this was a bad idea. The cars were streaming around us, and I felt endangered. One person rolled down his window, and shouted, “Idiot!” I thought to myself that he was right; we needed to get off this road.
We had been on this highway for about a mile when I spotted the McDonald’s ahead on the right. When you’re biking in Ireland and see a McDonald’s, you know for sure that you’re on a main highway! I was very glad to see it, because I didn’t know if we were on the right road out of Cork. Moreover, the McDonald’s meant that we would be leaving the main highway as per Aidan’s directions. The McDonald’s looked pretty good to me also because I was hungry, but I knew that we had to forge ahead to Blarney before we had any lunch.
What a relief it was to get off the highway onto the secondary road! All of a sudden the cars were gone. And I mean gone. This was a narrow, tree-lined road through farm country. Unlike the open landscape that characterized most of the rest of our trip, here the road was closed in by overarching trees. We saw cows and often were watched by attentive dogs. You could almost sense their feelings of responsibility for their little tracts of land. Sometimes they would stare silently, while at other times they would bark threateningly. Occasionally they would give a quick reconnaissance chase, circle us, and then run back to their guard positions. A few times during our trip a dog would dash madly at us, circle, and then scamper back to hide under a porch or somewhere, like he had just done something really daring. Although Len had his pepper spray at the ready a number of times, he never had the occasion to use it.
It was only about six miles to Blarney, but these were difficult miles. I found myself losing momentum on the first little hill, and then I was off my bike, walking and out of breath. Then there was another such hill, and yet another. I think I walked up at least parts of about four hills before we reached Blarney. The trip had hardly started, and I was getting worried about what lay in store for me. After all, I had planned this first day to be the easiest of the trip. It was a trip of only about 27 miles, and according to my “Holiday” map, the route followed a river. Therefore, I reasoned, it had to be flat. But this was one of those segments for which I didn’t have the detailed map with the elevation contours, so I had no foreknowledge of the actual hills. Len had bought the detailed map for this area earlier at the Cork bike shop, but in the rain and the hurry to leave, we hadn’t had any chance to study it.
I’ve since wondered about those hills on the way to Blarney. During the rest of the trip I only had a few occasions where I had to walk my bike on a hill, and they were for brief distances. Were those Blarney hills really so bad, or was I especially weary that first day? Maybe it was because my back tire was low. I don’t know, but I’ve occasionally thought that I’d like to have the opportunity to go back and try those hills again. But, of course, I never will.
It was about 2:30pm when we reached the little town of Blarney. Going there had been a slight detour from my original plotted route. I tried to take the attitude that we shouldn’t be slaves to the chosen itinerary, but that we should improvise wherever we wanted. I would guess that for about 2/3 of our trip we followed the exact route that I had marked on the maps and uploaded into the GPS, while for the other third we went a different way.
The guidebooks that we had were both lukewarm about Blarney. It is one of the top tourist destinations in Ireland because of the castle and the Blarney Stone, but the books warned that the town was really touristy, like some fake movie set, and that it was continuously overloaded with tour busses. Nevertheless, I don’t think that we saw a tour bus there, and I didn’t have any feeling of manipulation. There was no doubt, however, that in comparison with other small towns that we later visited, Blarney wasn’t a real working town.
At Blarney we went through the ritual of dismounting, locking our bikes, and removing our handlebar bags for the first of many times. I had considerable difficulty with my bike lock. The key didn’t seem to fit, but after a lot of manipulation it suddenly turned as if there were no problem whatsoever. This was the same behavior I experienced later on every occasion where we had to stop. There were a couple of times when I despaired of freeing my bike from the lock, and I kept envisioning having to buy or borrow a hacksaw. A few days later Len switched locks with me, as he seemed to have better success with whatever elusive secret is was that made that lock turn. However, even he eventually gave up on it, and the last couple of days we avoided using it.
Between the lock difficulty and the constant readjustment of my helmet-mounted rearview mirror, I experienced those minor annoyances that often fill the random moments of life. Also, on foot we were somewhat awkward. We had to carry the handlebar bags, our fanny packs, and our helmets. I often attached my helmet to the bike with the lock, but Len always wore his helmet when we walked in towns. I kidded him about that, saying that he liked being seen as a biker, whereas I could be identified as a biker merely by standing near him. I’d have to say, though, that it was always important to me psychologically to be viewed as a biker, rather than as someone who had arrived on a tour bus. Whenever we’d get into a town, I’d think that I had earned my way there. I didn’t get parachuted down in some air-conditioned bus and herded by a tour guide reciting mindless figures and dates. It’s an important mindset, and it’s one of the wonderful things about biking your way through the country.
