A Truly Religious Experience A day cycling or driving from Šmarje pri Jelšah to Podčetrtek, through the proliferation of churches,
A Truly Religious Experience
A day cycling or driving from Šmarje pri Jelšah to Podčetrtek, through the proliferation of churches, vineyards and gentle rolling slopes will not only leave you breathless, but wanting more.
In Eastern Slovenia, just a little bit east of the town of Celje, is the small town and municipality of Šmarje pri Jelšah. From here there is a very interesting cycling route or driving route to Podčetrtek.
The best place to start is to the south of town in Predenca. Perched high up on a hill is the magnificent church of St. Rok. The pilgrimage path zigzagging down into the valley below takes you through the even more stunning, Way of the Cross. You could be forgiven for driving through Šmarje pri Jelšah and not noticing it. But once you do, your mouth will fall open in speechless awe.
Fourteen baroque chapels line the hill starting from the large chapel at the bottom and ending at the church. The pilgrim is led between each chapel in such a way that only the next destination is visible. By the time you’ve puffed your way to the top, you will be truly enlightened, if not very out of breath.
Emperor Franz Jozef was travelling around his kingdom and stopped here on this hill, proclaiming it a heavenly beauty and boasting that no other place under his rule was quite like it. As you walk downwards along the path, gazing into the lush, green valley dotted with the spires of many other churches, you can’t help but wonder if he was right.
The Illyrians were the first to settle here, closely followed by the Romans and the Celts. The town’s first recorded name was Sancta Maria, but later a mansion was built and named after the petrified alder trees that grow here. And the name was changed to Šmarje pri Jelšah.
Onwards towards Podčetrtek
The villages here are so small that most of them are not signed, so you might have to guess as to which one you are passing through. At Brezje pri Lekmarju the route joins the wine road.
A fabulous twin church
You’ll have to be careful from here not to miss the signpost for Orehovec. From here the road is narrow and twists through an undulating landscape of rolling green hills are far as the eye can see. In the far distance your eyes will be drawn to the commanding sight of twin churches perched high upon Tinska Gora.
The mountain’s surrounding hillsides contain some of the region’s best land for wine production, as is illustrated by the abundance of vineyards that are fighting among each other for space. The only problem will be choosing which one to visit.
The more dominant of the two church spires is actually the one that was built last. According to legend, there was once only the Church of St. Anne here. But during the days when the Counts of Celje ruled the land, one of their fair maidens went missing. The counts made a vow to build a church wherever she was found, and thus she was found here next to the church of St. Anne. The Church of the Mother of God was built and its gothic spire rose high above the other.
Located near to the two churches is Peterlin’s Beech Tree, a natural monument believed to be 400 years old. Local legend says that the tree emits a powerful positive energy, and that travellers over the centuries have often stopped and held the tree to absorb some of its positive vibes. You might want to stop here along the way and partake in this ritual, as you will still have a very long way to go before reaching Podčetrtek, and may well be in need of some positivity.
If you would like to hike or cycle this region and many more great locations across Slovenia, then check out Helia Tourist Agency, who offer a great range of guided and self guided hiking and cycling tours. More info here:
Lying in a valley at the far edge of Slovenia, Brežice is a veritable Garden of Eden, where fresh, healing water runs as free as the local wine; fascinating sights, wonderful home-cooked meals, and a world of adventure all await the intrepid explorer.
Gushing forth from their sources in the Julian Alps and the Krka Valley, two of the most famous and mightiest waterways carve their way across the rugged, undulating Slovenian landscape. As you drive south on the motorway these two rivers slowly follow on either side until all three of you meet at the point between the Orlica and Gorjanci hills, 110 kms from Ljubljana, that is Brežice.
Guardian of the sacred well
As you exit the motorway you won’t fail to miss the turning for Terme Catež. Here you will find the TIC. Just inside the main entrance to the spas, an ugly-looking creature sits in the centre of a fountain, arms outstretched ready to receive the streams of water being propelled towards him. The thermal springs in this modern resort are named after a legendary half man, half goat and guardian of the sacred springs. He would bring fresh water and food to the locals. But Catež hated to be laughed at, and anyone that dared to mock him and his appearance would return home to find his village destroyed by giant rocks thrown from the neighbouring hilltop. So perhaps it’s best not to refer to him as ugly, after all.
If being pampered on a daily basis is not your style, then there are many more things this attractive little municipality has to offer. Heading east out of town you join the Bizeljsko-Sremiška wine road. First you will pass through the lovely forest of Dobrova, where the last battle for Slovenia’s independence in 1991 was fought, but is now a protected, peaceful haven for the area’s wildlife. In the village of Gregovce you will find the oak tree with the largest girth in Slovenia, and nearby is the largest population of the bee-eating bird.
Repnice, turnip caves in the sand
In ancient times this region lay deep beneath the Pannonian Sea, until it dried out and tectonic activity caused the land to rise. Much of the sea basin comprised of silicate sands, in which the wonderfully unique Repnice caves were dug. Along the road to Bizeljsko there are many vinotekas where you will find these caves. One of the best to visit is Graben, where Janez Šekoranja, a comical character whose long, bushy moustache masks a wry smile as he tells you the history of the area, interspersed with dry wit and quality wine tasting. Outside the strong winds spin the large Klopotec that echo across the valley of vineyards. You can take a fascinating look inside his smoothly dugout Repnice, and experience for yourself how each level provides a lower storage temperature.
From here you can continue on up the hill to the Bizeljsko Castle, in which a woman has lived alone with her four children for 20 years. Upstairs you can visit the chapel, where the large altar and beautifully carved ceiling are undergoing restoration. On the road up to the castle, you will see a sign for Lovski Dom, which is a small cottage used by the hunting society. From this house is a stunning panoramic view across the valley. You can also see the Croatian village of Kumrovec, the birthplace of Tito.
On your way back down, as you pass once again through Bizeljsko, pay a visit to the church on the hill, whose priest apparently joined in order to “not have to work anymore”.
By this time you may be hungry, so pop into one of the gostilnas and try some of the excellent home-cooked meals and some local specialities like the buckwheat roll, and wash it all down with some Bizeljcan wine.
In ancient times this region was split between the kingdoms of Styria to the south and Carniola to the north, the river being the border. The Celts, Romans, Turks and Slavic tribes all passed through here. Nowadays the region is still divided and as you drive across the old double bridge that crosses the rivers before they converge, you move from the region of Štajerska to Dolenjska. This may not seem like far, and you could be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t much difference. The difference actually lies in the soil, which ultimately produces a different type of wine. The Cvicek wine in the south is a light red wine with slightly lower alcohol content, but equally tasty. Here on the south side you’ll find the Podgorjanska wine road.
On the south bank of the river is the newly developed Active Vacation resort, where you can rent canoes, have picnics, and play a variety of sports like: volleyball, badminton and archery. A large portion of the riverbank has been reclaimed and turned into a small, stony beach. This company can also arrange a paintball game for you in the nearby forest. Large businesses, who would like to give their employees a chance to de-stress, can undertake a specially arranged version of the game called Anger Management, where the only target is the company director. Although if you do, you may find things don’t go too well at the next company pay review.
Getting back to nature
The local tourist office offers many different excursions available to groups who book ahead. One such tour involves throwing away all the modern luxuries of life and camping out in the forest. Here you will learn how to live off nature, finding your own food and building your own shelter for the night. If you don’t have the stomach for catching a rabbit, then another option is to eat snails. Which would you prefer?
Like most places in Slovenia, there is an abundance of hiking trails. Above the village of Catež ob Savi, lies the hill of Šentvid. This is a popular hike for the locals. Along the country road you will spot a sign for the paintball. Here is the start of the trail, which leads up through the forest. At the summit lies the church of Sv. Vid, from where you’ll find a marvellous view of the town and valley.
