Ian Middleton: Travel Writer https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com Thu, 03 Oct 2019 11:30:14 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.3 https://i2.wp.com/www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/cropped-Bio-pic-MWI_low-res-small.jpg?fit=32%2C32&ssl=1 Ian Middleton: Travel Writer https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com 32 32 126253000 The Hill of Tara – The Boyne Valley in Ireland Part 1 https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/the-hill-of-tara-the-boyne-valley-in-ireland-part-1/ https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/the-hill-of-tara-the-boyne-valley-in-ireland-part-1/#respond Thu, 03 Oct 2019 11:30:07 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=2127 The Hill of Tara At first glance the Hill of Tara may seem like a rather non-de script place. Many tourists visit every year and possibly scratch their heads in […]

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Iron age rath at the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland. Tara was once the ancient capital of Ireland, from where the high king ruled over the country. The upright stone you see on the mound is the Lia Fail (stone of destiny). According to Celtic legend the Lia Fail was used during the coronation of the high king, and was believe to emit a roar when the true high king touched it. (I tried but there was no sound, so I crossed being high king of Ireland off my list of potential destinies).
Iron age rath at the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland. Tara was once the ancient capital of Ireland, from where the high king ruled over the country. The upright stone you see on the mound is the Lia Fail (stone of destiny). According to Celtic legend the Lia Fail was used during the coronation of the high king, and was believe to emit a roar when the true high king touched it. (I tried but there was no sound, so I crossed being high king of Ireland off my list of potential destinies).

The Hill of Tara

At first glance the Hill of Tara may seem like a rather non-de script place. Many tourists visit every year and possibly scratch their heads in wonder as to the significance of the place. To the unknowing eye it may just seem like the location for yet another collection of Iron Age forts. But in truth the Hill of Tara is Ireland’s most important historical monument and, as well as being one its major tourist attractions, is in actual fact the ancient capital.

Although only 155 metres in altitude, Tara rises high above the County Meath lowlands and commands an outstanding panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. In ancient times there were three levels of kingship, the High King, who ruled over the entire country, the Provincial King, who ruled one of the four provinces, and the Petty King, who ruled over a small settlement. Because of its strategic importance, Tara became the traditional seat for the High King. This small, seemingly insignificant hill holds many of the secrets to Ireland’s ancient past and if it could talk, would have one hell of a story to tell.

Tara is easy to reach. It lies just off the M3 between Dublin and Navan. The two most distinctive earthworks on the hill are the Royal Seat and Cormac’s House, both about 152 metres in diameter. Protruding 5 feet from the ground in the centre of the Royal Seat is the Lia Fail, the sacred Stone of Destiny believed to have been brought here by an magical and powerful race known as the Tuatha dé Danann.

Ireland’s ancient history has been charted by a series of invasions, the stories of which were written down in the early Christian period by the monks. The Tuatha dé Danann was the fifth tribe to invade Ireland, and legend describes them as a powerful, magical race that brought many magical artifacts along with them. The Lia Fail was the coronation stone of the High King. When the rightful heir to the throne places his hands upon it, the stone will emit a roaring sound. This stone is now accessible to all visitors, so try touching it, you never know; you might be destined for high kingship.

Lia Fail - The Stone of Destiny. Legend says that this was the coronation stone of the High King of Ireland. When the true high king touches it, the stone will emit a roar.
Lia Fail – The Stone of Destiny. Legend says that this was the coronation stone of the High King of Ireland. When the true high king touches it, the stone will emit a roar.

Burial Mounds

The Mound of the Hostage is a passage cairn (Burial Mound) at the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland.
The Mound of the Hostage is a passage cairn (Burial Mound) at the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland.

Nearby is a burial mound, also known as passage cairn, one of hundreds found across Ireland. Modern archaeology credits these mounds as having been built by the Neolithic people in order to bury their dead. This one, the Mound of the Hostages, was excavated and found to contain the remnants of over 100 burials.

Usually they consist of a stone passage with a chamber inside, built using slabs of rock. The stone section is then covered over with earth to form a small round hill. The Mound of the Hostages is 70 feet in diameter and 9 feet high.

The arrival of the Celts

The sixth tribe to invade Ireland were the Milesians (commonly known as the Celts) and when defeated, it’s believed that the Tuatha dé Danann retreated into the otherworld, or fairy world, and while the Celts would now rule the natural world, they would become known forevermore as the fairies, or Sidhe.

The Fairy Tree at Tara

Fairy Tree at Tara
Fairy Tree at Tara

In Irish folklore, a lone hawthorn tree is widely believed to be one of many portals between the physical world above and the spiritual world below. Fairy trees, like this one at Tara, are revered by locals. The fairy tree is 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.

Reliving the past

The Mound of the Hostages, the Royal Seat and Cormac’s House are enclosed by a wider circle known as the Rath of the Kings, which encompasses an area of 70,000 square metres and has been dated at around 200-300BC. Many other raths dot the area. Although heavily visited, there are times and places on the hill where you can get away from the crowds and revel in the tranquillity of this lush green hill and wonder just how it once was all those centuries ago.

There was a time when a group of modern-day druids held an annual festival on the summer solstice. They re-enacted many of the ancient ceremonies once held here by the ancient tribes. It was a fascinating insight into how it must once have been. Sadly, this festival was abandoned because of abuse from outsiders.

A re-enactment of the Celebration of the Sunrise at Tara on the Summer Solstice day
A re-enactment of the Celebration of the Sunrise at Tara on the Summer Solstice day

Getting there:

Driving: From Dublin take the M3 towards Kells and Navan. Follow this until you see a sign indicating a left turn to Tara.

For more about Ireland’s ancient legends and folklore, check out my book Mysterious World: Ireland

Mysterious World Ireland
Mysterious World Ireland

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Hiking with kids to the church of Saint Jacob https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/hiking-with-kids-to-the-church-of-saint-jacob/ Tue, 04 Jun 2019 22:20:14 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=2015 Had anyone told me 20 years ago that one day I would be hiking with kids up to hilltop churches in Slovenia, I would have scoffed at the idea. But little was I to know what the future would hold...

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Had anyone told me 20 years ago that one day I would be hiking with kids up to hilltop churches in Slovenia, I would have scoffed at the idea.

Hiking in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.
Hiking with kids in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.

Now I love hiking. Sadly though, my legs beg to differ. I’ve always known that I am not the fittest person in the world (or in my hometown come to think of it!). Being an asthma sufferer doesn’t help much; although I must confess to having used this as an excuse on many an occasion, especially at school to get out of cross country running.

But many years ago, even the merest suggestion of hiking up a tall hill, let alone a mountain, would have been met with a long frown and cries of “are you crazy?” And anyone asking me to undergo an arduous hike just to visit a hilltop church would have resulted in a huge question mark being placed over their sanity. 

All this changed one day however, when I was at the end of the world. Now, I don’t mean the end of the world in a prophetic sense, but rather the end of the world in a geographical sense.

I was in Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), which lies at the far southern tip of South America and is divided between Chile and Argentina, the more southerly and most beautiful half being in Argentina. This is the most southerly point that one can travel to without actually having to share an iceberg with a group of penguins. So to me, it represented the end of the world.

I was on a three-month backpacking trip around South America, back in my more youthful days when I was free and unhindered, and more importantly: childless!

