Ireland Day 7: Kilkenny Castle, Jerpoint Abbey and Graiguenamanagh

One of the best towns in Ireland for tourists is Kilkenny. It is considered the loveliest inland city, and is located in the southeast part of the country (for a map showing the location click here). It is a well-kept town with a variety of painted buildings and narrow alleyways. The town has two main historical treasures, Kilkenny Castle at one end of town and St. Canice’s Cathedral at the other.

The 18th century Tholsel (city hall) with a clock tower is the main landmark on the High Street in Kilkenny. It is still used by city councilors today.

Kilkenny Castle sits above the River Nore, and dates from the 12thcentury although it’s been heavily remodeled and restored over the centuries and now is decorated in the finest fashion of the Victorian era (1830’s). It has some great paintings, furnishings and wooden ceilings. It was owned and occupied by the Butler family until the 1930’s (a very influential family dating back to the 1300’s who also owned Cahir Castle, discussed in another post, click here). Access to Kilkenny castle is by guided tour only, which lasts about 1 hour. No video or cameras are allowed inside.

Kilkenny Castle from the north side, which faces the town.

View of Kilkenny Castle from the south side.

At the other end of High Street is St. Canice’s Cathedral. The cathedral dates from the 13thcentury and sits on a hill top above the town. I was impressed with the views of Kilkenny from its hundred-foot high round tower. The cathedral is intact and is considered one of Ireland’s key medieval treasures.

A view of St. Canice’s Cathedral, with the round tower which can be climbed.

A view of Kilkenny from the tower at St. Canice’s Cathedral. There are many old churches in this great city.

We also visited Black Abbey in Kilkenny. A Domincan abbey founded in 1225, and a working monastery today.

About 30 kilometers south of Kilkenny are the medieval ruins of Jerpoint Abbey, a large Cistercian abbey founded in the late 12th century that for some reason is not mentioned in Rick Steves’ Ireland book. The tower and cloister date from the 15thcentury. The sculptured cloister arcade is unusual and quite interesting.

A view of the tower of Jerpoint Abbey from the cloister.

The sculptured cloister at Jerpoint Abbey.

Both Kilkenny Castle and Jerpoint Abbey are part of the Heritage Ireland system, which means you buy a membership card once and don’t have to pay individual entry fees at each site which is part of the system.

The town of Graiguenamanagh was NOT on our itinerary, but a rental car breakdown (my first ever) in this town caused us to spend the night here. We actually enjoyed our overnight stop in this little town on the Barrow River. This was a chance to experience a quiet little Irish village, just a little ways east of Jerpoint Abbey.

The town of Graiguenamanagh on the Barrow River.

Seven Things to Do in Taos

For a fun getaway consider Taos, New Mexico. In summer of 2011 we finally visited “The Land of Enchantment.” We’ve lived in Colorado for 20 years, and have talked about visiting this little artsy village almost every year and finally did it! We spent a 3 day weekend headquartered in Taos and visited a number of sights in the surrounding area. At the time of our visit, the huge forest fires near Los Alamos were still raging, but winding down. Still, there was a fair amount of smoke in the air, but luckily it didn’t really affect our trip.

Downtown shops and restaurants in Taos

Taos is nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The flags of Spain, Mexico and the U.S. have flown over Taos. It and Santa Fe are known for their unique architecture. Most of the historical construction is adobe, which is basically mud bricks made with straw for more strength. The adobe has to be resurfaced regularly (like yearly) to keep it intact. It is a high maintenance building material, but provides an interesting “southwestern” look to local buildings.

Here are seven things to keep you busy in the Taos area:

1. Taos Pueblo. Just three miles northwest of Taos is the Taos Pueblo, home of the Taos Pueblo Native Americans, and signature landmark of Taos. This is a living historical monument, with people living here as they have for perhaps 900 years (although I understand only about 25 live here full time). The homes are authentic—no running water or electricity. The water source is the Red Willow Creek which runs through the middle of the Pueblo. Bread is baked in outdoor adobe ovens. One cannot go into the homes without being invited, but it is possible to get a feel for the inside of the dwellings through the small shops located around the Pueblo. The entrance fee to the Pueblo is about $15/person with taxes plus a camera fee of $6.