2500 years ago this area was home to a village known as Halstatsko, and was a strategic point because of its panoramic view. No one could enter the region without being spotted from this hill. The spot where the church stands was once home to the village chief. The current structure was built in the 13th century, and lays claim to being one of the oldest churches in Dolenjska. Inside the entrance to the church is the bell rope. Ring this bell and make a wish, it might come true. In a small wooden box is a book where all visitors must record their visit. Behind the church is a small pit, where a fire is lit every year on the 1st of May holiday. In the old days these fireplaces were used when the Turks invaded, to warn of their coming and guide people to safe places around the town.
I like to ride my bicycle
There are many different cycling routes around the municipality. The visitor can either embark upon a self-guided tour or book on one of the guided group tours.
If you visit in winter and are not partial to hiking or cycling in the cold, then you can still indulge yourself in the thermal spa resorts, visit the wine cellars and repnice or marvel at the majestic snow-covered castles guarding the valley entrance on the Croatian side.
By Ian Middleton
Lying at an elevation of 4000 metres and covering 10% of the country, the Bolivian Altiplano is the highest plateau in the world.
It’s a stark wilderness flanked by the Andes and abundant with volcanoes, geysers and hot springs.
Throughout history the area has been prone to flooding due to soaring temperatures and high humidity. In fact, 40,000 years ago much of the Bolivian Altiplano was covered in an inland sea known as Lago Ballivián, until geological faults and evaporation caused the water level to drop dramatically. Lakes Titicaca (the world’s highest navigable lake) and Poopo are its only surviving remnants, along with the 12,000 sq km Salar de Uyuni, an immense plain of salt. In the middle of this vast world of salt, in stark contrast to its surroundings, lies a desert island laden with cacti. The Bolivian Altiplano is truly one of South America’s most beautiful and alluring tourist attractions, but getting there is a whole different story.
By far the easiest way to cross the Bolivian Altiplano is to take one of the many famed three-day jeep tours starting from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and ending at Uyuni in Bolivia.
Chile is a fascinating country running 4270kms up the western edge of the continent, but stretching only 180kms at its maximum width. Look at it on the map and it almost seems as though it has being squashed into the corner by Argentina; which isn’t too far from the truth. There have long been disputes between the countries over the border. It may be thin though, but it’s packed with diversity. The country stretches all the way from the frozen sub-Antarctic climate in the southern regions of Patagonia through a more moderate climate in the central regions, where lakes and volcanoes dominate the landscape, and then into the forbidding land of the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world.
The Atacama Desert isn’t simply the flat, barren world of sand you may imagine it to be. Due to the Antarctic current sweeping cold water up the coastline, much of the region is abundant with marine life, including penguins and seals. As you head northwards the land rises as you climb slowly into the Andes. San Pedro de Atacama is located in the northeast of Chile, just 120kms from Calama. As you drive in you are welcomed with the magnificent site of a row of snow-capped volcanoes lining the horizon and reaching altitudes higher than 5000 metres. This range forms a natural border between Chile and Bolivia. The most dominant of the volcanoes are Licancabur, Lascar, and Puritana. Melting snow from the Bolivian winter helps to irrigate the region and thus formed this desert oasis allowing lush vegetation to grow, such as chañar trees, carob trees, and capsicums, despite an annual rainfall of just 35mm a year.
The town of San Pedro is a wonderful little place with a small population of around 2500. It’s well worth spending a few days here before leaving on the tour. In fact you may have to, as the tours are very popular and it may take a few days before you can get on one. But don’t let this put you off, there is enough in and around this town to keep you busy for a week, not to mention spending time getting know the friendly locals.
Just to the south lies the Salar de Atacama. At 3000 square kilometres it’s relatively smaller than the Salar de Uyuni, but this doesn’t diminish its beauty in any way whatsoever. Fifteen kilometres to the west lies the magnificent Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). This stark, haunting landscape is so named due to its similarity to the surface of the moon. (If you’ve never been to the moon then you’ll have to take their word for it.) Whether or not this is true, there is no doubting the awesome beauty of this rugged, undulating landscape. Salt deposits cover the surface, which from a distance almost looks like a thin coating of snow. The tour is designed to end with you climbing a massive sand dune and watching as the setting sun casts long shadows, and the soft, warm light turns the rocky, sandy peaks and valleys into sumptuous orange and red colours. Suddenly you feel more like you could be on the planet Mars, rather than the Moon.
There are many tour companies offering the three-day trip across the Bolivian Altiplano to Uyuni. In fact, if you are coming from Bolivia you can do it the other way. One of the biggest companies is Colque Tours. Colque has a reputation for being the best and the most reliable. Crossing the Bolivian Altiplano is a precarious business and also very hard on the vehicle. Many of these vehicles breakdown and getting stranded in this barren wilderness is not a pleasant thought. But the upside is that there are hundreds of tours all following the same route, so you are unlikely to be stranded for long. Colque is not much more reliable than the others, but they are the one of the biggest and can send out a rescue vehicle if yours comes to a steaming halt.
All tours are unbelievably cheap, and you are best advised to book this in either San Pedro or Uyuni rather than through an agency at home; unless of course you would prefer to pay the extra to be sure of a place, especially if your trip is short. The tours last three days and two nights and all food is included. You just need to bring your own water, and I advise you to bring plenty of it.
The day begins early as you head east in a minibus towards the towering row of volcanoes shimmering as the morning sun rises over them. You will cross the Chilean border then head slowly uphill for several miles from an altitude of 2440 metres to 4400 metres before crossing the Bolivian border, in actuality just a small hut sitting amid a treeless terrain where strong winds howl relentlessly across the open plateau. Two customs officials, barely discernable underneath several hundred layers of clothing will greet you and check your passports. The next stop will be at Laguna Blanca where you will have breakfast and acclimatise to the higher altitude. Tea made from coca leaves is believed to be an effective cure for altitude sickness, and there will be plenty on offer.
Here you will get your first taste of what is to come. There are not enough words in the English dictionary to describe the awesome beauty of what will lay before your very eyes. Laguna Blanca stretches out before you in the soft morning light, as still as a painting and backed by the magnificent Volcano Licancabur perfectly reflected in the mirror of its waters. Standing at 5920 metres this magnificent mountain is simply breathtaking. The summit crater is about 400 metres wide and contains one of the world’s highest lakes, which is frozen over most of the year. It’s possible to hike this active volcano if you have the time. The climb takes about 12 hours, so you won’t be able to hike it while on the tour.
Bolivia has suffered a bad reputation over the years due to its constant drug wars and political unrest. It was made famous by the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Despite this, the country is far from being the dangerous place you might imagine. The Bolivian people are very friendly and welcoming to visitors.
From here you will be divided into small groups and board your jeep for the rest of the journey across this barren wilderness, first stopping at Laguna Verde for yet another stunning view of Licancabur across the glowing emerald lake; its colour being due to a high content of copper minerals.
On this first day you will climb over the highest pass of the trip: 5200 metres. The landscape is a veritable myriad of subtle colours almost looking as though it has been airbrushed. Despite being an apparent barren wilderness, the Bolivian Altiplano is home to a prolific wealth of wildlife. Most often seen is the pink flamingo that you won’t fail to miss on the lakes. If you are lucky, you may get the privilege of seeing a herd of Vicuñas sweeping across the plains.
The land is also alive with geothermal activity and one of the tour stops is at Las Termas de Chalviri, where you can strip to your swimsuits and bathe in the hot springs. The next stop is at the Sol de Manaña, a valley of steaming geysers and bubbling cauldrons of mud and sulphur. The day will end at a small settlement next to Laguna Colorada, where an iridescent red lake (due to its red algae content) provides a lovely backdrop with llamas grazing upon its shore and the distant cone of a volcano perfectly outlined against the sky.
The next day will be just as inspiring as the previous. First stop is at Arbol de Piedra, an interesting stone monolith that has been carved into the shape of a tree by the weather. The dirt road will lead on past Laguna Cañapa and across a clay pan where the sky looks as though it is melting into the distant horizon.
