A fortnight after our trip to Scanno, there are two things I want to learn:
– how to swim.
– how to speak Italian.
The Italian bit is easy to understand: As soon as we escaped the gritty heat and noise of Rome for the fresh prettiness of Scanno, I knew I wanted to stay. Given that tourists only trickle into this gem 155km west of Rome, without Italian you are really are reduced to Charades if you want anything other than gelato or vino. Although now that I come to think of it, maybe it’s not so necessary after all.
As for the desire to learn to swim, I can’t see myself getting far in a triathlon by holding my breath and flailing the other competitors into submission. Triathlon? Well, if you watched the annual Xterra triathlon in Scanno, you’d fancy yourself as a triathlete too. Of course, it has everything to do with the setting: Scanno is the kind of place that makes you want to skip down the wooded slopes singing. There is a purity in the air, an absoluteness in the colours, and a sparkle in the lake that makes you believe you would live more completely if you were to just roll your belongings into a spotted handkerchief and set up camp here.
So the desire to do a triathlon has much to do with the sight of horribly attractive Italians (even in day-glo Lycra) gliding effortlessly along the glassy surface of Lago di Scanno on a deliciously hot day, trotting through the tangle of medieval streets carrying their bikes as they climb flights of ochre steps, and loping along forested trails to the finish line. And all I need to do to claim my place among those bouncing, honey-limbed triathletes is learn to swim.
When I do complete my first triathlon, and I am unable to untie my shoelaces because the circulation has shut down in my fingers, I will remember a golden day in Scanno and decide that the learning Italian bit was probably more important than the swimming bit.
As anybody living with teenagers knows, summer can be a fraught and testing time. Throw in a mother who works from home and a teenager with Asperger’s, and you have all the ingredients for a really violent soap. Not wanting to put the already stretched local Gardai under any additional pressure, I have decided to defuse the situation by taking said teenager on a weekly hike.
The middle child is not known for his athletic zeal, but to give him his due, he has accepted his mother’s diktat with very little protest. He has also used the opportunity to address the serious gaps in my knowledge of Christopher Nolan’s filmography. Torc mountain and Killarney National Park’s Red Trail (a.k.a. Cardiac Hill) were the venues for updates on The Dark Knight, Memento, and Interstellar. Last week we covered Inception and The Prestige while hiking through Tomies wood.
Just off the Ring of Kerry road between Killarney and Killorglin, the Tomies wood walk is a manageable 9km loop that rises gradually from an elevation of about 33 metres to 93 metres, but it is relatively flat once you’ve completed the initial climb. The views over Lough Lein are stunning, and it is the place you are most likely to see white-tailed eagles in Killarney (or so I kept telling said teenager). It was pretty cloudy when we walked it, so much of the view is a bit like a photo from the old days (you know, when we used actual film) with half the image missing.
What I love most about this walk, however, is the waterfall. You could cheat and just do a tiny bit of the walk to see the waterfall, but I am the kind of mother who insists on bread and butter before cake, so we did the loop in such a way that we had most of the trail behind us before we took the detour to the cascade. Now, anybody who has ever visited Killarney knows that water is something we are very good at. From the great mats of clouds that flop down from the skies without warning to the gentle mists that give hair that fetching, just-electrocuted look, we are immersed in H2O—but one of the things it’s really good for is carpeting the landscape in green velvet, with lakes, rivers, and waterfalls bursting through the seams.
Torc Waterfall serves as a backdrop to many a holiday snap, but O’Sullivan’s Cascade in Tomies wood is not so well known. It should be, but I’m glad it’s not. The teenager appears to agree: When I asked him which he preferred, Torc Waterfall or O’Sullivan’s Cascade, he did not hesitate.
“O’Sullivan’s Cascade because there’s nobody there.” That’s my boy.
Killarney is one of those tourist towns whose name triggers images of check-trousered Americans in buses and leprechauns dancing at the crossroads. And as a native and resident of Heaven’s Reflex (yes, seriously, it’s in the promotional literature), I can confirm that summers in my town are distinguished by an overwhelming presence of unwieldy tourists rolling through the streets and snapping beauty spots off their guidebook to-do lists: Muckross House, Ross Castle, Ladies’ View, the Gap of Dunloe (Word of caution: emphasis on the first syllable marks you out as a foreigner). What I can also tell you (but am slow to do so because of my selfish desire to keep this information to myself) is that there are wonderfully neglected corners of Killarney just off the tourist trail that are among the most breathtakingly beautiful and soul-soothing in the world. Here are a handful of my favourites:
Squeeze through the clusters of camera-wielding tourists on the bridge at Ross Castle and slip past that 15th-century sentinel into the woods, where a disused mining trail offers a jaunting car-free escape into the heart of Ross Island. The path meanders through broad-leaf woods, pungent with wild garlic and bluebells in spring, offering occasional breath-taking glimpses of Loch Lein and its islands, before looping back on itself and bringing you back to Ross Castle.
Step off the loop and follow the signs to Governor’s Rock, officially one of my top three favourite places in the world. The path rises between wind-bitten arbutus (also known as the strawberry tree) and fragrant bay before stopping right at the edge of that lucky governor’s lump of limestone. Lean against the barrier and feel the wind sweeping down from Tomies and Purple mountains, the lake rolling into the distance and lapping hypnotically against the base of the rock.