A young couple I had met along the way had convinced me to go wild camping in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and while there also somehow managed to convince me to hike up 940 metres to Cerro Guanaco mountain peak. It was tough to say the least, but I soldiered onwards out of a mix of sheer pig-headedness and a desire not to look wimpy in front of the others who were strolling up the steep inclines like it was a walk in the park.

Now prior to this moment, I had never really understood the true meaning of the words “breathtaking view”. But as I stumbled on to the top, beaten, lifeless and about to collapse, I turned to a view that epitomised these very words. It was then that I realised hiking is really worth the huge effort it involves.

I was hooked. I loved it, even if my legs didn’t. Now the one problem with avid hikers, and one that even my wife seems to suffer from, is that after ten minutes at the top they want to start back down! Still to this day it baffles me how you can kill yourself to hike up to a place like this for the totally breathtaking views, and want to head back down after just a few minutes. In the case of Cerro Guanaco, I had almost destroyed my legs and lungs to get there, and was now being treated to a once in a lifetime view of the end of the world from 1000m above sea level. I wanted to stay the night! Well okay, at least for an hour.

From that moment I embarked on many hikes in South America and the ensuing countries I travelled around; many with my heavy backpack. I thought it would make me fitter….. It didn’t. But my love for it grew quickly.

Slovenia

When I first came to Slovenia I discovered that Slovenes also love hiking, and that there is a huge network of hiking trails and a ton of mountains and hills to climb. It soon became evident that many of these hilltop hikes end at a church, which also provides stunning views. Now I’m not a religious man, but it is clear that whoever built these churches must also have loved hiking (although I’m sure there were other reasons).

Hiking with kids

Hiking with kids in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.
Hiking with kids in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.

Hiking with kids is a different story altogether. Before we were saddled down with kids my wife and I hiked a fair bit. But many years and an equal amount of kilos later (well, I’ve had two kids since) this all changed.

Once the kids came along, these regular jaunts were hindered somewhat. We often wake up on weekend mornings with grand plans for a hike, while the kids seem to spend the morning devising ever more cunning plans to thwart them. So we usually end up going to a more familiar place for an easy afternoon hike. But every now and then the kids throw us a bone and we actually, to corner a nice British phrase, “get our shit together”. When this happens, we try to hike somewhere new.

One beautiful Sunday morning we got our shit together, and so we decided to try the hike to Sveti Jakob (Saint Jacob) church in the Polhov Gradec hills near Medvode.

One of many starting points

As with all hilltop hikes in Slovenia, there are several starting points. On this day we opted to start in the village of Trnovec. You can park by the roadside here, and so we did just that.

From here it is about one hour to the top, according to the sign. They obviously don’t take into account that hiking with kids means you are never on time for anything! After years of arduous effort we had finally got our boy to hike the whole way without being carried. Then we made the mistake of having another, so nowadays instead of a heavy backback, I have to carry a heavy 3-year old. But thankfully she does walk a fair bit by herself now.

Over the hills and into the forest

Kozolec in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.
Kozolec in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.

The first stretch of the trail leads over some lovely open hillsides with views across the valley. It’s not too steep and is actually perfect for hiking with kids. Slovenian hiking trails are superbly signposted, so it’s hard to get lost.

Hiking trail markers

The trail takes you past a farmhouse and a couple of traditional kozolec (wooden racks for drying hay) and onwards until you reach another house. The sign here points you left into the forest. About 15 minutes later you emerge once again to into the open. It’s here that you get your first stunning view across to the Kamnik Alps.

Hiking in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.
The forest part of the hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob)
View of the Kamnik Alps in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range.

From here it’s a short trek through another little stretch of forest until you reach the hilltop itself. The church sits on a small brow just above, and of course provides panoramic views all around. It is breathtaking, and as you know, I don’t use that word lightly.

The church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia. Situated on a hilltop in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range. This is also a popular hiking spot for locals.
View down from the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia. Situated on a hilltop in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range. This is also a popular hiking spot for locals.
View down from the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.
Couple on bench enjoying view from the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia. Situated on a hilltop in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range. This is also a popular hiking spot for locals.
Couple on bench enjoying view from the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia. Situated on a hilltop in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range.

If you are hiking with kids then it may take a little longer than one hour, but should you be fortunate enough to not have had them yet, or have already raised them and thrown them out of the house, then you can easily make this hike in under an hour. It’s a very picturesque walk and quite frankly not too demanding. The trails are gentle and there are no steep sections at all.

The church

The church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia. Situated on a hilltop in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range. This is also a popular hiking spot for locals.
The church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia. Situated on a hilltop in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range.

The church sits on the summit of a hill at 800m. It’s a popular hiking destination among Slovenes; and of course people from Ljubljana, as it’s only a 30-minute drive away.

It was built in the 16th century and on clear days you can see everything, the Julian Alps (Mount Triglav, the highest peak in Slovenia), the Kamnik Alps and the Karavank Alps. To the south you can see right into the Ljubljana Basin and even see the Ljubljana Castle which sits in the centre of the city.

The one advantage to having kids is they need feeding after a hike like this, so we settled down on the hilltop for a fairly reasonable amount of time to munch food and soak up these magnificent views before dragging them back down again.

An alternative route

The church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia. Situated on a hilltop in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range. This is also a popular hiking spot for locals.
The last leg of the trail from Topol Pri Medvodah.

An easier, shorter trek, starts from the village of Topol Pri Medvodah. You can park at a car park next to the school and from here it is a short trek through a little forest which takes about 45 minutes. This route brings you in from the other side, so you get clearer views of the church and hilltop as you approach.

Hiking in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.
Start of the trail as you approach from the starting point at Topol Pri Medvodah
View of the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) as you approach from the trail starting at Topol Pri Medvodah
View of the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) as you approach from the trail starting at Topol Pri Medvodah
Spring hazelnut tree in the Polhov Gradec hills in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.
Spring hazelnut tree in the Polhov Gradec Hill Range., on a hiking trail to the church of Saint Jacob (Sveti Jakob) near Medvode, Slovenia.

Watch the video for more

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Rotorua – A Smelly Place in New Zealand. https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/rotorua/ Fri, 24 May 2019 11:47:00 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1943 Situated on New Zealand’s North Island, the Taupo Volcanic Zone is the country’s most geothermally active region. Rotorua is a popular destination for travellers and holidaymakers, despite the perpetual smell of rotten eggs. I found out why.

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Situated on New Zealand’s North Island, the Taupo Volcanic Zone is the country’s most geothermally active region. Rotorua is a popular destination for travellers and holidaymakers, despite the perpetual smell of rotten eggs. I found out why.

Rotorua stinks!

Rotorua stinks! There is no polite way to say it. It stinks of rotten eggs. Now I hadn’t just come to this conclusion because I was staying in the dormitory of the Funky Green Voyager backpackers hostel, although it probably didn’t help. But I can assure it wasn’t the result of constant emissions from weary travellers living on a cheap diet of pasta and eggs. It was the result of constant seismic activity beneath my feet, and this activity expelling its sulphuric gases in strategic locations around the town.

Rotorua and its lake sit inside the caldera of an ancient volcano, 20kms at its widest point. Lake Rotorua sits at 300m above sea level. All this is backed by the haunting presence of Tarawera Mountain, whose violent eruption back in the late 1800s is always in the minds of locals and visitors alike.