The Bolivian army has several checkpoints along this region and every now and then your passport will be checked by spotty teenagers trying not to trip over the hems of their camouflage trousers. Due to a lack of recruits, the army allows boys as young as fourteen to join, but doesn’t seem to provide them with trousers that fit.
The second night is spent in the small village of San Juan, beside the Salar de Uyuni. The next morning the jeep heads out onto the blinding white surface of the salar, where the sky really does melt into the horizon.
This immense plain of salt is one of the Bolivia’s greatest natural wonders. The surface comprises of a thick layer of pure crystallized salt. In the winter heavy rainfall floods the area and turns it into a lake. But in the dry season (March to December), when the tours will run, the water level drops and vehicles can drive across. With an area larger than many small European countries, the Salar de Uyuni is truly wondrous and incredibly spectacular. Good sunglasses are needed here as the blinding white surface reflecting the deep blue sky, searing sun and fluffy clouds on the horizon could burn the retinas off the hardiest of travellers.
After a long drive the blinding white surface is broken by the unusual site of a small desert island, Isla de Pescadores. This lonely island appears on the horizon almost like a mirage. Its brown surface is covered with towering cacti and is actually a welcome respite from the world of white. As well as a couple of llamas, the island is also home to much birdlife. It’s hard to imagine how such a place could exist here, but the truth is that these little islands are actually the remains of ancient volcanoes that sank when the region was submerged during the Quaternary Period.
Depending on what time you arrive, the views from the top of the island across the salar as the sun dips low on the horizon are unrivalled anywhere in South America. The brown soil of the island casts a long purple shadow across the patterns in the salt.
There are advantages to having a jeep that breaks down a lot. The delay could mean that you are still on the salar at sunset, and this is something that only the privileged get to view. The entire salar is bathed in a deep red glow and almost looks like it is on fire.
The edge of the salar spells the end of the trip, as you are quickly whisked into the town of Uyuni. However, now you have entered Bolivia and a whole world of adventure awaits you in this gorgeous country whose population comprises of 50% pure indigenous Indians. Crossing the Bolivian Altiplano was just the beginning.
Read more about my adventure through South America in his book, To the End of the World and Back (A South American Adventure)
If you are travelling to and/or around Slovenia, Northern Italy, Austria and Munich or Budapest and are in need of a shuttle service, then some enterprising young Slovenes have started up Go Opti Shuttle Service. The service offers both shared and private transfers between airports, hotels and cities.
Check out their website here:
By Ian Middleton
The old man was sitting proudly across the table from me, his silver hair glistening in the sunlight. The twinkle in his eyes and self-satisfied smile on his face beheld the look of someone who had rekindled an old, long-lost love affair at a time in his life when he’d almost given up hope. Janez Gašperin drew deeply upon his cigarette, and then began to tell me his story.
On Slovenska Cesta, in the heart of Ljubljana, sits Gostilna Šestica, a quiet, unassuming building that for many years was just another dilapidated relic of old Ljubljana; her story having faded away along with her pale and crumbling facade.
For almost two centuries Šestica was the centre of attention, her vivid and youthful exterior attracting people from all across Slovenia and the rest of Europe. Stagecoaches filled the street outside as their owners dined on great food and downed tankards of local beer or sipped fine wines from its cellar. Songs were sung under the shade of the mighty horse chestnut trees in the patio area out back. Among these was a tune that was to become immortalised in time and known to all as: Pri Šestici (at No. 6). “The old lady with the young face!” said Janez. “This is what they used to call Šestica.
Gostilna Šestica is the oldest inn still standing in Ljubljana today. The first actual record of the building came in 1670 when Baron Janez Vajkard Valvasor drew the house on one of his maps. Back then it was a thatched farmhouse owned by the Grmekovi family. The building was officially established as a gostilna in 1776, but it’s likely it was also running as one long before that date. The Inn first got its name Šestica in 1805, when the Ljubljana municipality began allocating street names and numbers. Slovenska Cesta back then was part of Dunajska Cesta, and the houses were numbered, thus the inn became known as the 6th (Šestica). In 1877 the street was changed along with the house number, but the name remained.
Throughout history a total of eight families have owned Šestica. Janez’s grandparents, Aleš and Terezija Zalaznik, bought the place in 1922. Up until this time the building had remained in the style of an old farmhouse. Under the ownership of the Zalazniks the inn was renovated and modernised for the first time ever. An extension was built and a much larger patio area created.
In 1924 Aleš died and his wife continued to run Šestica until 1936. Terezija made such a huge success of the inn, selling her famous homemade goulash, that the profits were used to finance more businesses, including the construction of a new apartment building across the road, which has become affectionately known as Goulash Palace.
However, with the start of World War 2 the good years were about to come to an end.
Šestica was passed down to Janez’s mother, Zinca, in 1940 and she ran it for the next two years. By this time though, the war had spread and Zinca was smart enough to know that owning a business during these years could have dire consequences. With the country being invaded on all sides by various factions, each of these would try to demand money and services from the business and if you were to offer your services to one faction, then you were in danger of being shot by one of the other factions. Therefore she calculated that the best option was to rent the inn to another family, let them take the risk, and return when the war was over. A wise woman! Unfortunately though, the communists won and, under the flag of nationalism, began taking properties from the people.
Like many who opposed the communists, Janez’s parents had to flee in 1945 or else be put on trial for treason. They found temporary shelter in the Viktring refugee camp in Austria before escaping to Italy and then heading to Buenos Aires and establishing a Šestica there.
Meanwhile back in Ljubljana the communists had illegally seized Šestica and from 1950 to 1955 the inn was closed to the public and used exclusively by the secret police. In the years that followed Šestica became known as the people’s asset and anyone who tried to lay claim to it would be executed. Proof of the true owners’ identity became lost over time.
Under state ownership Šestica was severely neglected and the old lady’s young face withered through the turbulent years. Throughout all this turmoil, Janez remained in Slovenia even though his parents had escaped, yet he could only stand across the road, watching and lamenting for the place that was stolen from him and his family.
After Slovenia’s independence in 1991, Janez scrutinised the law for two years and then fought a long legal battle in the courts to prove his family’s ownership of Šestica, which by this time was being run by the state-owned Gostinsko Podjetje Vič. By 1995 Janez had won his case, but ownership was only passed to him under the condition that he continues to lease the business to Gostinsko Podjetje Vič for a predetermined time.
On Christmas Eve 2007, while many children slept soundly in their beds waiting for Santa to bring them the present they’ve always wanted, Janez Gašperin had finally received the present he had long dreamed of: reclaiming full control of his legacy.
By this time the years of neglect were showing. The colour had faded from the old lady’s face and the water stains looked like tears of sadness on her cheeks. Janez entered into a partnership with three others and together they drew up plans for a huge refurbishment and restoration project. Finally, after many decades, the old lady has been given a facelift and has regained her youthful complexion.
Entering Gostilna Šestica is like walking through time. The restoration project has remained faithful to the inn’s original appearance and they now offer a diverse mix of traditional Slovene food served alongside more modern international dishes. You have the choice of eating in the main area, a bright, spacious, wood-panelled room with a high stone ceiling and walls lined with photos from the old days. You can also eat in the Prešeren room, an atmospherically lit area dedicated to the great Slovene poet. A variety of illustrations line the walls, each representing a different impression of him; as no one apparently knew exactly what he looked like. If you prefer the great outdoors then dine in the patio area out back under the shady chestnut trees. The inn also boasts many large function rooms for parties or business lunches.
Every Friday evening the inn hosts a Slovenian night where live folk music is played alongside a traditional Slovenian three course meal. Janez hopes to one day re-discover the complete lyrics to Pri Šestici, and once again hear the old lady’s theme song echoing through her spacious interior. And you can even try Terezija’s famous homemade goulash, the dish that built an empire.
NB: This article was originally published in Ljubljana Life magazine
Visit the Gostilna Šestica Website here: http://www.sestica.si/
Walk and talk English for 3 days on the stunning Jurassic Coast in Dorset, England.
