Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Exploring Baltimore, Sherkin Island and Skibbereen

I'm exhausted after our jam-packed day. It started out with a walk around Baltimore- which really isn't that big. But part way through our walk, it started torrential raining with crazy high winds and that made the walk seem much longer than it actually was. When we woke up this morning, after my first comfortable night of sleep (Ireland B&Bs and hotels have the worst pillows), it was fun to look outside and see what this place was all about. We arrived in the dark last night and I've never been to this part of Ireland before, so it was a surprise to wake up and see how cute- and tiny- Baltimore is.

This place is usually crawling with people during the "high season." There are lines to get onto the ferry to some of the other islands (Sherkin and Cape Clear). Parking is difficult. The courtyard area is filled with people spilling out from the restaurants and pubs.

But this time of year, it's deserted. Last night when we went to the pub downstairs (didn't even have to go outside to get there!), it seemed like everyone who looked at us thought we were off our rockers for being here. I agree with them, there's very little to do, but we wanted to come here because it was a part of Ireland I'd never traveled too and we wanted to kick back.

Here are some pictures from our walk around Baltimore to give you a better idea of where we are:

We looked into doing whale watching tours but were told that they were suspended for the next few days because of bad weather and rough waters. So we stuck to our original plan of taking a 10-minute ferry ride to Sherken Island. According to all the guidebooks, there's an "average of 100" people who live on Sherken.

What we learned from our taxi ride around the island by a local (whose name we didn't catch) is that, similar to the Aran Islands, only natives can build. Everyone else can only purchase homes on Sherken. There used to be two schools, one for girls and one for boys. But today there is one school for the 12 students, who have two teachers (not a bad teacher to student ratio!). In addition to the school, there are two pubs, a community center, three beaches, a 15th century abbey, a marine station and a hotel. There's one main road through the whole island which is 3 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide. There are no speed limit signs, and I'm fairly certain our taxi driver didn't ever go over 27 MPH. Two cars absolutely cannot travel on the road at the same time. One of you must pull over and wait for the other to go by.

When we got to the ferry landing to get the return to Baltimore, a handful of locals spilled off the boat with groceries in hand. One man was carrying a bag full of wine. Another man was carrying two loaves of bread and two containers of milk. Another man had some wood and other supplies. And our taxi driver was there to drop everyone off at their home.

It was such an interesting way of life. To examine these people in their small island life was very eye opening. I know for a fact I couldn't live that small of a life. I couldn't depend on a ferry to a smaller seaside town and then a car or taxi ride into the next biggest town to get groceries. I couldn't live on a mostly deserted island with only 100 other people. With a road so small only one car can travel on it at a time. But this is the Ireland that I find fascinating.

On the ferry ride over, we met the librarian of Sherkin who was commuting with her two dogs (the previous librarian was known for her dogs who came to work with her, so she assured us she was just keeping up with tradition). She told us how she recently moved from Sherkin to Baltimore because she couldn't afford to buy anything on Sherkin. She also said that there's this sense of something bad happening and many people in this part of Ireland are really learning how to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. We talked a little bit about Clear Island (an Irish speaking Ireland). We learned that the government does a lot to help keep the inhabitants of Clear Island there by creating jobs for them and making it worth their while. "It's better this way," she explained. It's always good to chat it up with the locals- you learn so much more that way.

After Sherkin we jumped right in the car to head to Skibbereen. We wanted to check out a couple of places- The Church Restaurant and The Heritage Center.

Kate, who helps run The Waterfront Hotel here in Baltimore, recommended the Church Restaurant- a renovated Methodist church (which had services up until 2003, for 170 years before that). Good food and certainly a unique atmosphere. When we walked in, we were blown away at how good it looked. Definitely the best church I've ever been in! We had really good food too and enjoyed the unique setting too.

After that we did walk down the street to the Heritage Center where we learned more about the potato famine: this commemorates the tragic period in the 1840s that is known in Irish History as the Great Hunger. Skibbereen was one of the worst affected areas, and the events of the era are depicted using local characters and events, and Lough Hyne: Lough Hyne, Ireland's first Marine Nature Reserve, nestles in a fold of hills 5 km south west of Skibbereen in West Cork. This marine lake is fed from the sea by a narrow tidal channel known as 'The Rapids'. This unique lake and its surrounds are home to a rich and varied range of plants and animals, including many rare and beautiful species. Since it was ‘discovered’ by marine biologists in 1886, scientists have carried out pioneering research in experimental ecology. Their continued research into the factors governing the distributions of marine animals and plants make Lough Hyne on of the most- studied marine sites of Europe.

On our way out of town I caught two great Guinness signs:

Tonight it's dinner at Jacob's Bar- right downstairs- and early to bed. Tomorrow I'm planning on not leaving here for most of the day. I'm craving a day of staying in bed and reading and writing. A day to truly relax and not go off and do anything. I think it's just what the doctor ordered.


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