We hesitated in front of a restaurant along the one street of Blarney. All I wanted was a sandwich, and this looked like a full meal place. But a passer-by assured us that we could get light sandwiches inside, and so we entered. We both ordered BLTs and cokes, and had a delicious lunch. In fact, it was the only sit-down lunch that we had on our trip. On every other day we were either not in towns with restaurants at lunchtime, or we were too busy to take the time to be waited upon.
Restaurant in Blarney
Leaving the restaurant, I tried to emulate Len’s behavior, and I asked a passer-by to direct me to Blarney Castle. He looked at me like I was really stupid. “Right here,” he said, like where else is there? How big did I think the town was? It was right across the grass square in front of the restaurant.
My intention was simply to view the castle from the grounds, take the requisite picture, and get back on the road. But the people who run the tourist industry had other plans for me, and it seemed that you couldn’t even see the castle without paying an admission fee. Cleverly, it was completely surrounded by fences, so you had to go through a turnstile before you could even set eyes on it. But there I was, and how could I not see the castle? So I paid and walked through the grounds to the castle.
On the pathway a young man was playing Irish tunes on a violin. I would have liked to have listened, but there were castles to be seen. So I followed the small crowd of tourists up the cramped circular stairway of about 80 steps to the ramparts of the castle. The intervening floors were dank and empty. I thought how depressing a place this must to have been to live in – no heat, light, plumbing, or creature comforts. On the other hand, you were fortified and protected from whomever. Unfortunately, that also was inevitably your downfall. In the end whoever it was always got to you. You were the big enchilada.
from the Blarney Castle
There was a nice view of the surrounding countryside from the ramparts of the castle. Where were those steep hills, I wondered as I looked out over the pastoral scene? Len and I were the only people on the top of the castle not in the line to kiss the Blarney stone. I tried to edge my way towards the down staircase, while Len worked his way towards the stone in order to take a picture. There was a large woman lying on her back with her legs held by her husband while she leaned backwards to kiss the stone. This is supposed to give you the gift of gab. I thought I could do without this, and we would have had to wait for at least a half hour to do it. Suddenly the large woman screamed something like, “My God!” and lurched up. I don’t know whether she had already kissed the stone, or had chickened out at the last moment.
Line to Kiss the Blarney Stone
I worked my way down the circular staircase. The turns were so narrow that I barely fitted through with my handlebar bag. It was quite claustrophobic, and when Len joined me at the bottom later he said that a woman had had a panic attack getting wedged in the stairwell. It was nice to get outside where the sun was now shining brightly. The morning’s rain had been forgotten and the open road beckoned.
It was about 15 miles to our evening’s destination, Macroom. Shortly out of Blarney we came to an unexpected intersection. I thought we should go left, Len thought right. I argued that going right would take us back where we had been. Len unfolded the detailed map he had bought that morning, but where the hell were we on it? My GPS wasn’t much help, because we had deviated from the planned path. I wasn’t thinking very clearly, because I hadn’t yet set it to Irish coordinates, which would have told us exactly where on the map we were. Anyway, Len won the argument, and it turned out that he was correct. My intuition was wrong. I mention this incident, because that kind of uncertainty had characterized many intersections in previous trips. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, and you come to a “Y”, and nothing is marked. But in Ireland, I think this was the only time that we had any uncertainty about a turn. Usually, between the GPS and the maps it was no problem whatsoever.
The hills now weren’t so bad, and I didn’t have to walk any more portions. On the larger map it looked like the road ran beside a river, but we never seemed to get to any river. We were always coming down into little valleys where I thought there would be a river, and then going back up and out again.
Road to Macroom
This picture shows the typical scene. The road is narrow and empty. On each side of the road is a wall. The view is expansive and rural. It was this kind of pleasant biking for an hour or so, and I was looking forward to arrival in Macroom and a hot shower. Because of our late start, the leisurely lunch, and the tour of the castle, it was already about 6:00pm.
We were rounding a turn when Len called out to me to pause. He said that he thought my back tire was low. I checked, and indeed it was. No problem, I thought, I’ll pump it up, and we pulled into a driveway of an adjacent farm. I removed the frame pump and unscrewed the cap on my tube, but when I tried to attach the pump to the tube there was a big “hiss” and my tire went completely flat. So, I thought, I’ll just have to do a little more pumping, as I tried to reattach the pump. Funny, it wouldn’t attach.