Lake Rotorua in New Zealand
Lake Rotorua in New Zealand

The Rotorua area is also one of the most geothermally active regions in the world. There are 7 geothermal fields, and all almost everywhere you look you’ll see hot, bubbling pools and erupting steam vents. A stroll through the streets and parks of Rotorua is not one that can be taken lightly. A constant feeling of foreboding remains ever present; the idea that at any given moment you could simply slide down a crack in the ground and melt into the earth’s crust is never far from your mind.

This of course explains the horrendous smell of rotten eggs. It’s not subtle either. It hits you smack in the nostrils the moment you arrive. During my visit many years ago with my wife (or at least she is now. We figured if we could survive Rotorua together, we could survive anything), we actually stayed for about two months. Quite an achievement when you think about it. But despite the smell, which although always lingers, does actually seem to lessen the longer you stay. (Either that or our brains were slowly being melted away by the noxious gases.)

It’s not all as bad as it sounds

Aside from the pong, Rotorua is a fascinating place to visit. As mentioned already, it’s so geothermally active that locals even harness the thermal water and use it to heat their homes. The region encompasses 18 lakes, 800 hectares of parklands, gardens and nature reserves free for public use.

The landscape is breathtaking. Along with Mt Tarawera, you can also see Rainbow Mountain, Mt Ngongotaha and Mokoia Island. There are miles upon miles of hiking and cycling trails. The surrounding regions also offer great activities and sights to see.

Hell’s Gate

Hell’s Gate, Rotorua, New Zealand.
A stark warning at Hell’s Gate, Rotorua, New Zealand.

Hell’s Gate, or Tikitere as it’s known by its Maori name, is a suburb of Rotorua. The region has been active for 10,000 years ever since eruption drained the ancient lake here. The eruption created faults from which steam and gas can escape. It’s not an area to take lightly, as the entrance sign warns.

However despite its power to kill, it also has the power to heal. The thermal mud and sulphuric mineral water contains healing properties. And if you don’t believe me, ask the local Maoris have been using it for the last 800 years.

Hell’s Gate, Rotorua, New Zealand.
Hell’s Gate, Rotorua, New Zealand.
Hell’s Gate, Rotorua, New Zealand.
Bubbling mud pools at Hell’s Gate, Rotorua, New Zealand.

Sulphur Point

Once again within walking or cycling distance from the centre, Sulphur Point is yet another region where you can stroll along the boardwalks and along paths beside bubbling mud cauldrons and steaming vents. There is a nice two-hour walking path which follows the shore of the lake to Sulphur Bay.

Sulphur Bay near Rotorua, New Zealand.
Sulphur Bay near Rotorua, New Zealand.

Camerons Laughing Gas Pool

Camerons Laughing Gas Pool at Sulphur Bay near Rotorua, New Zealand.
Camerons Laughing Gas Pool at Sulphur Bay near Rotorua, New Zealand.

At the time of my visit this name didn’t really have the connotation it has for me now. (Our former illustrious leader, British Prime Minister David Cameron should be brought here.) The hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide gases apparently have a similar effect to laughing gas (nitrous oxide). The gas also causes fainting. Despite this, it has been used over the centuries for its therapeutic healing properties.

Sunset at Sulphur Bay near Rotorua, New Zealand.
Sunset at Sulphur Bay near Rotorua, New Zealand.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

A visit to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is a must if you truly want to understand this region.

The name means “Sacred Water”. There are many areas where you can view the wonders of the thermal activity here, but Wai-O-Tapu is by far my absolute favourite, and encompasses everything the other parks have, and a lot, lot more.

The Lady Knox Geyser

Lady Knox geyser at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Lady Knox geyser at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

The park opens at 8.30 in the morning, and at 10.15 the Lady Knox geyser is triggered. In 1901 Wai-O-Tapu was the site of New Zealand’s first ever prison. It was during this time of incarceration that inmates, as they washed their clothes in the hot water, discovered you could trigger a geyser by adding soap. The water can reach up to a height of 20 metres.

Lady Knox geyser at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Lady Knox geyser at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

After a visit to the geyser you can then go into the main park and take a walk through the Thermal Wonderland. Before the eruption of Tarawera, the main attraction in the area was the Pink and White Terraces. After their destruction in 1886, attention shifted to the Primrose Terrace in Wai-O-Tapu, a flowing river of water rich in silica. Before you reach that though, you will be wowed, like I was, as you reach the Artist’s Palette. I stepped onto a lookout with uncanny timing, as the clouds parted and sun burst through to illuminate the vast array of vivid colours.

Artist’s Palette at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Artist’s Palette at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

As you cross a boardwalk just beyond this you reach the Champagne Pool, from where the water flows into the Primrose Terraces. This is the image you’ll see on all promotional literature, and a sight to behold should you be fortunate enough to see it through the plume of steam rising from the hot pool, which engulfs anyone who stands upwind of it. 

The park is mapped out by a series of walkways, most of them relatively easygoing. After picking my way through an abundance of hot pools, sulphurous craters and steaming holes, at the very end of the park I came across a lake. From the lookout I gazed intently across the huge body of vivid green water to the shape of Mount Tarawera, looking so innocent and serene in the distance. But looks can be very deceiving.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Devil's Ink Pots at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Devil’s Ink Pots at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Kuirau Park

Kuirau Park is just a short walk from the town centre and offers your first glimpse into this fascinating geothermal world. Wooden walkways take you across steaming lakes and bubbling mud pools. It’s open all year during daylight hours (You wouldn’t want to be there after dark!). Among its many attractions are a crater lake, hot springs, free thermal foot baths, barbecue and picnic tables and even a free Wedding Venue (If you fancy a wedding full of guest with wrinkled-up noses).

Kuirau Park, Rotorua, New Zealand.
Kuirau Park, Rotorua, New Zealand.

Legend says that the lake is named after a beautiful young woman named Kuiarau. She was bathing in the waters of this small lake when a taniwha (dragon) grabbed her and took her down to his lair beneath the lake. This angered the gods, who in turn made the lake boil.

But it’s not all steaming vents, bubbling mud and a haunting stark landscape. Areas of this park, and other areas of Rotorua is full of lush green walkways, leafy tree-lined paths and more.

Kuirau Park, Rotorua, New Zealand.
Kuirau Park, Rotorua, New Zealand.

So don’t be put off by the smell

As you can see, there is so much more to Rotorua than meets the nose. It’s a fascinating place with so much to see and do that can keep you there for two months. So next time you are in New Zealand, you must pay it a visit.

Just bring a peg for your nose.

Read more about Rotorua here:

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A Magic Road in the Comeragh Mountains https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/a-magic-road-in-the-comeragh-mountains/ Mon, 20 May 2019 10:45:34 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1891 If I told you there was a section of road in Ireland where, if you park at the bottom of a small hill and release the brake, you will roll back up the hill, would you believe me? Well, when I first heard of such a thing I didn’t believe it either. This one was up north of Dundalk, and upon further investigation I found it to be true. So when I heard there was one down south, I just had to see it.

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If I told you there was a section of road in Ireland where, if you park at the bottom of a small hill and release the brake, you will roll back up the hill, would you believe me? Well, when I first heard of such a thing I didn’t believe it either. It’s called a magic road. This one was up north of Dundalk, and upon further investigation I found it to be true. So when I heard there was one down south, I just had to see it.