Come learn and practice your English conversation with me, Ian Middleton, on a weekend course along the beautiful coast of Dorset. Stretching along Dorset and Devon, the Jurassic Coast is so-named because its landscape and geology record 185 million years of the Earth’s history. The coastline is packed with fantastic locations, activities and many photographic opportunities at anytime of the year.
This weekend is specially designed for people who are learning English. Rather than sitting in a classroom, you can have a nice break and immerse yourself in real life, everyday conversational English. But instead of just an ordinary weekend in England, you will have an English teacher with you to guide, help and encourage you along the way.
We will be based in the Heights Hotel on the beautiful island of Portland, where I have secured a discounted room rate.
You will speak English everyday with me, and with local people. We’ll visit beautiful coastal towns, beaches, coves and hike along stunning cliffs. You will learn local expressions, hear different accents and experience the local food, drink and culture. There will be time for sightseeing, shopping and many other activities, making this a fun-filled active way to learn English. You will also learn a lot about the locations we’ll visit, including some history and local stories.
Accommodation will be included from Friday to Monday (3 nights), but should you need or want to arrive earlier or stay longer, then I can arrange extra nights for you.
- Groups – Price per person
Days Single Occupancy 2 people sharing 3 UK£595 UK£575
Larger group bookings also available. Contact me to arrange
Included in the price:
– Accommodation: 3 nights bed & breakfast (extra nights can be arranged if required)
– Pick up and drop off at bus station or train station in Weymouth
– All transport on tour days
– All tuition and guidance
– Flights (Although I will offer some advice and help on how to get here from your country)
– Transport to and from airport (The best option is to come by bus with National Express ) or you can book a transfer with me at an extra cost. Contact me for details
– Lunch and Dinner
– Travel insurance (Guests must ensure they have their own travel insurance)
Portland Bill Lighthouse and Pulpit Rock
The English coastline is one of the most beautiful in the world, but its rocky headlands and treacherous seas have been the bane of ship captains for centuries. The section between Portland Bill and nearby Chesil beach is no exception and in 1716 the Portland Bill lighthouse was built to safely guide shipping into Weymouth Harbour.
After settling into your hotel, we will head down to the southern tip of the isle of Portland to visit this famous lighthouse and the nearby pulpit rock. The sea around this headland is extremely rough and provides some great photo opportunities. Here I will help you to get the best possible photos and teach you some photography vocabulary.
Then it’s off to a cosy local pub for a chat over a nice pint of English beer!
Weymouth, a classic English seaside town, and two of the Jurassic Coast’s most beautiful locations
After breakfast we’ll head into Bridport for a visit to a typical Dorset tearoom for cream tea and scones, a tradition throughout the southwest of England.
Then we’ll go to Weymouth, a superb example of an English seaside town. We’ll stroll along the beach and harbour before heading off to a nearby hill for a great view across the Jurassic Coast.
For the afternoon, we’ll head off to Lulworth Cove, while visiting some villages and attractions along the way. We’ll have lunch at the Castle Inn in West Lulworth village, where you can sample typical English pub food and real ales.
Kimmeridge Bay, Corfe Castle, Swanage, Old Harry Cliff & Bournemouth beach and town
Today we’ll head to Kimmeridge Bay. This small cove and beach provides some great scenery with the clavel tower folly perched upon a hill at the edge of the bay, and receding tides expose some great rocky ledges. Then we’ll head off along this coastline, stopping at a few different locations before heading to Corfe Castle and Swanage.
We’ll have lunch somewhere around here and then take a walk out to the beautiful chalk stacks and pinnacles of Old Harry Cliffs for the evening.
For more info and other courses visit my main website here
‘Mysterious Circle Appears in Joe “Boy” Conboy’s Back Garden’
I was sitting in the common room of Kirwan House Tourist Hostel in Wexford, having just completed a radio interview to promote my book on Ireland. As I turned the page of the South East Voice newspaper this headline jumped out at me. I read on. It told how local man Joe had awoken one morning to find this mysterious circle. Many theories were suggested by other locals, (the most comical being from a farmer who claimed to have been incarcerated by Martians for eleven hours and warned that they were up to their old tricks again. Part of me couldn’t help wondering if this was inspired by one too many pints of Guinness.) However, one suggestion really caught my eye:
It was the work of the fairies.
The year was 2003, and it was the fifth year I had been to Ireland. In that time I must have notched up a total of two years spent travelling or living in this country. I knew it well, or so I thought.
I recalled reading a similar story somewhere else, and remembered that the occupant of the house refused to remove this fairy ring, even though it was simply made of leaves. Despite these newspaper stories being written with a tongue in cheek undertone, it seems that locals still have a strong belief in some of these ancient myths. I suddenly realised something I had overlooked in all my years of coming here, Ireland has a magical and rich ancient history.
I had come to this country at a time when I badly needed inspiration. Deep down I knew that Ireland is revered as a magical place, and is known affectionately as the Emerald Isle. During these five years I fell in love with the country, its people, its music and the wonderful atmosphere it exuded.
As I sipped my coffee I began to think more about this side of Ireland. It’s a land aglow with stories, ancient myths and legends: from fairies to leprechauns, from the ancient gods to the legendary giants. Many stories of great battles and magical tales have their origins here, and many are famous around the world.
It was becoming evident that I had experienced many wonderful things in this green land, yet this, the most significant part of Ireland, I had overlooked. It was time to put that right.
The Dawn of Time
8000 years BC possibly saw the first humans arrive in Ireland via the land bridge created at the end of the last ice age. These were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who lived mostly along the waterways. They were followed by the Neolithic people who are believed to have been the creators of Ireland’s 1200 megalithic tombs, the most famous and certainly the most remarkable being the burial chambers of Newgrange and Knowth in County Meath.
Ireland’s history was defined by a series of invading tribes. Little is known of these mysterious people, and only legends exist. Some were Iron Age warriors originating from Eastern Europe. The most noteable were the Tuatha Dé Danann, which translates as the People of the Goddess Danu. Legend says they were a tall fair-haired race who believed fervently in the supernatural and in an afterworld known as Tír na Nóg (Land of Eternal Youth). Other notable tribes were the Parthalóns, Formorians, Fir Bolg, Nemedians and the Milesians. These warrior races fought successive battles, and although they never left any written history, they left behind them a legacy which was spread orally and told in words and song. Naturally these tales were embellished along the way and now give rise to some of Ireland most famous mythical tales and legends. Many of the tribes most famous warriors were elevated to the status of giants.
Celtic mythology is divided up into four distinctive cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle.
Although I didn’t need an excuse to go travelling around Ireland, it certainly helped to have one. So I decided that before I returned home I would take one last journey around Ireland in search of some of these ancient legends. Of the four provinces that divide up Ireland’s thirty-two counties, Leinster is the largest containing twelve counties. It pretty much covers the south east of the country, including Wexford where I was now.
Wexford is the county town and the first major town you hit after arriving in Rosslare on the ferry. In the old days Wexford’s harbour was a bustling port and thus the town has a thriving history as well as an alarming number of pubs, even for an Irish town. There is no shortage of nightlife, and the main street is awash with bars, restaurants and cafes. Wexford’s narrow streets are a reminder of its Viking past and are lined with many old houses.
This part of Leinster is known as the Sunny South East. And it’s not just a name given to mislead people into coming here, it really does get the most sun of any part of Ireland. In a country noted for its rainy weather, this is a blessed relief. And if this isn’t enough, then the county’s coastline boasts some of the most stunningly long golden beaches in the country, rivalled only by County Donegal in the Northwest. The difference here is you are more likely to get the weather to enable their enjoyment.
Wexford’s large harbour attracted many races throughout history. The Gaelic name for Wexford is Loch Garman, and local legend tells of how Garman Garbh was drowned on the nearby mudflats by flood waters released by an enchantress. The resultant lake was named Lake of Garman (Loch Garman). Much of Wexford harbour is still very shallow, and a large portion of it has been reclaimed to build the front section of the town and the lovely quays. Despite not being the bustling port it once was, Wexford harbour is still a popular fishing port, and boat trips can be taken out in the harbour or up the River Slaney.
