I didn’t expect a bus tour with a bunch of strangers to bring me to sights that rivaled those of the Grand Canyon. I didn’t expect to find sheep in the middle of an ancient monastery. I didn’t expect one of my roommates to fall for an Australian guy on the same bridge where Hillary Swank and Gerard Butler met for the first time in PS I Love You. I didn’t expect the rain to soak through my jacket or the wind atop the Wicklow Mountains to take my breath away.
You could say I didn’t know what to expect (or, more accurately, didn’t have tremendously high hopes for a bus tour led by a man named Johnny with glasses that made his eyes look swollen).
Jess, Abbie, Courtney, and I were the last group to be picked up by Johnny the chain-smoking tour guide, which meant that Abbie and Courtney sat in the way back of the bus/van thing, and Jess and I sat upfront with Johnny. Of course, I had to sit by Johnny in the middle seat, but it was okay because I knew we had the best seats with the best views on the whole tour. I was not wrong.
After getting adjusted to riding passenger on the left side of the vehicle (where the steering should have been) and thinking to myself that Johnny was going to burn out his clutch if he didn’t learn how to delay his shift from first to second gear, we arrived at the stables. It wasn’t exactly part of the tour, but Courtney had signed up and shelled out for horseback riding, so while she did that, we’d all go on with the tour and come back for her later. The roads were windy and so thin that Johnny had to honk any time he came around the bend.
Our first real stop was Powerscourt Gardens, which are famous in Ireland for being the most well-kept and lovely gardens in the whole country. If the flowers had been blooming, I’m sure it would have been spectacular. Even so, the gardens were well-maintained and sprawling. The main backyard area was sunken into the earth with perfect sloped walls around the outside edges; call me crazy, but all I could think was how great it would be to roll or sled down them. We ambled slowly down the middle steps, taking photos every few feet because, as millennials, we can only see through the screens of our phones. Really, the whole place was photo-worthy and we did our best to capture it’s misty essence.
We wound our way around the trails beyond the main backyard of the gardens, finding quiet mountain views, ponds with fountains, and a quaint pet cemetery where all sorts of beloved dogs, horses, and cows are buried. We only had so much time to see the whole place before we had to meet Johnny back at the bus, so we doubled back to the main entrance and followed a trail leading to a round tower surrounded by cannons. We climbed up the spiral staircase and enjoyed the view from up top.
We made our way quickly down to the Japanese Gardens, which were the last spot we hadn’t visited at the gardens. To make it interesting, we only had about five minutes to do so. It was very cute, sort of like the Japanese Garden at Maymont in Richmond, VA if you’ve been, but no waterfall or koi pond. We ran into a group of Spanish-speaking gents who wanted us to take their photo and we made an agreement to swap a picture for a picture despite the language barrier. We took a photo of them and then they insisted that we also get in the photo with them. We thought it was weird, but didn’t want to make a fuss about it, so we dutifully posed with them. It wasn’t until one of the guys made a point to get between Abbie and me that I got suspicious. We did get them to take our photo, but as we walked away, we realized that we were going to be allover their Facebooks later as their American friends/hookups. Gross. We were not pleased and agreed that next time, we’d ask a granny to take our photo even if it means our heads got cut out of the shot.
Then came the fun part. We bought some postcards and then went out front to wait for Johnny the balding tour guide. We waited. And we waited. And we waited some more. By the time we were frozen to our bones, he was nearly thirty minutes late. So I stood up and told Jess and Abbie, “He’s late and we’re getting coffee.” We marched back inside, figuring he’d show up the moment we left, and got some coffee (steamed milk for me). Fun fact, “to go” is called “take away” here and it’s often cheaper than dining in. We got our warm drinks to go in pretty red damask cups and went back out to find…not Johnny. It was another ten minutes after we got drinks that he finally showed up. Turns out the group he’d taken hiking up the road were not fit enough to complete the walk, which slowed the whole tour down forty-five minutes. We were not pleased.
We had lunch in a little restaurant called Poppy’s Country Cooking where we reunited with Courtney after her horseback riding adventure, and then piled back in the bus/van to head through the Wicklow Mountains down Sally Gap Road. I wasn’t sure what to expect since the guidebooks all talk about Powerscourt Gardens and Glendalough (which we’ll get to), but they never spend much time talking about the winding roads between the two. I’ll be the first to say that Powerscourt was nice, but the real sight of our entire tour was the bogs stretching out for miles in all directions over rolling mountain-sides. There’s truly nothing like in the US or really anywhere in the world except for Yorkshire, England. The bogs this time of the year are a burnt orange spreading out in layer upon layer of vegetation and earth, slowly absorbing rainwater like a sponge and growing upwards to the sky. No pictures could even begin to capture the majesty. If anything, the closest comparison I can make is the Grand Canyon, and I realize that’s a big statement. Trade out live earth for the stone and the river running through the middle of the canyon for a road and you have the bogs of Wicklow County, Ireland.
A little beyond the bogs, we turned onto a road famous for one its bridges, which was featured in the movie PS I Love You. It was where Hillary Swank and Gerard Butler first met and she asked him how to get to Wicklow National Park. The joke is that, of course, she was already in it since the park stretched through all the bogs and mountains. The only problem with the scene is that it presents Hillary Swank as simply ambling down the road, which is quite impossible since it’s in the middle of nowhere. She would have had to walk for miles to get to that bridge just to ask Gerard Butler where she was going (and it surely would have involved some tears of frustration if it weren’t Hollywood). We got out a took photos on the bridge, taking in the waterfall soaring underneath. We didn’t mind the rain so much because it was all so magnificent and really, I couldn’t believe my luck to be in such a lovely place.