I was passing through Clonmel in Country Tipperary. It was already quite late so I decided to spend the night at a campsite I’d heard of. Clonmel is an attractive place, and is the county’s largest and liveliest town. Straddling the River Suir the town actually sits half in County Waterford. This is a common occurrence in this part of Ireland as many of the borders between the counties are set upon rivers, and many towns are founded upon these rivers. The town of Waterford is a prime example of this. Set upon the estuary of the Suir, half of Waterford actually lies in County Kilkenny.

Powers the Pot campsite was situated on the edge of the Comeragh Mountains, not as rugged as the mountains of Kerry and West Cork but stunning all the same. I checked into the campsite in my little old beat-up campervan I had affectionately dubbed “the Scooby Van”. It was while drinking in the campsite’s bar that I learnt of the Magic Road in this area. I didn’t have time to go there this time, but the couple from the tent next to me did and kindly emailed me the directions.

A few weeks later I left Wexford, drove back to Clonmel and set out from there. I followed the road through Rathgormuck until I reached a crossroads. From here I followed the signs to the right for Mahon falls and the Comeragh Drive until reaching a little place called Mahon Bridge. At P. Powers and Son food store I turned right.

From here I followed the road up into the mountains, turned right at another sign for Mahon Falls then followed the road through a small gate. Up until now I had consistently climbed up into the mountains. Just past the gate the road went downhill, at the bottom of which stood a lone tree amid low, thick bushes by the roadside. I stopped here, as instructed.

Magic Road in the Comeragh Mountains, County Waterford, Ireland.
Magic Road in the Comeragh Mountains, County Waterford, Ireland.

Behind me were two German backpackers I’d met at the hostel in Wexford. Upon learning what I was doing that day, they’d decided to follow me. I turned around and indicated to them that we were here. The driver took his foot off the brake and sure enough his car started rolling back up the hill. I did the same, and chuckled as I watched their faces light up like schoolchildren who had just seen an act of magic for the first time; the road up in Dundalk had elicited a similar reaction from me. You arrive with a sceptical mind and are just amazed by what you see.

The incline is obvious to the eye. No matter how hard you look, it always appears to be going uphill. Yet the truth is that you are going downhill. I even got out and walked up the stretch of road and it felt like I was walking downhill. I walked downhill, and it felt like I was walking uphill.

The truth is that it’s an optical illusion, but an absolutely perfect one. Apparently it’s the funny angle of the entire hill that causes this effect. However, local folklore attributes it to powerful fairy magic. Believe what you will.

I continued on to Mahon Falls. The road twisted through a landscape of green hills dotted with purple heather. The Comeragh Mountains – the easternmost extension of a mass of red sandstone created over 370 million years ago – formed a picturesque backdrop. Soon I came upon a car park. From here there is a path where you can walk to the bottom of the falls. Just a short way up the road from the car park, up a steep hill, is another small lay-by. I parked next to a couple who had spent the night here in their camper. From here you get a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, and, as a family from Leeds had found out, it’s a great spot for a picnic.

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling…..

The Scooby Van
The Scooby Van

The couple from the campsite had told me that from the start of the Magic  Road it’s actually possible to roll all the way back to the shop, which is a good couple of miles. So I decided to test their theory.

I drove to the start of the hill, and then put the van in neutral, leaving the engine running so the brakes would work. Rolling up the hill when facing forward does have the same effect, but it isn’t as intense. At the top of the hill I did continue rolling for a while, and then slowed to a painfully slow pace. I was about to give up and put the van in gear when it began to slowly pick up speed again. Soon the pace quickened until I was coasting down a steep hill towards a t-junction. I had no choice but to apply the brakes here because I couldn’t see around the corner. Once I had determined there was nothing coming I released the brake and once again continued rolling down the giant hill for another mile or so, sweeping through the narrow country roads until finally parking up beside the shop at the bottom of the hill. So they weren’t having me on.

These roads are part of the Comeragh Drive, a well signposted drive that circumnavigates the Comeragh Mountains and goes through wooded sections of the Nire Valley. After chatting to the friendly couple in the shop I continued on, taking a short drive though the area. The sky was overcast, but I imagined that when the sun was out this part of Ireland would be bathed in an array of red sandstone, green hills and bright purple heather. I only wished I could have stayed longer, but as I always say: ‘It’s not going anywhere.’

Location of the Magic Road

Location of Powers the Pot Campsite

Visit the Powers the Pot campsite website: www.powersthepot.com/

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The Ice Saints Cometh in full force this year in Slovenia https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/the-ice-saints-cometh-in-full-force-this-year-in-slovenia/ Wed, 15 May 2019 10:02:15 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1861 It’s the time of the Ice Saints, and in Slovenia this year Ledeni Možje have brought with them the coldest period in May for 15 years, and as I sit here now writing this, Polulana Zofka is truly pissing herself. Confused? Let me explain.

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Man holding a red umbrella and standing on The Butchers' Bridge looking over the Ljubljanica river towards the Trznica (market) Triple Bridge on a rainy day in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The wire fence on the bridge is covered with padlocks put there by locals and tourists. All this region was designed by Slovenia's most celebrated architect, Joze Plecnik.
Man holding a red umbrella and standing on The Butchers’ Bridge looking over the Ljubljanica river towards the Trznica (market) Triple Bridge on a rainy day in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The wire fence on the bridge is covered with padlocks put there by locals and tourists. All this region was designed by Slovenia’s most celebrated architect, Joze Plecnik.

It’s the time of the Ice Saints, and in Slovenia this year Ledeni Možje have brought with them the coldest period in May for 15 years, and as I sit here now writing this, Polulana Zofka is truly pissing herself.

Confused? Allow me to explain.

Rain clouds clearing over the Kamnik Alps after a day of heavy rain last week. On the higher ground they brought snow.
Rain clouds clearing over the Kamnik Alps after a day of heavy rain last week. On the higher ground they brought snow.

The Ice Saints

Ledeni Možje (the Ice Men) is a legend in Slovenia that derives from a wider legend throughout much of Europe, the legend of the Ice Saints. The three Ice Saints are Saint Boniface, Saint Pancras, and Saint Servatius. Their feast days are celebrated on May 11th, 12th and 13 across much of Southern Europe. In Slovenia however, the days are 12th, 13th and 14th. During this period in Central Europe it’s often believed there is a sharp drop in temperature. Farmers in many European countries will not plant their crops until after this period has passed; chiefly because it can also bring a late frost.

Pissing Sophia

Rain over Lake Bohinj, Triglav National Park, Slovenia.
Rain over Lake Bohinj, Triglav National Park, Slovenia.

Today, May 15th, is the feast day of Saint Sophia of Rome, known here in Slovenia as Mokra Zofka (Wet Sophia) or under the more comical name of Polulana Zofka (Pissing Sophia). Traditionally on Saint Sophia’s Day it rains a lot.

A hot summer to come

Man with umbrella with E = MC2 written on it in Kongresni Square, Ljubljana, Slovenia.
In Slovenia it’s easy to be confused about the weather this time of year. It can be sunny one minute, and rainy the next. Best to be prepared as this man with the umbrella was in Kongresni Square, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

So, in Slovenian Folklore if the Ice Men bring the cold weather, and Sophia pisses herself, then the belief is that this heralds a very hot and sunny summer.

Well over the last few days the temperatures have plummeted to mark the coldest May for 15 years. A couple of weeks ago it was over 20 degrees and sunny. Today it is 6 degrees and truly pissing down with rain. So if the legend is true, we are in for a very hot summer indeed.