I had business to take care of in Kilkenny, so I headed off there first. I was travelling in a little Bedford Midi camper conversion that I affectionately refer to as the Scooby Van. This is because when I first bought it I couldn’t help thinking that it looked a bit like the Mystery Machine. Somehow, on this trip to discover Ireland’s mysterious past, it seemed all the more poignant. It also meant that having so much room, it was often used to give people lifts. In this case I was joined on the journey to Kilkenny by an Italian girl who couldn’t speak a word of English.
The road to Kilkenny is a particularly attractive one. It takes you along the River Nore and through the little village of Inistioge where original shop and pub fronts are still prevalent. Unfortunately the bus doesn’t go this way.
During an interview here on Radio Kilkenny once, I was berated by the DJ for referring to Kilkenny as a town in my book, Hot Footing around the Emerald Isle. Kilkenny is in fact a true city, due to its large medieval cathedral, named after St Canice who founded a monastery here in the 6th century. This, however, is probably not the first thing that will jump out at you. Instead you will not fail to notice Kilkenny Castle, first built in 1172 and eventually sold to the city in 1967 for the whopping sum of £50. Despite their favourable deal, the council still deem it necessary to charge you for entry into the castle. But a stroll around the castle’s lovely gardens is free. Kilkenny is possibly one of the most attractive towns in Ireland with its narrow streets lined with old fashioned shop fronts. The Kilkenny Arts festival in August each year is a particularly good time to visit.
After I took care of my business I then headed off on my adventure.
Finn McCool – The Famous Giant of Ireland
I drove up through Carlow and Athy. Only the month before I’d passed through this region on a 300-mile solo hike for charity. While going from Rathangan to Edenderry I’d taken the old bog road that passed through the Bog of Allen. Little had I known at the time that this region was home to one of the many stories surrounding Ireland’s most legendary mythical giant, Finn McCool (Fionn Mac Cumhail). In the writings of Patrick Kennedy it is said that Finn had a great fort here in the Bog of Allen, where he would spar with his warrior friends or pitch big stones twenty or thirty miles off to make a quay for Dublin Harbour.
It was here that Finn first got word that the Scottish Giant Far Rua was making his way across the great stepping stones from Scotland to the north of Ireland. He’d heard of the great Finn McCool and wanted to see who is the best man. So far Finn had lived to be a middle-aged man and never once had he met his match. However, he’d heard tell that Far Rua was a much bigger man than he and so devised a plan.
When the Scotch giant arrived he was told that Finn was off hunting stag in Killarney, but Finn’s wife Grainne invited the giant in for tea and served him a griddle cake with the griddle itself inside. But, unbeknownst to Far Rua, a round piece had been cut out of one side. The Scotch giant took a bite and lost three of his teeth. ‘This is a hard diet you give your family,’ he said. ‘Oh, lord love you,’ she replied. ‘The children here think nothing of it. Let us see if the infant would object.’ So she takes the cake over to the cradle, where Finn had disguised himself as a baby. Finn took a bite of the part where the piece was taken out of the griddle.
The story ends with the Scotch giant leaving with a vow to return one day soon. However, like most legends there are various versions of a particular story and the most popular version of this one lies further north at the Giants Causeway in County Antrim. So I would have to investigate that one when I got up there.
Goddess Brigid to Saint Brigid
The little county town of Kildare isn’t much to look at, but its claim to fame is that it is the location of a monastery supposedly established by one of Ireland three best loved saints, St. Brigit, in the 6th century. A protestant church named after her now lies in its place. At 33 metres the 10th century round tower in its grounds is the country’s second highest. The town’s surrounding area contains many Neolithic sites like standing stones and hill forts. Unfortunately I arrived too late to go inside, and had to make do with viewing the church from outside its large solid stone wall.
Stories of Ireland’s Patroness seem to blend with those of the ancient Celtic goddess Brigit; a triple goddess of fertility, healing and poets. Her symbol is fire, and this blends well with the story of how Brigit’s fire was kept alive from the fifth century by vestal virgins in the monastery in Kildare, and protected by the nuns until the twelfth century. The restored fire pit can be seen in the grounds of the church today.
The legend of the goddess Brigit says she was the daughter of the Dagda. The Dagda mór mac Eladan, to use his full title, is the chief of the Celtic gods. The Dagda is the greatest of all the gods. He is referred to as a good god, but not in the sense of good or bad, but meaning he is good at everything. The Dagda is a powerful wizard, his special sense being the power of knowledge; knowledge of what was to come or what was hidden. Some accounts also say that Brigit married King Bris, of the Formorians.
The Boyne Valley
It was very late by the time I arrived in Slane, Co. Meath. Slane is a little village I have visited many times. Despite Slane being a name that most people would recognise, it’s nothing more than a crossroads with a few pubs, B&Bs and shops. Its name has been made famous by Slane Castle, host to the annual Slane rock concerts.
I was first invited here by Joanne Macken who I met at the Independent Traveller’s World show in London. Joanne is the owner of the Slane Farm Hostel and gave me her card. When I next found myself in this region I stopped over for a few days. The hostel is in an old converted coach house and stables, and as disconcerting as that may sound let me reassure you that any remnants of its prior usage are well and truly non-existent: except of course that the exterior still retains its historic look and you wake up to the sound of cows in the fields out back. The farm is still a working one, and it lies just up the road from Slane Castle. As well as dorm and private rooms, there are now self catering cottages also. There is a well equipped kitchen and in the cosy lounge Joanne has supplied a wealth of literature on the history and folklore of the County Meath area.
With 5000 years of history in the Boyne Valley, you could find things to keep you busy here for weeks. It’s even possible to get involved with an archaeological dig in the area. Information can be obtained from the Slane hostel.
The birth of the River Boyne has its roots in an ancient legend known as the Well of Sergais. It’s said that a long time ago when the Gods walked the earth there was a well shaded by magical hazel trees bearing crimson nuts. It was believed that whomever should eat these nuts would be graced with the knowledge of the world. The nuts fell off the trees and into the well, and were eaten by the vividly coloured salmon who swam there. For this reason they became known as the salmon of knowledge. This well was owned by the God Nechtain, who was very possessive of the well. Only he and his three cup bearers were allowed anywhere near the well. But one day his wife, referred to as Boann or Boínn (meaning she who has white cows; white cows were considered cows of the otherworld), was overcome with curiosity one day and went to the well without Nechtain’s permission or knowledge. There are various stories as to what she did there, but whatever it was resulted in the well overflowing and gushing forth onto the surrounding countryside and forming the Boyne Valley.
The Well of Sergais is known today as Trinity Well and lies in the grounds of Newberry House, in the village of Carbury, County Kildare. Every year on the first Sunday of June, locals gather for the annual Rosary.
The Ancient Capital of Ireland
This area is the capital of ancient Ireland and principle attractions here are the magnificent passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth (Just a few miles from Slane), and the Hill of Tara, seat of the ancient high Kings, which lies just south of Navan.
My last visit to Newgrange hadn’t gone all that well. My companion and I had arrived late (something I seem to be in the habit of doing) at the visitor centre. There are tours available, but it was too late in the day, plus I believe in the expression, ‘why pay when a little leg work means you can view it for free.’ Little did I know at the time that this isn’t possible.
We walked out to Newgrange anyway, but could only view it from the fence. We then took a leisurely stroll back to the visitor centre, only to find a very angry man waiting for us.
‘Is dat your van in de car park?’
‘Yes, it is,’ I replied.
‘Do ye not tink dat some of us want to go home?’
‘Jesus, I’m sorry,’ I said, cowering slightly. ‘We lost track of time.’
‘Where have ye been?’
‘We went to Newgrange.’