I discovered much to my growing dismay that my tube had a presta-type valve, whereas the pump that I had been given had a Schroeder attachment. These don’t match, needless to say, but most pumps convert between the two. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any way of converting my pump. All right, I thought, I’ll use Len’s pump. I was getting more worried, but not yet panicked. Then it turned out that Len’s pump had a Schroeder attachment too. Moreover, his tires had Schroeder valves. He was set, but there was nothing that could pump up my tires. Now I was getting panicked. I think Len sensed that, and he told me to calm down, it would be all right. I wasn’t sure how, though. How was I supposed to get to Macroom?
About this time of dawning realization of disaster, Len’s bike started to tip over. He lurched to grab it, and as he did so his sunglasses fell off. He was unbalanced, and reactively stepped forward. There was a very distinctive “crunch” as his good sunglasses were pulverized. Disaster was all around us, and we took this picture to memorialize this low point of our trip.
Len had rented a GSM cellphone for access in Europe, so he was able to call the bike shop in Cork. It was now 6:30pm, and I doubted anyone would be there, but Aidan answered the phone. Len explained the problem, and Aidan said essentially that we were out of luck. Then, however, he had a suggestion of a way of using my pump without any attachment to get a little air into my tire. It might be enough to limp into Macroom. We did this, and I rode the last six miles into Macroom with an almost-flat tire. I would bottom out with a thunk on every little piece of gravel, but in a half hour or so we were riding down the main street of Macroom.
into the Castle Hotel, Macroom
Was I ever glad to get to the hotel! I was really exhausted, and this was supposed to be my easiest day. This friendly hotel clerk showed us where we could lock our bikes in the back hallway, and I trudged up two flights of stairs carrying my panniers and bag. As I did so, I felt a recurrent hurt below my right buttock. Len said that he knew this muscle, and that it would take months to go away. That certainly was welcome news. But in the meantime, Len said that he would give me some Aleve tablets.
At the desk we asked about restaurants, but it didn’t seem like there was much outside of the hotel itself. They said we’d need reservations, which seemed strange in this little isolated town, but we made arrangements to eat at the last possible time of 9:30pm. As I waited for Len in the lobby I noticed how packed their restaurant was. It seemed like the whole little town was coming into this hotel for a Friday night meal.
We took the only available table and I ordered pork medallions, which were in an excellent sauce. Desert, however, was a quandary. I was tempted by their homemade “sticky toffee pudding”. I had no idea what this was, but it sounded delicious. On the other hand, their homemade praline ice cream sounded good too. I asked the waitress about the choice, and she said it was simple – she would give me both. She did, and I especially liked the sticky toffee pudding.
After dinner Len asked at the desk about finding traditional Irish music in a local pub. The clerk asked if we were staying until Saturday, when, he announced with pride, there would be four bands in the town. But tonight, well, he was so sorry, but he didn’t think there was any music in town. It was like he felt personally responsible for this failing.
So we wandered out into the darkening town.
This is Macroom – all of it. Of all the towns we visited, this was the one that was familiar before we got there. The reason for this pseudo-familiarity was that I had visited the Castle Hotel website (www.castlehotel.ie) before the trip. Their website had a rotating camera view of the town, so that I had seen a 360-degree tour of the town from the front of the hotel. Len and I had argued via email about whether this was a live view or not. In the rotating picture, people were wearing coats and the street was wet with rain. For a while I had thought it was a live view. I had imagined that we could go to the front of our hotel and wave to our friends, who could see us in Ireland on their computers. Later, however, we decided that the picture was pre-recorded. The point of confusion was that the name of the company that did their website was “Live Picture.” Talk about false advertising!
We walked up the street looking for pubs, but also looking for the Macroom castle. After all, this was the Castle Hotel, and half the stores were castle-this and castle-that. At the end of the street it looked like there was a castle, but when we got there it was more like one of those movie sets where they only made the front of the buildings. There was only a park behind a façade that might or might not once have been part of a castle.
The town was quiet and the few pubs that we did see were subdued. There were a couple of apparently hard-drinking pubs, where silent people sat at the bar staring straight ahead. Then there were the telly pubs, where people silently watched a soccer match on a television. But Macroom that night was peaceful. I was tired and my leg hurt as I ascended the stairs to my room. As a final note, the lights in the corridor were out, and I had to grope along the walls to find my room by feel. It had been a long day.
Proceed to next day's biking, Macroom to Killarney
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