As a Slovene who is used to hot summers, my wife is very happy about this. But as a wimpy Englishman who hates the heat and, as a landscape photographer who also hates hot, clear sunny days because clear skies are boring and heat produces humidity which reduces clarity, I feel a sense of foreboding.

Time to invest in that air conditioning unit, and a photography trip to cooler climates!

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Parking at Zaka Car Park in Bled just got a hell of a lot more expensive https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/dont-park-at-zaka-in-bled/ Sat, 04 May 2019 09:09:51 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1830 Zaka car park in Bled just got a whole lot more expensive. Read this for more details.

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Don’t park at Zaka car park in Bled anymore!

Car park at Zaka campsite in Bled
Car park at Zaka campsite in Bled

Lake Bled in Slovenia is beautiful at any time of the year, and one of the best parts is on the western side next to Zaka Campsite. But if you’re not staying at the campsite and just want to visit for the day, either to swim in the lake at the beach or hike up to Mala Osojnica, then your only choice for parking is at the small car park beside the campsite.

Until this year the price for this was 5 euro for all day (low season) and 10 euro all day (high season), or 5 euro if you arrived after 4pm. Not so great if you planned to stay for one hour, but in most cases people would stay longer.

Zaka parking is now 3 euro per hour

But, this year it has all changed. They now have barriers at the entrance and the charge is a whopping 3 euro per hour. We stopped here the other day just to hike up to Mala Osojnica. It took us just over 2 hours, but of course because we went just 10 minutes into the 3rd hour it was charged at the full 3 euros.

Best option

Sadly there aren’t many options for parking on this side of Bled lake. The best option is to drive up the hill a bit and park at the Bled Jezero train station, which is 5 euros per day all year round from 9am til 10pm. It’s a coin only machine, so make sure you have enough coins. However, it also gets very packed in summer, but is worth a go. It’s about a ten-minute walk back down the road to the lakeside. Unfortunately overnight parking for campervans or motorhomes is not permitted here.

The only other option

There’s parking at the rowing club at Mala Zaka, but it’s also charged per hour. Last time I was there it was 2 euros per hour.

On the eastern side

Otherwise you’ll have to park on the eastern side of the lake and either walk around, or take the tourist train.

The best place is on Preserenova Cesta 23, which currently charges 2 euros per hour. More details here:

Parking for motorhomes & Campervans

The only place, other than campsites, to park and sleep is in the designated RV parking area next to the big Mercator on Kajuhova Cesta. The cost is 25 euro per day with water and electricity included.

Park and ride?

There is a talk of a new park and ride system, but no details as of yet. As soon as I get some I’ll update this page.

Beautiful views from Mala Osojnica and Ojstrica

It is a shame that this car park has become so expensive because it was a great place to park for a hike up to Mala Osojnica and Ojstrica, especially early in the morning out of season.

Morning view across Lake Bled to the island church and clifftop castle from Ojstrica, Slovenia.
Morning view across Lake Bled to the island church and clifftop castle from Ojstrica, Slovenia.
View across Lake Bled to the clifftop castle and Karavank Mountains from Mala Osojnica, Slovenia. The big peak with the cloud over is Mount Stol, the highest peak in the range.

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Pula or Pola https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/pula-or-pola/ Wed, 01 May 2019 09:09:14 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1788 Pula (in Croatian) or Pola (in Italian) is the largest city on the Istrian peninsula. And if the abundance of holiday and budget airlines flying in is anything to go by, it's the most popular vacation destination too.

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Colosseum in pula, Croatia
Colosseum in pula, Croatia

There is a distinct Italian feel to the Istria Peninsula, lying at the north-western edge of Croatia. For good reason too, because the region’s history is dominated by Roman, Venetian and Italian occupation.

Pula (in Croatian) or Pola (in Italian) is the largest city on the peninsula. And if the abundance of holiday and budget airlines flying in is anything to go by, it’s the most popular vacation destination too.

Pula Arena, Roman amphitheatre in pula, Croatia
Pula Arena, Roman amphitheatre in pula, Croatia

Pula Arena

The multitude of Roman buildings in the city are a shining example of its popularity in ancient Roman times too. In fact, Pula boasts one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. The Pula Arena is one of the six largest surviving arenas in the world, and quite a sight to behold also. Built between 27 BC – 68 AD, it’s the only one to have all four side towers and all three Roman architectural orders perfectly preserved.

Every week during the summer you can watch a re-enactment of the gladiator fights that took place here on a regular basis. The arena is open daily and entry is 50 Kuna (about 7 euros) for adults, 25 for children.

There is a wealth of other historic monuments to visit also. Check them out here.

Church of St Anthony seen through archway of the Colosseum in pula, Croatia
Church of St Anthony seen through archway of the Colosseum in pula, Croatia

Brijuni Islands

Fishing boats at sunset over the Brijuni Islands, Croatia. Seen from Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula.
Fishing boats at sunset over the Brijuni Islands, Croatia. Seen from Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula.

Naturally being situated on a peninsula, Pula is surrounded by stunning beaches and coastline, and also the nearby Brioni (Brijuni) Islands. This group of fourteen islands sit in the Fažana Strait and are reputed to be so beautiful that Tito made them his personal State Summer Residence after World War 2 when Croatia became part of Yugoslavia.

Interestingly, prior to the 19th century the islands were used only as a huge quarry. For a long time they belonged to the Venetians who used stone from the islands to build the palaces and bridges of Venice. In 1815, when Croatia was under the rule of the Austrian Empire, they shipped much of it to Berlin and Vienna.

The Austro-Hungarian Navy built the first fortress on Veli Brijuni Island, which went on to become a large naval base for submarines and hydroplanes, and formed a line of defence in the Fažana Channel.

The first time the islands were used as a resort was when the Viennese businessman Paul Kupelwieser bought the whole archipelago and created an exclusive beach resort. Since then the islands have become one of the most popular luxury holiday resorts in Croatia.

Today the islands have been designated a National Park, and almost every beach north and south of Pula offer boats trips for visitors.

The parish church of St Kuzma and Damjan in Fažana, north of Pula, Istria, Croatia.
Lighthouse at the southern end of Veli Brijuni Island, Croatia.

The parish church of St Kuzma and Damjan in Fažana, north of Pula, Istria, Croatia.
Fishing boats at sunset over the Brijuni Islands, Croatia.

Girl throwing stones in the sea as the sun sets over the Brijuni Islands, Croatia.

Lighthouse at the southern end of Veli Brijuni Island, Croatia. Seen from Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula.
Lighthouse at the southern end of Veli Brijuni Island, Croatia.

Hydroplane base turned beach resort

Hydroplane rails at Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula. In 1915 a naval hydroplane base was set up here in the Fažana Channel. Today it's a busy beach resort with a beautiful view of the Brijuni Islands.
Hydroplane rails at Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula. In 1915 a naval hydroplane base was set up here in the Fažana Channel. Today it’s a busy beach resort with a beautiful view of the Brijuni Islands.

In 1915 the hydroplane base was moved to the mainland on a stretch known as Puntižela.

Recently, the local authorities have turned Puntižela into a brand new beach resort. It’s a great place for families with artificial beaches made from small stones. There are disabled swimming access points and other facilities also. And you get a great view across the Brijuni Islands. Currently car parking is free, and you can still see the old rails that were once used to transport the hydroplanes in and out of the water.

If you like camping, then the nearby Camping Brioni is a good choice. Otherwise there are plenty of hotels and apartments for rent around the area.