‘And why’d you not take the bus?’
‘We felt like walking. What time do you close here then?’
‘Seven o’clock. I have to lock the gates, ye know. Some of us like to go home at de end of de day. I was going to call de police.’
It was eight o’clock.
‘I’m sorry,’ I repeated.
‘Where do ye work?’ he asked.
I was thrown slightly by this question. ‘I’m a travel writer,’ I replied, hoping this news might temper his furious onslaught in the hope I might not give the park a bad write up.
‘And do ye not have to worry about time in yer line of work?’
Well, that hadn’t worked then.
‘Sorry,’ I repeated, beginning to grovel now.
I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t argue with him because he was right, we had been foolish and inconsiderate. We should have noted the closing time before setting off on our trek. So therefore I had nothing to offer in our defence other than to grovel and apologise, and thank him for staying back and letting us get back to our van, when by rights he could well have locked the centre and park up and left us stranded for the night.
Having noted on this previous trip that it was possible to drive out to the monuments, I decided the next morning to do just that. But upon arrival I was informed that entrance was only permitted via the tours from the visitor centre.
‘It’s a royal heritage park and protected,’ said the guy at the counter. ‘Admission is by guided tour only. It’s very busy this time of year, and the next tour isn’t until after two.’
I wasn’t having much luck really, was I?
This wasn’t for a few hours yet, so I decided to head off to Tara first.
Hill of Tara
To get to Tara from Slane I just had to head off to Navan on the N51 that follows the River Boyne, then head south on the N3 for a few miles until I saw a signpost for Tara and turn right. The hill of Tara was just a short way up this road. I pulled up in the car park and wandered in. At the entrance is a protestant church. I noticed a sign indicating a price, and feared for a moment that I would have to pay to enter the grounds. I paused briefly, hand clutching my heart, the other clutching my wallet. Fortunately, this was not the case. Further investigation proved this to be the cost of the visual presentation being shown in the church itself. I wiped my brow in relief and continued up the steps and through the stile and soon found myself standing on a green hill seriously devoid of monuments. In the distance I could see a single stone standing on a large earthen mound, and just across to my right was a small mound with a sign that read:
Mound of the Hostages.
As I wandered over a group of children came running past, the little girl shouting, ‘Mummy, I want to see the Fairies!’
Modern archaeology credits these manmade mounds as passage tombs, built by the Neolithic people in order to bury their dead. These tombs are significantly placed in order to coincide with the rising of the sun and the full moons of the ancient festival times.
Once the children had been dragged away by their mothers, I took a look inside through the locked gate. Entry was forbidden. Inside was a small passage measuring seven feet long. On the left side I noticed a large stone slab decorated with the many symbols that have become synonymous with the Boyne Valley. At 3000BC this is the oldest mound at Tara. However, these passage tombs also feature significantly in legends as the home of the Fairy Folk. But where did the Fairies come from?
Tara appeared little more than an insignificant hill with nothing but grassy mounds and depressions. It was obvious that little remains visually of its past. But I was soon to learn that this little hill lies at the heart of Ireland’s ancient history and if it could talk it would have one hell of a story to tell.
Back on the road outside the entrance to Tara I saw a small building with a sign out front that read: Maguires. I wandered in to find a souvenir and bookshop with a small café out back. I browsed in the bookshop and bought a small booklet called The Druids at Tara by Michael Slavin. As I wandered outside I turned to the back and saw a black and white illustration of a tree with the following caption underneath:
The Fairy Tree at Tara
Immediately I wandered back in and asked the lady at the counter where it is. She directed me to walk up to just before the entrance to the church grounds and then turn right and walk over the hill to the other side.
Far over the hill I found a single hawthorn tree at the bottom. There was no sign indicating it was a fairy tree. I wandered around looking at other areas but still found nothing. I then returned to the first tree and compared it with the illustration. It seemed to fit. Upon return to Maguires the lady asked me if I’d found it.
‘I think so,’ I said. ‘Was it the one sitting at the bottom of the hill?’
‘That’s the one,’ she replied.
‘But there was no sign indicating it’s a fairy tree.’
‘Oh no, there wouldn’t be.’
‘How do you know it’s a fairy tree then?’
‘Well, you know, it’s just one of them things that the locals have always known,’ she said. ‘Was there anything hanging from the tree?’
‘Like pieces torn from people’s clothing, or coins stuck in the wood. The fairy trees are associated with healing. If you have an ailment then you are supposed to leave a personal item or a gift for the fairies and in return they will heal your affliction.’
‘There was nothing on it when I looked at it.’
‘Ah, they must have cleared them all off then.’ She turned to the guy working next to her. ‘Did you hear that? The fairies are after cleaning up the tree again.’
I told her that I was travelling around in search of Ireland’s legends and she produced another book by Michael Slavin called the The Book of Tara. ‘Michael is a local man,’ she said. ‘He’s a lovely old man who knows everything there is to know about Tara. Unfortunately he’s not here on Wednesdays, otherwise you could have met him.’
This was a shame. I bought the book and, as I still had time before my Newgrange tour, wandered back to the van and read some of it.
Although only 155 metres in altitude, Tara dominates the Meath lowlands and overlooks much of Ireland. Its strategic position made it the Royal Seat for the High Kings who ruled over Ireland. Tara is the focal point of Ireland’s story, her shaping and her national symbols, the Harp and the Shamrock, all have their origins here. To look at it, you would hardly believe this to be true.
Tara is the basis for a series of legends that chart the successive invasions of Ireland. These legends are told in the Book of Invasions written down in various sections by the monks from 1000 to 1300 AD.
The first to arrive were the Parthalóns, who defeated an evil sea faring race called the Formorians. The Formorians inhabited the northern region of Ireland (The north was always associated with evil in Celtic Mythology). But soon after their victory the Parthalóns were struck down with the plague and all died.
The Nemedians came next, also having to fight the Formorians. Only thirty of them survived the battle and Tailtiu, the daughter of the Nemedian King, married Eochaid Mac Erc of the Fir Bolg, who were next to take Tara.
The Fir Bolg had five chieftains who divided Ireland up into five provinces: Meath, Leinster, Ulster, Connaught and Munster. Meath was the central province and Tara the royal seat. The province was later to merge with Leinster.
The next wave of invaders are by far the most infamous, the magical and mysterious Tuatha Dé Danann. After a fierce battle in which 100,000 of the Fir Bolg were killed, the Dé Dannan took control of Tara and thus Ireland.
The Dé Danann brought with them four magical gifts: the Lía Fáil (Stone of Destiny), Sword of Light, Cauldron of Plenty and the Spear of Victory. The Lía Fáil was the single stone I had seen on the distant mound. The stone is said to roar when touched by the true King of Tara. No man could escape the Sword of Light, and a battle would never go against the man who held the Spear of Victory. Finally, the Cauldron of Plenty would provide an endless source of nourishment.
Although powerful in magic and war, the Dé Danann proved hopeless rulers and soon their land began to slip back into the hands of the Formorians. This was aided by the Dé Danann King Breas, who was half Formorian on his father’s side. He was elected King when the current leader, Nuadhu, lost a hand in the battle with the Fir Bolg. The Dé Danann believed that their King must be unblemished. However, Breas soon proved more partial to his Formorian side and became a mean and evil King who collected tribute for the Formorians.
When Nuadhu’s hand was restored by magic Breas was stripped of his title and went into exile. Nuadhu then took his rightful place on the throne.
Gradually the Formorians re-took Tara and forced the Dé Danann into slavery under the tyranny of their leader, Balor of the Evil Eye. Balor was said to have had one eye in the middle that gleamed when he was angry and destroyed anything in its path. Soon after, Breas returned from overseas with new forces and joined the Formorians. He revealed to them the Dé Danann’s magical secrets and thus they conquered the whole of Ireland and in a raid on Tara they took with them the Spear of Victory, the Cauldron of Plenty and the Harp of the Dagda; a magical harp that could make crops grow, children laugh and enemies weaken. It became the emblem of kingship at Tara and eventually of Ireland.