Water is not something we are short of in this part of the world: It floats in great drizzly mists from the mountains and pours from the sky on a regular basis, giving the landscape a technicolour palette of luminous greens and tucking waterfalls and gushing streams between every crag and precipice. One of my favourite waterfalls is O’Sullivan’s Cascade in Tomies wood, just off the Ring of Kerry road between Killarney and Killorglin.
To get there, follow the N72 as far as the national school and Catholic church in Fossa. Look for the road on the left for the Gap of Dunloe, cross over the River Laune via the Ferry Bridge, and take the next road on the left. The road eventually peters out to a section that has been widened for parking and access to the wood is through farmland (so no dogs or bicycles!). The route to the waterfall is signposted on the forest trail. Apparently, it ran with whiskey until the English invaded Ireland. Not that we’re bitter…
Unless you have a boat, getting to Glena Cottage will require a bit of sweating and grubbing around in the undergrowth. It is most definitely worth the three-hour hike, however. Take the same directions as you would for O’Sullivan’s Cascade but remain on the trail until you’re close to the highest point. You will need to go with somebody who has been here before, as finding the spot where you go off-road and start negotiating the underbelly of the ancient oak forests takes some experience (I’ve got lost here before, but then I have difficulty finding where I’ve parked my car).
You will plunge down through tunnels of rhododendron in the direction of Killarney before you come to the ruins of Glena Cottage, right on the shore of Loch Lein. This is where Queen Victoria’s party came ashore to have a lunch during a jolly afternoon of deer hunting in 1861, and it is believed that Lord and Lady Kenmare virtually bankrupted themselves preparing for the royal visit. Glena Cottage was burned down during the Civil War of 1922, but the remains whisper of a time and the woods have reclaimed the ruins, making an atmospheric (if slightly eerie) spot to stop and breathe in the beauty.
Lord Brandon’s Cottage
Or more specifically, the trail to the cottage (which is less of a cottage and more a convenient place to linger over the view with a tuna and cucumber sandwich). In effect, the drive from Killarney to Kenmare a real-time promotional video on the sheer beauty and epic scale of the national park, skirting billowing oak forests, glinting lakes, rhododendron-canopied crags, and gushing streams.
Park a few miles after Muckross House and just before Ladies’ View at the picturesque abandoned chapel. Cross the road and you’re in God’s country. Raised railway sleepers form steps into a pristine world of crystalline streams, jewel-toned dragonflies and brazen red deer. It’s an easy hour’s walk to Lord Brandon’s cottage, where you can sit at picnic benches and look out across the rustling, golden grass to the upper lake and its clustered islands, layers of mountains stretching back to McGillycuddy’s Reeks, and swathes of slender birches. Then you can either amble back the way you came, or take a boat trip. (They leave at 2pm).
Harry Clarke Windows
I can’t understand why Harry Clarke is not a household name, as to my mind he should be up there with Morris, Tiffany, Beardsley and Gustav Klimt in the pantheon of Art Nouveau giants. Undoubtedly the finest Irish stained-glass artist of the 20th century, Clarke also worked as an illustrator, but his genius is best showcased in his stained glass.
The Geneva Window, commissioned by the Irish government for the International Labour Court in Geneva was never exhibited by the state due to its sensuous content, but it has since been hailed as an artistic masterpiece and only rightfully returned to public view in Ireland (at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin) in March 2015.
One of the advantages of Clarke’s relative obscurity, is that you can travel the country seeking out his works and enjoy them in virtual solitude. The Franciscan Friary in Killarney (beside the train station) is an unassuming building, whose exterior gives no hint of the delights within, and even when you enter, there is no indication that you are in the presence of a masterpiece. Turn around, however, and look above the choir balcony and you will be rewarded with a vision of six slender panes topped by three trefoils of jewel-toned glass depicting scenes from the bible, centring on the birth of Christ.
My running life so far has been pretty pedestrian: 5ks, 10ks, several half-marathons, three marathons, and a few five-milers and ten-milers thrown in; all starting in towns on paved roads and all in the Republic of Ireland.
Maybe it’s middle-age desperation kicking in, blind optimism clouding my vision, or a persuasive boyfriend hovering at my keyboard, but I’m kicking things up a gear this autumn.
The Mourne Skyline Mountain-Trail Race sounds idyllic, a gentle jaunt along a magical horizon, perhaps, with snowy sheep bleating merrily in the distance and the sun peeping shyly over rolling hills. Here is an account of last year’s inaugural event: “That was some of the most crazy terrain I have ever run. It was relentless. The terrain was beyond technical. You had no idea where to put your feet and I can’t tell you how many times I fell over…”
At 35km, it’s not as long as a marathon, but with an accumulated ascent of 3,370m (11,057ft), it’s the equivalent of climbing the highest peaks in England, Scotland and Wales. I’m excited about the prospect now because it’s seven months away and it will be my first time north of the border, but this is something completely different for me, and I will have to take a whole new look at my running once I’ve finished the Lakes of Killarney Marathon in May. The website describes it as “tough but rewarding.”