Couple taking an early morning stroll at Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula.

Morning at Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula. View of the Brijuni Islands and the childrens inflatable playground on the water.
Morning at Puntižela Beach, Štinjan north of Pula. View of the Brijuni Islands and the childrens inflatable playground on the water.

The parish church of St Kuzma and Damjan in Fažana, north of Pula, Istria, Croatia.
Heading out for a morning swim at Puntižela Beach with the Brijuni Islands in the background, Štinjan north of Pula.

Fažana (great place for seafood)

The parish church of St Kuzma and Damjan in Fažana, north of Pula, Istria, Croatia.
The parish church of St Kuzma and Damjan in Fažana, north of Pula, Istria, Croatia.

Just north of Puntižela is the lovely seaside town of Fažana. Naturally as fishing has always been the main industry here, it’s a great place to eat out for seafood lovers. There are many restaurants along the seafront, which of course are a little more expensive, but the food is excellent and not overpriced. Head into the village a bit and you’ll find some cheaper options.

Stara Konoba, a great place for seafood, despite having children on the menu......
Stara Konoba, a great place for seafood, despite having children on the menu……

Verudela Peninsula

Verudela Beach, Pula, Croatia. The beautiful Istrian coastline and view from behind the Hotel Brioni at sunset.
Verudela Beach, Pula, Croatia. The beautiful Istrian coastline and view from behind the Hotel Brioni at sunset.

South of the city lies the beautiful Verudela Peninsula. Although this is a little more commercialised and sprawling with hotels and holiday resorts, the coastal path is lined with lovely pine trees and is great for a morning or evening stroll. The rocky ledges are perfect for sitting in the evening and watching the sunset over the Brioni Islands.

Verudela Beach, Pula, Croatia. The beautiful Istrian coastline and view from behind the Hotel Brioni at sunset.
Verudela Beach, Pula, Croatia. The beautiful Istrian coastline and view from behind the Hotel Brioni at sunset.

Verudela Beach, Pula, Croatia. The beautiful Istrian coastline and view from behind the Hotel Brioni at sunset.

Getting there:

Jet2.com flies from London Stansted

Easyjet flies from London Gatwick and Southend to Pula

You can fly direct from Dublin to Pula with Aer Lingus

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In Search of Nessie https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/in-search-of-nessie/ Wed, 17 Apr 2019 21:26:36 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1767 The legend of the Loch Ness monster is one that has fascinated scientists and tourists for centuries. I was no different, so I went in search of nessie.

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Nessie, the elusive Loch Ness Monster

Creeping slowly and carefully out of the hostel dormitory at an ungodly hour just before sunrise, trying not to wake the only other occupant who had kept me awake anyway with his monster snoring, I made my way bleary-eyed to the car and headed to the shore of Loch Ness. Parking in the car park at Urquart Castle, I found a spot, set up my tripod and camera and prepared for the sunrise, and for Nessie.

At Loch Ness
At Loch Ness

The legend of the Loch Ness monster is one that has fascinated scientists and tourists alike for centuries. I was no different, having read numerous accounts of his sighting. Loch Ness is a vast body of water, stretching 23 miles in length and 600 feet in depth. The most famous sighting was in 1934, when a British gynaecologist called Robert Kenneth Wilson produced a photograph of a creature in the water with a long neck and large body protruding from the murky water. This photo became one the most famous images ever shot of Nessie, and sparked a flurry of tourists and monster hunters all flocking to the lake to catch their glimpse. In 1994 it was revealed that the photo was a hoax, when the surgeon admitted on his death bed that he used a model submarine and fitted it with the head of a toy sea serpent.

However, this was not the only photo taken of Nessie, and although some are also claimed to be hoaxes, others cannot be verified. But the legend of Nessie goes way back beyond the 20th century sightings. As far back as the sixth century there have been stories of a large aquatic creature living in the loch. The earliest account was of the Irish Saint Columba who, after his self-imposed exile from Ireland, came to Scotland and visited Loch Ness in 565AD. According to one story, the saint rescued a man from the clutches of a giant monster in the lake by repelling the creature with the sign of the cross.

Drumnadrochit

Since childhood I’d wanted to visit Loch Ness and embark upon my own Nessie hunt, and finally I got the chance. Work had brought me to Scotland for a week and so I had decided to spend the weekend. In the little village of Drumnadrochit is the Loch Ness Backpackers hostel, which is a great budget option with friendly and helpful staff. It’s also located just a stone’s throw away from Urquart Castle and the lake; perfect for monster hunters!!

Urquart Castle

The castle ruins sit on the rocky promontory of Strone Point, and many sightings of Nessie have been made from here; many probably during walks home from the pub. The castle was once a stronghold of Robert the Bruce, until being blown up by the English in 1692. I had hoped to get a nice sunrise shot with Nessie silhouetted against the backdrop of the loch, but thick cloud thwarted that idea, closely followed by heavy rain. I packed up my equipment and dived back into the car.

Raining at Loch Ness in Scotland.

It rained for the rest of the day, so I spent it in the car driving around. But it seemed that Nessie doesn’t come out in the rain. The next morning I had to leave for Aberdeen, so I took a leisurely drive south along the A82, which runs alongside the loch. I pulled over every now and then to take photos, still keeping a sharp eye out for any mysterious shapes in the water. But it seemed that Nessie was being camera shy today.

Misty morning reflections of Loch Ness in Scotland. Boats reflected as the morning mist dissipates near Fort Augustus.

Fort Augustus

At the southern end of the lake, near Fort Augustus, I came upon a small bay where the moored boats, surrounding one old wreck, were perfectly reflected in the still water of the lake. The rain had stopped and although not sunny, the low clouds cast an eerie shadow on the lake and shafts of light flooded through to illuminate the surrounding mountains, whose myriad array of colours brightened up the otherwise dull day. It was beautiful.

Here I turned off onto the B862 which looped me back north along the other side before heading east.

Morning over Loch Ness in Scotland.

It would have been extremely lucky of me to have actually spotted Nessie in such a short visit. People have camped out for weeks without a single sighting. Does it exist? Well, there have been so many sightings over the centuries that it’s hard to dismiss the idea. Locals have known of this for hundreds of years, often telling their children to stay away from the Kelpie in the lake. It’s entirely possible for aquatic wildlife to live here undetected in its murky depths. Due to the high peat content, the loch’s visibility is virtually zero. The water is so cold that anything that died would not float to the surface and would quickly be devoured by other creatures. Some scientists claim that Nessie is a plesiosaur, an aquatic dinosaur that somehow survived to this day, and that there are actually several of them.

As I headed away from the loch, I still believed that Nessie was there and that perhaps one day when I return, he may show himself to me on another photo shoot one misty morning.

Morning over Loch Ness in Scotland.

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The Tale of the Wily Leprechaun https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/the-wily-leprechaun/ Thu, 11 Apr 2019 20:55:08 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1716 In the northeast corner of County Louth in Ireland lies the small and incredibly beautiful Cooley Peninsula. But as well its incredible beauty, it is also home to one wily little leprechaun.

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Powerful Fairy Magic on the Cooley Peninsula

O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.
O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.

In the northeast corner of County Louth in Ireland lies the small and incredibly beautiful Cooley Peninsula. But as well its incredible beauty, it is also home to one wily little Leprechaun.