Taos Pueblo with drying racks in front


Another part of Taos Pueblo

2. Ledoux Street. Named after a French trapper, this street had gates at each end in the 1800’s. Nowadays, this little street contains many art galleries. Taos is known for its artists, and this street has some wonderful examples. Don’t miss two museums on this street: Blumenschein Home and Museum, named after one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists and Harwood Museum, which includes 2000 works of art and 17, 000 images from the 19th century to the present.

One of the many artist museums and shops on Ledoux Street

3. San Francisco de Asis Church. At the eastern end of Taos, is the Church of San Francisco, one of the most picturesque adobe churches in the area. Right next to the church are some dilapidated old adobe buildings which provide insight into the construction methods used with the timber and adobe materials. The church is usually open by 10 am.

The adobe San Francisco de Asis Church

4. Hacienda de los Martinez. With my love of history, I found this Hacienda, also made of adobe, quite interesting. It is just two miles west of Taos and was built in 1804. It has 21 rooms around two courtyards, including living and working areas. A good brochure provided with your ticket explains the use and history of each room, giving the visitor a good feel for what life was like on a ranch in New Mexico in the 1800’s. The cost is $8/person.

One of the courtyards and wells of the Hacienda
One of the living areas of the Hacienda
The tanner workshop at the Hacienda

5. Ojo Caliente Hot Springs and Spa. About 50 miles southeast of Taos is Ojo Caliente Hot Springs, which contains 7 mineral pools, including private hot pools which can be rented. It is a small modern resort that is in the middle of the New Mexico desert. Accommodations include cottages, hotel rooms, and a RV park. In addition to the spa and springs, hiking and bike trails add to the list of things to do. If you’re looking for solitude and relaxation, this is a quiet little spot with nice services. The entrance fee for 1 day was $30/person. Visit for more information.

The entrance to the Ojo Caliente Resort
One of the seven pools of Ojo Caliente Resort

6. Earthship Biotecture. I wrote a separate post on our visit to Earthship country, just outside Taos amongst the sagebrush. Homes here are made of old discarded materials, such as tires, bottles, and cans which minimize the impact to the environment. There is a visitor’s center (open 7 days a week) providing information and a feel for the distinctive architecture and sustainable lifestyle.

One of the unique earthship homes near Taos

7. Visit Santa Fe. If we were to do our visit over again, we would stay in Santa Fe, since it has more accommodation and dining options, and visit Taos from Santa Fe. Santa Fe is a beautiful town, with lots of history also, as the end point of the famous Santa Fe Trail. We visited the historical part of town on one of our days. It’s about a 75 minute drive to Santa Fe from Taos.

The Gothic Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe

The miraculous staircase of the Loretto Chapel

One of the most interesting things in Santa Fe is the Gothic Loretto Chapel, built in 1873, open daily, and located in the heart of the historical district. This church contains a spiral wooden stair case that contains no center or side support! Even now, construction engineers don’t quite know how this staircase holds itself up. The entry fee is $3.

The oldest house in the U.S. (dates from 1646) in Santa Fe

This stone marks the end of the Santa Fe Trail in downtown Santa Fe.

Location of Taos, Ojo Caliente and Santa Fe.

Travel guidebooks—which ones are best?

You’re starting to plan your upcoming vacation to Europe and find yourself looking at several different guidebooks. You notice that Rick Steves, Fodors and Frommers all provide guidebooks of your chosen destination, but which one should you buy? Which book would provide the most helpful information as you are travelling?

Throughout my travels I’ve used a lot of different guidebooks. I’ve found that purchasing two different travel guidebooks for a given location is valuable, because no one author or travel service provides everything. I describe my non-existent “perfect guidebook” below, and my likes and dislikes of each travel book (using as my reference hard copies rather than ebook versions).

My perfect travel guidebook would contain the following:

  • Lots of practical information. By “practical” I mean: How do I get around? For example, in a country like Croatia, understanding the ferry system is critical and complicated—the ferry websites are a nightmare. What should I know to avoid mistakes and how do I make my time efficient? Can I drive myself? Road conditions? What is the location like? Assume I’m a first-time visitor—what should I be prepared for? What do I need to know before I board the plane—what do you wish you knew before you went? Tell me the best tips for “bypassing the crowds.”
  • Get me out of the city. If it’s a guidebook on the UK, don’t spend half the book telling me about London.
  • Sites. Why should I go there? What does it look like? How do I get there? What are opening hours? Key historical or other interesting facts? Tell me about interesting “less discovered” spots that most tours bypass.
  • Hotels. A few pros and cons about listed hotels are helpful, especially related to cleanliness, location and availability of car parking.
  • Food. Don’t spend too much time on food. I can figure that out, and most of the time I will worry more about location convenience to where I am staying or going than special cuisine.
  • Language. I’ve never understood why most guidebooks insist on trying to teach me complicated phrases, the answers to which I wouldn’t understand anyway. Give me a few basic words, numbers 1-10, and a few common food items so I can figure out a menu, politely greet and thank people and purchase entry tickets in their own language.