However, the Dé Danann’s saviour came in the form of Lugh of the Long Hand. Lugh equipped himself with every magical weapon in the world and led the Dé Danann to a dramatic victory over the Formorians. After a fearsome encounter Lugh fought and killed the Formorian leader, Balor and the Dé Danann were victorious. They returned to Tara with the stolen items and ruled once again for the lifetime of nine kings.
Finally came the Milesians, more often referred to as the Celts. They came from Spain, and their leader was Amergin. Amergin met with the three Dé Danann Kings who were sharing the monarchy at the time and they agreed to a tournament of magic. As decided, the Milesians retreated to their ships and remained at the distance of nine waves and faced the full force of the Dé Danann’s magical power. A heavy mist fell upon them followed by giant waves. But Amergin uttered these magical words to calm the tumultuous sea:
“That they may find its plains, its hills and valleys.
Its forests that are filled with nuts and fruits
Its streams and rivers, its lakes and its waters
That we may have our gatherings and our games on this land
That there may be a king of our own at Tara.”
This is the incantation as recorded in the book of invasions. It worked and the storms subsided. The Milesians came ashore. The first battle fought was led by Eriú, wife of the Dé Danann King Mac Gréine. She was defeated and mortally wounded at a battle with Amergin at the Hill of Uisneach. Legend says that she is buried under Ail na Mireann, the stone of the divisions in County Westmeath. Amergin granted her a dying wish. He promised her that the island would bear her name forever – Eriú is the original name of Eire, which in modern Gaelic means Ireland.
The Milesians defeated the Dé Danann. It is said that the Dé Danann retreated into the otherworld of the Tír na Nóg via sacred portals in places such as Tara, Loughcrew and Newgrange. Ireland was then divided into two realms: the spiritual and the earthly. From this point on the Dé Danann were to be known as the Sidhe (Fairy Folk). They would rule in the Tír na Nóg forever, but often they would reappear to meddle in the affairs of ordinary folk; sometimes this intervention was quite favourable, other times downright destructive. The passage tombs, raths and sacred lakes became their fairy palaces. And once a year at the festival of the Samhain (Halloween) the doors would be flung open and the spiritual and earthly realms would be united.
Festivals at Tara
As well as the Samhain, there were three other festivals celebrated at Tara: Imbolg, Bealtaine and the Festival of Lughnasa.
Imbolg was celebrated at the start of Spring in a town called Belper, just south of Tara at the great ritual site of Rath Maeve. Maeve is the mother goddess for Tara. This was a druid festival that celebrated the milking of the cows, the budding of new plants and generally the coming of new life.
Bealtaine was also celebrated at Rath Maeve at the start of summer. The fires of the High King of Tara were lit here by the Druids to declare the start of the festival. Legend says that when St Patrick visited Tara he angered the High King Laoghaire by lighting his paschal fire on the Hill of Slane prior to the time set by the Druids at Tara. The Hill of Slane lies just to the north of the cross roads and is visible from Tara, and vice versa. It was here that St Patrick used a Shamrock to explain the union of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Thus the Shamrock became the national symbol. There are the ruins of a church and 16th century Franciscan Friary on the hill now, along with a statue of King Laoghaire.
Lughnasa was celebrated at the end of summer at Tailtain on the River Blackwater six miles north of Tara. Tailtain was one of four sacred places available to the High King along with Tara itself, Tlactga near Athboy and Cletty on the Boyne. This festival seems by far the biggest of all four. It included horse racing, athletic contests, philosophical debates and courtships.
I made my way back to the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre and joined my tour group for Newgrange. Brú na Bóinne is the name given to the area that is home to the three most famous burial mounds in Ireland, and means Valley of the Boyne. The three burial mounds, or passage cairns, are: Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. The first two are the most visited, mainly because Dowth has not yet been excavated and thus entrance is forbidden. It is possible to drive yourself to it and walk around and over it, you just cannot enter the chambers.
Against my better judgement I’d had to pay just over five Euros for this tour, but as it turned out, it was well worth the money. The group was relatively small and had to be split into two when the tour entered the chamber. Our tour guide gave quite a detailed lecture that lasted nearly half an hour.
Covering an area of one acre, this magnificent monument was built around 3200 BC; 500 years before the first Egyptian pyramid and 1000 years before Stonehenge. The façade is decorated with white quartz from as far away as the Wicklow mountains. But what’s even more impressive are the giant kerbstones of which 97 mark the perimeter. They weigh anywhere from one to twelve tons, and in all 400 were used in the mound’s construction. It’s been estimated that it would take eighty men three days to move one stone three miles. Many of the kerbstones have been ornately decorated with what is now known as Boyne Valley art. So the question remains, why would anyone go to such great lengths in order to build this mound?
It’s widely assumed that Newgrange was built by the Neolithic people, and one would also assume that these people were primitive and lacked the intelligence of modern engineers. But these monuments are testament to the contrary.
The entrance is blocked by a huge kerbstone that is intricately carved with the images like those I observed inside the Mound of the Hostages. When Newgrange was first built people had to climb over the stone to gain access. When reconstructing the façade during the excavation in the 1960s a decision was reached to alter the entrance slightly to allow steps to be put in for visitors to enter the passage. Otherwise the tomb has been exactly restored to its former glory.
Not only was this burial mound an incredible feat of engineering, but it was also an incredible feat of ingenuity. The entrance is precisely aligned with the rising of the sun at the Winter Solstice; the sun would set at the entrance to the mound at Dowth. But its designers were also clever enough to realise it would have to be local dawn, and thus calculate where the sun would rise and how high. In the case of the Boyne Valley the sun would rise over the distant hills. So a roof box was fitted above the entrance for the light to shine through. The main entrance below takes you through a narrow passageway that leads uphill to an elevation of two metres higher than when you entered. The passageway is 19 metres long. Thus the floor of the inner chamber is exactly level with the roof box. On the morning of the solstice sunlight shines through the roof box and travels along the overhead passage and illuminates the inner chamber.
Once our group was assembled in the inner chamber our guide then turned off the internal lighting, then by use of a spotlight from the roof box he demonstrated how the light would illuminate the chamber. Obviously this was intended as an example, and in no way emulated the actual experience of the solstice.
When the lights were turned back on he indicated the corbelled roof. No cement or binding agents were used to fix the stones in place, and they had all been stacked like a house of cards. These ancient builders clearly realised that this was the most efficient and best form of support. The capstone is the lightest at two tons. Above that lie four metres of loose rock, then earth and grass. All this was to ensure the watertight integrity of the chamber, and to make sure that moisture will not loosen the rocks in place. All this points to the fact that these so-called primitive people really knew what they were doing.
Inside the chamber there are three recesses. In all probability the bodies were cremated outside and then the ashes placed inside the chamber. What this was for, no one really knows. There are many theories, but there is simply no way to know for sure as these people never left any written history. In truth, the race who built these tombs will always remain a mystery.
Stories of occupancy do exist though, and in keeping with the legend of the Sidhe, the story of Newgrange is that it is the home of Oenghus, the Tuatha Dé Danann’s God of Love.
After the tour we were returned to the Visitor Centre where I boarded a bus for the Knowth tour.
Although Newgrange is the most famous, Knowth is more impressive in that its large passage tomb is surrounded by 18 smaller tombs. The main tomb has two passageways aligned with the rising and the setting of the sun at the equinox. The other difference here is that unlike Newgrange, Knowth was used for centuries after its usage as a passage tomb as a settlement right up until the arrival of the Milesians, whose local chieftain lived upon the main mound in a purpose built enclosure.
Hundreds must have died in the construction of these tombs. It’s estimated that the bigger mounds must have taken a good fifty years to construct, and given that the life expectancy of human beings back then was 30-40 years, the original architects cannot have lived to see the completion of their dreams. Whoever built these magnificent mounds, intended them to last.
