Jedi Knights Arrive in Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Do you watch the end titles of a movie just to see the locations where it was filmed? If so, there’s a news flash: the final three Star Wars films (The Force Awakens, Return of the Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker) treat movie-goers to eye-popping views of a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of southwest Ireland.

Luke Skywalker’s refuge and Rey’s training location in all three movies was filmed on Skellig Michael Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Director JJ Abrams—along with cast and crew—jetted into a little village called Portmagee, County Kerry, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From there, they traveled eight miles by sea to the starkly beautiful Skellig Michael.

To keep the location a secret when The Force Awakens was first shooting in 2014, locals were told a documentary was being filmed in the area, so they were amazed when it was quietly revealed that it was really Star Wars being filmed in their community.

A press release from Tourism Ireland quoted Gerard Kennedy of The Bridge Bar and Moorings Guesthouse in Portmagee, as saying: “It was such a weird and wonderful experience for our small village to be part of the Star Wars story. We enjoyed evenings of music and dance in our bar with the cast and crew. Mark Hamill even learned how to pull a pint with our barman, Ciaran Kelly!”

The monastic Island, Skellig Michael founded in the 7th century, for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries.Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Starting in the 7th century, Skellig Michael was a center of monastic life for Irish Christian monks for 600 years. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-meter-high rock, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe’s better known, but least accessible, monasteries.    Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

 

In the Footsteps of the Jedi Knights

Ireland’s County Kerry is one of the island nation’s best-loved destinations—and the first place I ever visited in Ireland. Thirty years ago I was wowed while driving around the Ring of Kerry, a road along the cliff-lined coast with dramatic views over the Atlantic.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars—or of stargazing—this might be just the destination for you. Kerry is one of only three Gold Tier International Dark Sky reserves in the world. The beautiful band of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulas are just some of the wonders you can see with the naked eye in the region.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even spot Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon as it drops out of hyperspace!

The island of Skellig Michael is accessible only by boat. Today it’s inhabited solely by birds, but monks settled there more than a millennium ago. The stacked-stone beehive huts that the monks lived in are restored and can be visited from May to September each year. (Advance booking required.)

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo by  Valerie O’Sullivan

Traveling with Star Wars

A growing number of travelers choose to visit TV and shooting locations. (See my post about visiting Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. ),

Locations for The Force Awakens include Scotland, Iceland’s volcanoes, the Abu Dhabi desert, England, and New Mexico. Past Star Wars movies have featured Tunisia, Spain, Lake Como (Italy), Guatemala, Norway, and Switzerland.

Watch a video of scenery on Skellig Michael are available at Tourism Ireland.

May the traveling force be with you!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read about my travels in Ireland:

 

Cows on Parade: A Swiss Celebration

Stein is one of hundreds of Swiss villages that hold traditional dairy farming celebrations. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Throaty cowbells clang as flower-wreathed heifers parade through the streets of Stein, a tiny Swiss village in the Appenzell cheese-making region.

Dressed in traditional costumes, farm children and yodeling cowherds drive the cows toward the Viehschau (cattle show) judging area for the “Miss Stein” bovine beauty contest. There, the cows’ stature and coloring will be evaluated. It’s not just about pretty faces—honorable mention goes to cows with the best-looking udders and highest milk production.

On this late-September Tuesday morning, I’ve joined crowds of people jostling to watch the cows. Hundreds of people are clustered along the parade route. Stands sell toys and food; someone hawks balloons.

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional carved or painted wooden milk pails over their shoulders.

The streets in Stein, in the Appenzell canton of Switzerland, are festive on Cattle Show Day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Schools are closed today, and the whole town is here,” Antonia Brown Ulli, a tour guide, tells me. She lives in Stein and is wearing a dirndl dress for the occasion. “This is one of the village’s biggest annual festivals.”

Appenzell cowherds carry traditional wooden milk pails over their shoulders. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, the locals are impressively dressed, especially the men who are decked out in Appenzell finery consisting of red embroidered vest-jackets, fancy braces decorated with silver plates, black hats ringed with ribbons and flowers, and spoon-shaped earrings. Many also wear carry a wooden milking pail over one shoulder.