A long time ago when the giants walked the land of Ireland, the fairies (also known as the wee folk) lived in the underworld, a land known as the Tir na Nog (the land of eternal youth). The fairies were considered to be the most beautiful of all the spirits of this land. The fairy women are always born beautiful, but on occasion a fairy man may be born ugly (some say this is often a result of the union between a human man and a fairy woman). Whatever the reason, the ugly male offspring is considered to be unfitting for the fairy kingdom, and the male baby is cast out and left to fend for itself. This cast-off is known as the Leprechaun. And these, along with all the other wee folk lived long after the giants disappeared.

Here on the Cooley Peninsula, in the principle town of Carlingford, which sits in the shadow of Slieve Foy, is a local pub known as H O’Hare. The original owner of this pub was a Leprechaun hunter and would often go into the hills in search of the little men. According to local folklore, the Leprechaun is a vagabond and due to being cast off as a child, devises all manner of devious, mischievous methods to survive. This includes stealing food, clothes and gold and treasure from people’s homes. If captured, you might be able to force him to give up the location of his hidden treasures.

To Catch a Leprechaun

Sean Og the leprechaun in O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.

The pub owner went out one day way back in 1946 and captured a little rascal called Sean Og. He took him back to his pub and forced him to live in captivity, letting him out occasionally to entertain the drinkers with his music. For years he tried to coerce the wily little fellow to give up the secret of his treasure, but Sean proved too clever for his captor and always managed to talk his way around it, often sending his captor on a wild goose chase.

The Great Escape

55 years later, Sean finally made his escape, sneaking out one evening in 2001 after luring his captor into a night of wild music and drinking. Once the owner was suitably inebriated, Sean slipped quietly out the back door.

Sean Og the leprechaun in O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.
Sean Og’s clothes, tools and musical instruments in O hare pub in Carlingford.
Sean Og the leprechaun in O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.

The pub retained many of Sean’s clothes and now offers a reward for his return. Every night the owners go out in search of him, but Sean is too clever to be captured a second time.

Fairy Hill

On a nearby road that heads up into the Cooley Mountains is a phenomenon known as Magic Hill. Many people have driven this seemingly nondescript section of road and passed by without ever knowing what was there. But those who have stopped have suddenly found that their car will roll back up the hill when the brake is released. The scientific community have called this an optical illusion, where it looks like the hill is sloping upwards, but is actually sloping down. Many of the locals think otherwise. They believe it to be the work of powerful fairy magic. Could it be that this is yet another devious trick by the wily Sean Og; a ruse to distract the traveller who dares to stop there and may discover him and his hidden treasure?

I tried, but his magic is so strong that all I could do was roll up and down the hill in my van in childish fascination at this strange phenomenon. Once I had overcome the powerful force of his magic it was too late, as Sean had managed once again to escape the clutches of his potential captor. Perhaps others will have more luck, for a grand reward awaits the intrepid explorer who manages to outwit this wily Leprechaun.

Sean Og the leprechaun in O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.
Sean Og the leprechaun in O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.
Sean Og the leprechaun in O hare pub in Carlingford. County Louth, Ireland.

The real truth, according to a local Leprechaun Whisperer

Obviously, if you hadn’t already guessed, the tale above is based on the story I saw on the wall of O Hare pub when I visited many years ago, with a little added “poetic license” on my part. However, I was recently contacted by Kevin Woods, known to all as the Last Leprechaun Whisperer, who corrected me with, “the real story”.

According to Kevin, this story is a complete distortion of the truth, and the clothes and musical instruments were bought by the new owner of the pub in the local pound shop!

Kevin says that what really happened was this:
In 1989, the pub’s original owner, P.J. O’ Hare, found the Leprechaun’s discarded clothes and bones on Slieve Foy, along with some gold coins. He states the Leprechaun was attacked by a demon.

Kevin believes that this was one of more than 200 leprechauns that live on the peninsula, just below the mountain. In 2009 the European Habitat Directive gave the area a protected status, thus allowing the wee folk to live in peace.

Join the annual Leprechaun hunt

As a mark of their gratitude, every year on the first day of summer the wee folk leave 1000 little pots, each with a voucher inside that can be cashed in at a business in Carlingford.

In order to participate in the hunt, you need to register, pay the hunting fee, and get your official hunting license.

This year, 2019, the hunt takes place on Sunday May 12th. More info here:

For more info on the original discovery in 1989, watch this video:

For another story on Magic Road and directions on how to get there, read my other article:

Mysterious World Ireland

For more information on Ireland’s ancient history, folklore and legends check out my book, Mysterious World: Ireland.

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World Autism Awareness Month in Ljubljana https://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/world-autism-awareness-month-in-ljubljana/ Wed, 03 Apr 2019 21:20:37 +0000 http://www.ianmiddletontravelwriter.com/?p=1667 Some think we should celebrate autism and not change it, others that we shouldn't celebrate and just try to help or cure it. I think we should strive to do both......

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View over Ljubljana centre to the Ljubljana Castle lit up blue for Autism Awareness Day 2019 Slovenia
View over Ljubljana centre to the Ljubljana Castle lit up blue for Autism Awareness Day 2019

A spectrum of opinion

April 2nd was the officially recognised World Autism Day, which is actually just the start of World Autism Month 2019. In Ljubljana, Slovenia, the city castle was lit up blue as part of the international light it up blue campaign.

Autism is classified as a spectrum disorder, but what has also become apparent to me is that there is a spectrum of opinion as to whether or not we should accept and celebrate autism, or just try to cure it. On one end of the spectrum some say we should accept autism as a neurological difference, celebrate the difference and not try to change it. Whereas on the other side of the spectrum some say we should not accept and celebrate autism, and instead simply try to cure it.

But how about we meet halfway and try to do both?

A world of negativity

When my son was being evaluated, we lived through a horrendous world of negativity. Not our negativity, but that of many of the so-called experts evaluating him. We listened to a constant list of things he doesn’t do, cannot do, and won’t do; people who only saw what was on the surface and never looked deeper to ask why. Listening to them, you would think that he is terrible at everything. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It seemed that many of the people evaluating him were not in the slightest bit interested in what he does well. Any positive characteristics and skills we brought up were met with a dismissive nod, or a “yes but, he doesn’t do this”

When he was finally diagnosed with autism and dyspraxia, we thought maybe now that would change. But that was just wishful thinking. His school reports and teacher’s meetings are filled with a list of things he still doesn’t do. When we say that we have seen a lot of progression and improvement, the response is that it’s not fast enough. After a recent session with his new Educational Psychologist, when asked what I thought, I said that I saw a huge improvement and that two years ago he wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the things she had requested of him. Again, no reaction. No, “that’s really good to hear.” “So he is progressing well.” Nothing.

And that I fear will be the bulk of my son’s life.

Ljubljana Castle lit up blue for Autism Awareness Day 2019 Slovenia

Who are really the ones that are not adaptable?

All of us have strengths and weaknesses. We all have deficits in something. Yet for us so-called neurotypicals, for the most part we don’t get continuously reminded of our deficits on a daily basis. We are not constantly told we need to improve, or do things a different way. Yet, for the most part, children and adults with neurological differences are expected to adapt to our way of doing things. We never try to meet them halfway.