The bridge also was the beginning of another story, one that’s still playing out. Courtney, not pictured above (for reasons that will soon be apparent), began chatting up Simon Hunt, an Australian lad also on our tour back when we’d made a quick stop at Glencree, a World War II burial site situated next to a lovely waterfall. (Side note: as it turns out, even though Ireland was neutral in WWII, they’d been supplying Germans with food the whole time, maybe because tensions with Britain were still high and anything to spite them was a worthy cause). Courtney and Simon, by the time we got to the bridge, were already deep in conversation together and unaware of what was going on around them. While the rest of the tour stayed on top of the bridge, they climbed down below near the edge of the creek. When it was time to go, we all piled back in the bus/van, at which point we realized Courtney and Simon were still under the bridge (snogging, assumedly but in reality only a dream). Johnny has rough sense of humor, which I appreciated, and so when the pair finally came running up the cliffside, Johnny began to drive away, making them chase after the vehicle for a little ways. It was sort of like its own movie.
Johnny made me bus/van DJ, which meant finding the CDs he told me to find and putting them in his antiquated CD player. We were able to listen to Irish folk music though with traditional instruments, especially pipes. Riding along the thin road – so thin Johnny had to slow down and pull over any time another car came along – seeing the bog lands and listening to the music of the land, I’ve never felt more Irish. We soon came up to our last photo-op for the Wicklow Mountains before we got to Glendalough. We passed some sheep feeding near the roadside first, which was idyllic, and pulled over when we came to Lough Tay, a lake at the bottom of a steep hill. The wind was bitter but the views were incredible. From up on the hill I could see every dip in the land, the very nuances a photo can never capture. I fell in love with this country on that hilltop.
Of course, it’s possible that Courtney and Simon also fell in love on that hilltop. They talked the whole way to Glendalough (pronounced glenda-lock) and had no idea that Johnny, Jess, and I were talking about her up in the front seat, sometimes even over Johnny’s microphone. He said, “It seems like the bridge worked, doesn’t it?” and listening to them talk, I had to agree that maybe the PS I Love You bridge did have some magical powers. It was about ten miles from the lovely view in the mountains to Glendalough, and because of Johnny’s inability to manage time (he could take the insult), we only had forty minutes to enjoy the centuries-old monastic settlement, the first in Ireland. While the dark ages loomed over the rest of Europe, it was here at Glendalough that the monks kept writing and translating and carving and building. Christianity took root and began to spread throughout Ireland.
The real beauty of the place rests in the remains. Seven churches lay in some state of ruin on the grounds along with old grave sites and marble crosses so old that the weather has pounded the inscriptions and coloring right out of them. There’s a perfectly intact tower in the middle of the ruins and one church that remains standing nearly intact. The tower is where the monks would hide as a last resort during invasion, which wasn’t exactly smart because the enemy always knew right where to find them. Many towers like this one existed all over Ireland, but this is the one that remains in the best condition.
Courtney and Simon spent the time walking together, of course. Though I ventured off by myself, I tried to keep one eye on the old gravestones and one eye on the budding lovers. I even managed to sneak a picture of him taking a picture of her (and on their wedding day they will treasure it so).
After spotting some sheep on the way out grazing on a hillside of the cemetery (weird and so adorable), we piled back in the bus/van to drive back to Dublin. Naturally, without any more sights to see and the rainy sun setting, all attention turned to Courtney and Simon, who spent the majority of the ride home talking to each other. Johnny and I had had our differences by that point (only forty minutes at Glendalough Johnny, really?), but he kept whispering to me about Courtney and Simon and it was hilarious. Eventually we stopped whispering too, because they were so enthralled that they were oblivious to what we were saying. Funny thing is, we’d warned him she could be a bit clueless, and he learned that as we joked in the front seat about their future together, starting with a night out at the pub.
It all came to a crescendo when I heard Courtney ask him what he was doing later, and by the time we pulled to a stop at the curb and Simon got out and disappeared, I figured it was a done deal. But then, Courtney admits that she didn’t get his phone number. Courtney, you asked him out but didn’t get his phone number??? Johnny gave her a hard time for this, but really she was pretty devastated on her own. He was only going to be in town for a few more days and what;s the chance of being able to find him now that he’d disappeared down a dark Dublin street? Johnny and Courtney began planning ways to track him down as he drove us closer to our apartment on his way home. He seemed to be genuinely happy (and willing to take advantage of the joke opportunity) that Courtney had fallen for good ole’ Simon. We even went through all the contact information for everyone on the tour (which was surely illegal) only to find that Simon didn’t enter his phone number or email. Courtney was devastated again.
We wished Johnny farewell and laughed one more time as he told Courtney it was hopeless and she’d screwed it all up (it wasn’t quite as mean as it sounds, but still pretty mean). When we got home, Courtney found him on Facebook and messaged him about getting together again. The wait for his response was agonizing, but when it finally came, she bounded through the door of our apartment and couldn’t even talk she was so excited.
Of course, he said yes to hanging out tomorrow. Did love bloom on our tour to Wicklow County, Ireland? It’s possible that Courtney and Simon will fall madly in love. But it’s also possible their story will slip into the mist.
What’s more certain is that, yes, love did bloom on our Wicklow tour: mine. I have fallen hard for this place. Maybe it was the sheep or the Irish music pulsing through the mountains. Or maybe it was the mountains themselves, pulling at me, fixing me here. My worn brown boots sinking into the mud. Pulling me down while the mountains lift me up.