Here are some of the more common travel guides and my thoughts about each:

Pros: DK Eyewitness Travel provides a very comprehensive review of a country or region. Great color pictures of locations. Excellent graphical depictions and explanations of key sites. I love the regional maps and references to locations. Whenever possible, I like to combine an Eyewitness book with another book that provides more detailed practical info.

Cons: Due to high quality printing, books are heavy to carry. Practical information (see my thoughts above) is limited.

Pros: Fodor’s is a pretty good compromise between DK Eyewitness’ comprehensiveness and the practical information of Rick Steves’. Good hotel information and recommendations. Decent restaurant recommendations.

Cons: Limited historical information for historical sites.

Pros: Rick Steves offers lightweight “newsprint” type of paper, so books are light and easy to carry. Good recommended walking tours and hand-drawn maps of sites, pointing out interesting features. Good practical information for sites listed. Always notes the local “Tourist Information” offices for further information upon arrival.

Cons: Not comprehensive. Information only covers locations Rick feels are important. If a town or site is not on Rick’s itinerary, then forget about it. For example, we found his book on Spain quite limited. Spain is a large country, with many interesting small towns and sites that are completely bypassed in Rick’s book.

Pros: Lonely Planet is also lightweight. I like the recommended travel itineraries for 1, 2 or 3 weeks, which help identify and prioritize key sites. Good hotel/hostel information. Good transportation information. Pretty good site historical and practical information about locations.

Cons: Few, if any pictures. Maps are small and less user-friendly.

Frommers has improved over the years. In the past, I was disappointed by the lack of pictures and specifics about many locations.

Pros: “Star system” for rating sites, helping to prioritize must-see locations.

Cons: Not comprehensive, some locations left out of the books.

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

Meteora, Part II – For Your Eyes Only

My first introduction to Meteora was the 1981 James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only,” which starred Roger Moore and Carol Bouquet, with the theme song sung by Sheena Easton—a song that was stuck in my head during our visit! As with all James Bond movies, this movie covered a number of exotic locations, including Meteora, Greece.

I always find it fascinating how different many locations are from the supposed setting of the movie. The more one travels, the more one realizes how often different places (like Malta) are used as a filming location for movies set in Greece, Turkey or Israel, for example. In this case, Meteora was actually used for at least some of the scenes of For Your Eyes Only.

The part of the movie set in Meteora is where a young girl, a hopeful Olympic ice skater, is being sequestered by her coach and an evil sponsor, who has a small computer device that controls the U.S. nuclear submarine fleet’s missiles. The monastery used for the film is the Monastery of the Holy Trinity (in the movie called “St. Cyril’s”) which is the most isolated of those in Meteora, and perhaps the one with the most striking location, set on a huge standalone pinnacle, with an incredible view of the valley and city of Kalambaka below.

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

View of Kalambaka from Holy Trinity Monastery.

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

View of Holy Trinity Monastery

Several of the agents with Roger Moore reach the monastery via the windlass and basket, which is indeed high above the ground. In reality, the windlass was used to bring supplies and people up into the monastery in troubled times. In the movie, the windlass has an electric motor, which does not exist. Also in the movie, the windlass room is shown as an enclosed separate area, which is not accurate.

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

A long way up by basket….

Holy Trinity Monastery, Greece.

The windlass room (the winch in the center would be operated by hand in days past).

The chapel where the ice skater is held is much smaller in real life also.


The Chapel of Holy Trinity Monastery.

Unable to use the windlass, James Bond climbs the rock pinnacle using technical equipment, which is much more vertical than shown in several scenes in the movie. He would have found it easier to the use the long stairway, part of which is carved into the rock face.

Stairway to Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

The carved stairway up to Holy Trinity Monastery.

It easy to see why Meteora was a setting for the film—it is truly unique, stunning and beautiful. For more information please see my post “Meteora—Nearly out of this World.”

Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece.

Another view…