One mother of an autistic child said the following:

“I have a real beef with the notion of celebrating autism when 22% of children with autism develop epilepsy and 70% experience gastrointestinal problems. In a recent study in the Lancet, two-thirds of adults with Asperger Syndrome, now part of the autism spectrum, reported considering suicide. 35% had made specific plans or an attempt. Another study showed children with autism were three times more likely than their typically developing siblings to be bullied. Children with developmental disabilities have a substantially increased risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse. Which of these grim statistics are we called to celebrate?”

But by celebrating autism, I don’t really feel that we are celebrating these aspects of it. We celebrate the achievements of neurotypical people, yet these people no doubt also have some health and personal problems. Should we not celebrate their achievements because of that?

How we treat them makes a huge difference

I can’t help feeling that many of the problems above are, in large part, exacerbated by the fact that their achievements are not celebrated enough; that their skills and talents are not praised enough and helped to be developed. In many cases these are largely ignored, or, and this is the worst part, put down to autism, as if it is a bad thing. “He has a superior intellect because he has autism.” But maybe, just maybe, he just has a superior intellect despite his autism. Many neurotypicals also have superior intellects. “She has an amazing talent for drawing because she has autism.” Did the famous renaissance painters also have autism? When you have a strong interest in something, and are allowed to pursue it, it’s amazing what you can do.

When a person loses an ability, it’s a well-known fact that other senses and abilities are enhanced, chiefly because these abilities are worked harder to compensate. A blind person, for example, will develop a heightened sense of hearing or smell.

A person with autism likely does the same.

Chris Packham credits his superior knowledge and understanding of the natural world to his aspergers and his hyperfocus. And while it’s likely this helped, I think that it’s chiefly because he has an interest and talent for it, and was allowed to pursue it. Chris was diagnosed as an adult, but I can’t help wondering that if he had been diagnosed as a child, his fascination with the natural world would have been accredited to his autism and therefore restricted. Much more focus would have been put on his social deficits in an effort to stop him appearing weird to others. Rather than be allowed to go off into the forest alone and study everything up close, he would have been made to spend more time learning social skills so he could fit in better. In that case, would he have gone on to become the brilliant naturalist he is today? Would constant focus on his social awkwardness and a need to correct this, have eroded his self-confidence and sent him spiralling into a world of depression and self doubt?

The fact is that we all have skills and talents, and we all have weaknesses and deficits. It’s just that children and adults with neurological difficulties have deficits that are more prevalent, and together they form an impairment which inhibits their ability to function in many other ways. So their skills and talents are often overshadowed by their struggles with aspects of daily life that we take for granted.

My son’s dyspraxia means that he has to work 50 times harder to carry out even the simplest task, such as holding a pencil. This, I can see, is mentally and physically exhausting for him. And he often needs a time out. Most people think that when he runs away or refuses to do something, he is being disobedient or just wants to do what he wants. But, while this may be true on occasions (after all, he is still a child) more often than not it’s a way of dealing with the frustration that has built up due to his dyspraxia inhibiting his ability to carry out tasks. When encouraged, he often comes back after a time out.

Think about the last time you had to do a task that no matter how hard you tried you just couldn’t do it. Remember how the frustration and tension built up the more you tried. And remember how you wanted to, or did, throw it down and walk away. This is how my son feels whenever he is faced with something he is unable yet to do.

We emphasized this time and time again to his teacher. When she gave him a test one day at first he struggled and couldn’t do it. So she gave him a break, and when they came back tried again. This time he aced the test.

An invisible disability

If a girl has only one leg, she is given crutches to help her walk. When she tries to struggle through a door, someone will hold it open for her. As she walks to her school desk and takes time to sit down, the teacher and children will wait for her. When she is seated and comfortable, the lesson will begin.

But that is not what is done for children with neurological disabilities. In playschool my son couldn’t carry out tasks as quickly as the others. He had trouble following long and complicated instructions that were given at full speed. He has poor balance and coordination, and this has a profound effect on his focus. When the meetings came, his teacher had a long written list of all the things he does wrong.

More often than not these children are seen as badly behaved, or disruptive. When in truth they are far from it. In most cases a child with a missing leg is given support with crutches, and help from others. Therefore the child doesn’t feel rushed, get frustrated, scared or have panic attacks, and because of that isn’t disruptive. But many children with neurological disabilities don’t get this patience and support. These children are often berated for their inabilities, and reminded day after day about what they are not good at and that they need to work harder and do better.

And this is not just the children, this treatment continues into adulthood. I watched a documentary on an autistic man’s attempt to get a job. He gave a speech to a group of businessmen. Now, one difficulty many autistic people have is maintaining eye contact when trying to do something that is very difficult. Speech doesn’t necessarily come instinctively to them, and they require all of their brain power to focus on what they want to say. After his very brave and concerted effort to stand up in front of this group of men and do something that was immensely difficult for him, their immediate response was to point out all the things he did wrong, such as looking into the middle of the room and not at any of them!

Now if someone treated you like that day after day, wouldn’t you spiral into a world of depression, frustration, self-doubt and ultimately contemplate suicide?

Ljubljana centre and Ljubljana Castle lit up blue for Autism Awareness Day 2019 Slovenia

Acceptance doesn’t mean you are not going to help

The Paralympics aims to celebrate the skills and achievements of all people with disabilities. It highlights what can be achieved in the face of great adversity. So why shouldn’t we do that with autism and other neurological disorders?

When a person has a physical disability such as paralysis or a missing limb, we accept that person for who they are. We celebrate that person’s courage in living with their disability, and striving to overcome the deficit they have in life.

But do we not also strive to give that person the support they need for better mobility and improved functioning? In the case of a missing limb, you could say that this is a lifelong disability, and there is no cure. But are scientists not looking for ways to help with innovative ideas such as a bio-mechanical replacement, or even ways to grow a new limb back?

Acceptance is the road to recovery

Now the purpose of Autism Awareness Month is not to celebrate their struggles, but to celebrate their achievements and praise their efforts, no matter how big or small; and through this raise awareness and promote understanding and acceptance.

Through celebration comes acceptance, through acceptance comes understanding, through understanding comes knowledge, through knowledge support, through support treatment, and through treatment maybe one day improvement or recovery from one or more of their impairments.

But just because autism is hard for both autistic people and their families, why can we not celebrate their achievements? Why can we not celebrate the unique skills and talents they have, and the challenges many have faced, fought and in some cases overcome?

It’s precisely because of all the negativity they face, that we need to celebrate. From the day my son was born I have praised his efforts and his achievements. When he struggles to do things I support him, encourage him and help him every time he asks. When he achieves his goal, he comes running to me shouting, “Daddy, I did it!” I fling my arms around him, give him the biggest high five and tell him, “You see what you can do? You see how smart you are?”

And he goes back and does it again, but this time he doesn’t need my help. And every time he gets praised for his efforts and successes, the more he is encouraged to work harder at the things he wants to do, but finds incredibly difficult.

Now I ask you this, wouldn’t you also?

Some say that autism is just a difference, and it’s not something that needs to be cured. Some say the opposite. But whatever your opinion, the fact is that they need to be helped, supported, encouraged, praised for their efforts and their achievements celebrated, just like everyone else.

So, as well as trying to help and support them, how about instead of constantly focussing only on their inabilities, we focus more on their abilities? Why don’t we work to build their self-esteem and self-confidence through acceptance, praise and celebration of their achievements no matter how big or small? After all, it’s not just their deficits that need improving; it’s their skills and talents too.

Useful links

National Autistic Society

Autism Society

Dyspraxia Foundation

Dyspraxia USA

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