That evening I continued on with the intention of getting to the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, in order to begin the Ulster section of my trip. Having been there before I already knew of one very strange phenomenon. But when I was there before I had seen signs indicating I was on the Táin Trail. Further reading had proved this to be a very famous legend in the Ulster Cycle, and not a cycling trail as I had previously suspected.
The plan was quite simple, I would drive to the peninsula and stop in a campsite along the coast. Unfortunately my simple plan was thwarted by mechanical means. Five miles from Dundalk the van began to cough, splutter and generally emit some worrying sounds not conducive to a healthy engine.
I managed to crawl my way into Dundalk town centre and pull up in a car park. It was nine at night, the sun was going down. I was in a van with English number plates, and the large IRA slogans painted in high letters on the car park wall only served to add to my ever increasing feeling that this was not a good place to have broken down.
The Book – Mysterious World: Ireland
These travels were the start of what eventually became a travel guide to ancient Ireland. Check out the full book for a complete insight into the mysteries of ancient Ireland, and an indepth travel guide on what you can visit today:
It’s virtually impossible to travel in Slovenia without noticing its abundance of health spas. However, Rogaška Slatina is not only unique, but encompasses a wealth of hidden gems. It has a long history of quality glassmaking, and among the surrounding foothills you’ll find wine cellars and picturesque villages each with its own story to tell.
There aren’t many places in the world where you could indulge yourself in some of life’s wicked pleasures, wine and good food, and then ease your guilt by purging your body of all the unhealthy elements of that pleasure by simply drinking a glass of water.
Rogaška Slatina is located about 110kms east of Ljubljana. From the motorway either take the exit for central Celje, or continue on to the next exit and head to Šentjur. From here simply follow the signs and the road will take you into the heart of the town.
This is Slovenia’s oldest spa town. Nestled among the lovely hills of the Macelj range, Boc, its highest peak (960m) overlooks the town. The summit’s viewing tower affords a magnificent panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. A special flower blooms here only at Easter time, called the velikonocnica, and the area is now a protected nature reserve
The town itself grew up around several natural springs that have been known since the Romans and Celts were here. However, it wasn’t until a written analysis was published in 1572 in a book called Pisson by Leonhard Thurneysser that its fame began to spread.
Word of this miracle water spread as far as the imperial court in Vienna and soon people began to flood here, including many famous names such as: Emperor Ferdinand, Franz Liszt and the French Bonapartes. In 1803 the head of the Styrian government, Count Ferdinand Attems, established the first spa resort here. This soon grew into one of Europe’s most popular and grandest, and in 2003 the resort celebrated its 200th anniversary.
The town emblem is the winged-horse Pegasus. Local legend tells of how the Greek God Apollo was riding through the nearby mountain range when he commanded Pegasus to rise up on his hind legs and repeatedly slam his front hooves down hard in order to open the spring.
There are actually an indeterminate number of springs in the area of Rogaška, but the most famous of these is Donat Mg, which is bottled and distributed all around the country. The water from this spring is a veritable cocktail of minerals, but most importantly, it contains an unusually high level of magnesium; an important element for many of the biochemical processes in our bodies. People don’t just come here for a relaxing holiday; they come here to get well. Magnesium is not only said to help illnesses such as heart and liver disease, but can also help reduce high blood pressure, cholesterol, constipation, excess stomach acids, heartburn and obesity.
But there is more to Rogaška Slatina than just its famous spa. The town also has a long history of producing high quality glassware, one of which is Rogaška Crystal. The origins of Rogaška’s glassmaking tradition can be traced as far back as 1665.
The outskirts contain a scattering of pretty villages each with its own church, and many have their own legend as to the origins of the church. Sv. Lenart, where a beautiful tall church greets you upon arrival, is a tiny hamlet wedged into the hills. Local legend says that a church was built here in 1000AD, but a massive earthquake hit the region causing the church to sink into the ground. It was hidden by vegetation for hundreds of years until one day, while some animals were chewing on the grass, the bell rang and the church was rediscovered.
The surrounding karst hills are completely full of water, hence the reason for it’s abundance of springs. In the small village of Zg. Gabernik, where farmhouses dot the verdant hills and a great rocky outcrop looms over them, legend tells of an underground lake where a great dragon sleeps. Locals believe that when the weather is stormy, the dragon is stirring.
After a day of luxurious pampering, or hiking, you can relax at one of the many wine cellars where you can try the municipality’s superb wines.
Mineral baths, mud treatment and lymph drainage.
It not as bad as it sounds. Lymph drainage is not a form of medieval torture, but a type of massage in which excess liquids that collect in the body’s tissues are drained and is just one of many healing therapies on the list at Zdravlišce Rogaška.
Zdravliški Trg forms the heart of Rogaška Slatina. Lining this historic square you’ll be spoilt for choice for ways in which to pamper all your aches and pains, and indulge yourself in a wealth of beauty rituals.
In the circular drinking hall you can sample the water straight from its source via dispensers. There are two types: Donat Mg, and Styria. Try the Styria first, but try not to grimace at its sour taste. The bottled versions are refined, but being straight from the spring this is much stronger. The Donat is mildly more palatable and also the better of the two, health-wise.
If you are here to cure a particular ailment, the adjacent 12-storey building has a number of qualified doctors on hand to prescribe the necessary treatment. The mineral baths are ideal for improving blood circulation, due to the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the water. Other rheumatic treatments on offer involve herbal mud packs made from volcanic clay and mixed with the local water.
Whether you are sick, or otherwise fit and healthy and simply want to relax and de-stress, you can head for the thermal mineral swimming pools. Or you can participate in one of the many health programmes, choose from a long list of massages, or if you prefer to be more active, visit the large sports complex.
The art of glassmaking.
A tour of Rogaška Crystal is an absolute must. Watch with fascination as a beautiful piece of crystal glass is produced from a glowing red blob taken from the 1400°C furnace, and blown with expert precision in order to shape the outline, before being placed it into a mould for the finishing touch.
In the shop you can indulged yourself by wandering through the exquisite collection of glassware with renewed appreciation for the care, hard work and artistic craft that has gone into making them, and if your pockets are deep enough, come away with a souvenir of the tour.
Spring of the kings
If you have time, take a drive through the gorgeous rolling green hills surrounding the town. Stop for a drink at the nearby village of Sp. Kostrivnica where Kraljevi Vrelec has been restored to its original glory, just as it was in 1857. The keeper of the well is Marija, who opens it to the public twice a week, or by prior arrangement for groups. Years ago Celtic coins were found at the bottom of the well.
Hiking the trail
The nearby hills also offer a large network of walking trails, shown clearly on the tourist office map. The most popular hike is to the summit of Boc. You can either start your hike from town, or if you are pushed for time, drive as far as the Church of St. Nicholas. From the church follow the marked trail to the top and enjoy the view.
Sleepy villages and dragons.
If you prefer the country life there are several good tourist farms where you can stay and sample the rural life of the Rogaška municipality. Zgorni Gabernik is a small village locked into the foothills of Boc, where one such tourist farm holds a dominant position overlooking the verdant hills, rivalled only by a great rocky outcrop which looms over the entire village. The hollow clunking of the Klopotec, wooden wind-powered rattles designed to scare off birds, will fill the air. If you hear thunder in the night it might be the dragon snoring; or a local farmer.
A desert oasis in the otherwise green hills.
For something you’re not likely to see everyday, take a trip out to the village of Cerovec pod Bocem and take a look at Paviljon Kaktej, an interesting display of cacti that were once the proud collection of a local man, who handed them over when he became too old to tend them.
An evening of wine tasting.
A perfect end to a perfect day. In Cerovec you can reflect on the day’s events at Vinoteka Klet Kregar, while munching on cheese and salami and tasting a variety of wines as you stare out across the endless green fields to the distant mountains. The people here in Rogaška Slatina are so friendly and welcoming, and it seems like a world away from the bustle of the city, but in fact it’s just 1½ hours from Ljubljana.