The name "Glendalough" means "the glen of two lakes" in the Irish language. The valley is located only around 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Irish capital city - Dublin. It's very easily accessible, only one hour drive and it's a perfect place for a weekend or even one-day escape from the city crowds. The ruins of the ancient monastic city, two magnificent lakes surrounded by cliffs and rocks, nearby forests as well as waterfalls create an unforgettable scenery. There are many trails available for visitors in the area. Hiking one of them is not too difficult, there are many observation points that offer a spectacular view over the whole valley, lakes and the monastic city.
How to get to Glendalough
Glendalough is only 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from Dublin. If you drive, you have to head first towards Bray and then from there follow N11. If you don't have a car, there is a bus service from Dawson Street in Dublin (right beside the Saint Stephen's Green Luas Station). The bus departs from Dublin twice a day: in the summer at 11.30 am and 6.00 pm (7.00 pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays). It also stops in Bray. The return ticket costs 20 EUR (26.50 USD). You can find the detailed timetable and more information about the service here: http://www.glendaloughbus.com/
Where to stay in Glendalough
Although it is perfectly possible to hike the main trail that passes by the monastic city, leads up to the top of the nearby hills, circles around the two lakes and goes back to the tourist information office in one day, in case you want to do it at a more comfortable pace, or walk other trails, the best idea is to stay in Glendalough for at least one night. As far as accommodation is concerned, you have virtually countless options to choose, from the high quality hotel located just beside the monastic city and the valley to a cheap, clean and well-maintained youth hostel (less than 20 EUR - 26.50 USD per night per person in a double private room) and many beautiful Bed&Breakfasts that offer very high standard rooms at a reasonable price (around 25 EUR - 33 USD per person per night in a double room, breakfast included). I once stayed in a B&B in Laragh, the village 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) away from Glendalough and they offered breakfast in a beautiful, cozy restaurant where you could choose whatever you liked from the breakfast menu!
What to see in Glendalough
The monastic city lies just beside the tourist information office and the Glendalough hotel. It was founded by Saint Kevin in the sixth century AD. This more than 1500 year-old medieval town contains a few churches, the cathedral, graveyards and the distinctive round tower that rises high up above the settlement. The area was rich in forests and fertile soils that provided crops for the inhabitants and gave the shelter for wild animals. The monks lived in full harmony with the nature. They used herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes, oak galls to make black inc and timber as fuel.
The Gateway of Glendalough was connected to the defensive walls that surrounded the city. It is the only early medieval gateway preserved to this day in Ireland. You can still admire the beautiful arch of this granite construction. It used to have two stories and a wooden roof. In the upper part of the gate, there was probably a guard who was watching those approaching the city.
The Round Tower was built between 900 and 1200 AD. It's around 30 meters (100 feet) high. It was used for calling the monks for prayers as well as for defense purposes. The main door is located 3.5 meter (12 feet) above the ground. It could only be reached by a ladder that in case of invasion was pulled into the tower preventing the invaders to get inside. There is also a smaller hole right above the ground but its purpose is unknown. On the top, there are four windows that were most probably used for observation of the area.
The Cathedral dates back to the tenth century, however, later in the twelfth and thirteenth century some elements and decorations were added, for example the chancel and sacristy. It was dedicated to Saint Peter and Paul. It is the largest of all the churches in Glendalough and the largest early christian church in Ireland. the roof is destroyed but the beauty of the architecture including magnificent arches can still be admired. The floor is paved with gravestones, some of them dating back to the medieval times, some relatively new. Nearby, there is an early christian, medieval, typical to the region cross known as Saint Kevin's Cross.
Saint Kevin's Church known also as Saint Kevin's Kitchen (probably because of its small size) was built in the twelfth century. It is the only church on the site which is completely preserved and has a steep, stone roof. On the top of the church, there's a small round belfry with four windows.
The Reefert Church was built in the eleventh century. It's located a bit away from the main center of the settlement, near the Poulanass Waterfall. The information sign says that it was the burial place of the local chieftain's clan - O'Tools. In the surroundings of the church there is a number of early Christian gravestones and crosses.
The Deer Stone is an example of a bullaun stone (from Irish: bullan) meaning a bowl. It's a flat stone with a hole in it that resembles a vessel. The exact purpose of the deer stone in Glendalough is not known, it might have been use for spiritual or religious rites or for grinding the grains. What's interesting is the story behind it. According to the legend, the wife of one of the Saint Kevin's workers died while giving birth to their twins. The worker asked Saint Kevin for help. After Saint Kevin's prayers, a doe came from the woods every morning and left milk for the workman in the hole in the stone. This way he was able to feed his children. The deer stone was also a pilgrimage station for Christians in Ireland.
The lower and upper lake
From the monastic city, the trail will pass by the lower lake which is quite small and not very spectacular. Much smaller than one of the main attractions of Glendalough, the upper lake. After fifteen minutes walk you should go around the lower lake and reach the upper one. There are some fast food facilities, toilets and also a car park there. There's a lot of space for picnics so it's a perfect place for the families. At the lake, there's a little beach but swimming is not allowed because of underwater cliffs. The color of water is brown and resembles coca cola. This is caused by the rainwater that runs through peat-rich soils and flows down the cliffs into the lakes. The upper lake looks truly magnificent surrounded by the rocky hills and mountains that were formed by the glaciers during the Ice Age.
Before climbing, make sure you are well prepared for all possible weather conditions as in Ireland, especially in the mountains they can change rapidly. Don't forget an insect repellent, there are swarms of little midges everywhere and they won't hesitate to bite you.
On the left hand side of the upper lake, you will find the Poulanass Waterfall. It's small but beautiful, surrounded by the lush green oak forest. The Poulanass river forms many cascades and little natural ponds. Follow the path up along the river and then, if you want to hike the main trail and go around the lake, turn right and get into the thick spruce woods. From now on, the trail is secured with the wooden planks almost the whole way up and around the hills. It's really helpful since if it rains, some parts may have been impassable.
After a steep climb, when you finally come out of the woods and reach the top of the hill, your effort will be awarded with a great view of the Lower Lake and the monastic city. But it's not the best yet, so keep on going. Later, you will be able admire both of the lakes and this is truly spectacular.
The wooded side of the valley is a home to many species of wild animals. Most probably, during the hike, you will come across goats, deer and birds. The goats are descendants from domesticated goats and now they roam free. They have thick furs that helps them survive winters. In inaccessible cliffs, many birds seek shelter for breeding, especially in the summer months.
The area is rich in heather, peat bogs and pockets of woodlands. It is best to visit in the beginning of September when all the heather is in blossom covering the whole valley with the purple blanket. Rock formations offer spectacular, dramatic scenery. There are two types of rock in Glendalough: granite and schist. Schist is covered by grasslands and woods while the granite side is bare. It's perfect for mountaineering. You will surely notice a few climbers hanging from the rock walls along the way.
When you reach the Glenealo River, the trail will form a zigzag. The landscape will change dramatically, from lush green woodlands to bare slopes. Down in the valley, on the opposite side of the Upper Lake on the Glenealo River, is the miner's village. It was in operation for around 150 years since the early 1800's. Now it is closed, but the ruins and the machinery used is still there.
This trail described here is only one of many in Glendalough, if you have more time you should also try others. In the evening, near the hotel and in nearby villages there are some nice traditional Irish pubs where, after all day of hiking, you can indulge in a pint of Guinness.
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