In the days of up-to-the-millisecond Swiss watches, I’m comforted that age-old cow herding traditions are still heartily celebrated by the entire community. And these cattle processions happen in rural villages all over Switzerland. (Germany and Austria too.)

In fact, the lead cows for each farm are adorned with bright flowers, ribbons, and fir branches on their heads. I’m giddy. As a cheese lover, I think it’s a grand idea to celebrate the cows (and goats too!) who provide milk for my favorite food.

Contestants for the Miss Stein title ©Laurel Kallenbach

The day before, I had visited the Appenzell Show Dairy, where visitors can see how the world-famous Appenzell cheese is made—and can taste it too! There’s a full restaurant on site.

The pageantry and music—bell-clanging and the yodel-like singing of the cowherds—is my farewell to Switzerland. An hour later, I’m zipping on the train to the Zurich airport. There, on the shuttle train to the international terminal, the piped-in sounds of mooing cows and cowbells makes me tear up. Even though I haven’t officially left the country, I’m already nostalgic for this scenic country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor 

For more information, visit Switzerland tourist information and Appenzell Tourism

Originally posted: September 19, 2015

Read more about my travels in Switzerland:

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In late September, Swiss dairy farmers parade their cows through the streets of the Appenzell village of Stein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Ireland’s Púca Festival: Where the Halloween Story Begins

It might surprise you to learn that Halloween originated as a Celtic celebration for the new year, which in the Celtic calendar began on November 1st. (The Celts lived about 2,000 years ago in the area that’s now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France.)

The Púca Festival is named for a shape-shifting spirit from Celtic folklore. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

This tradition of “Hallowe’en” (short for “hallowed evening”) originated as the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced “Sow-win”)—which means “summer’s end” in Gaelic (Old Irish). It was celebrated with bonfires and costumes to ward off bad spirits. Samhain was a festival marking the end of the Celtic year and the start of a new one. It was believed to be a time of transition, when the spirits of all those who had passed away since the previous Oíche Shamhna (Night of Samhain) moved onto the next life.

Samhain was the last great gathering before winter, a time of feasting and remembering what had passed and preparing for what was to come in the future.

Over time, Halloween became Christianized and was known as All Hallows Eve—the night before All Saints Day. Some of the original pagan Samhain traditions were incorporated into the day we now call Halloween.

Modern Ireland’s First Púca Festival

This year, an inaugural Púca Festival celebrates Ireland as Halloween’s place of origin. The festivities are vibrant and contemporary, even though they are strongly rooted in the traditions of the country where Halloween’s traditions all began.

Púca takes place from October 31 through November 2, 2019, in three historic towns located within two Irish counties, and the festivities promise to be an unforgettable celebration of all things unearthly.

Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Named after Púca (pronounced “pooka”), a shape-shifting spirit or goblin from Celtic folklore, the Púca Festival will capture the spirit of Samhain with three nights of authentic Halloween music, food, light, and spectacle. According to folklore, Púca is oftenseen in the form of a dog, rabbit, goat, goblin, or old man. Traditionally, a Púca appears as a dark horse with a wild, flowing mane.

The Púca Festival will salute the Halloween spirit with processions, light installations, Irish music, and harvest-inspired food. The festival kicks off in the town of Athboy, in County Meath, with The Coming of Samhain (October 31), a re-creation of the symbolic lighting of the Samhain fires in the shadow of The Hill of Ward, one of the earliest places where Samhain was celebrated.

Elsewhere in County Meath, the spectacular Trim Castle becomes the stage for three supernatural nights of music, light, and Halloween fun. The castle grounds come to life each night with aerialists, Púca performers, castle projections, and laser shows—along with the Púca Food & Craft Market.

The Celtic Halloween spirit is alive at Ireland’s inaugural Púca Festival. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

The castle will also play host to a world-class selection of musicians, including Jerry Fish’s Púca Sideshow, Just Mustard, Pillow Queens, AE MAK, and Kormac and the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Bringing the town of Drogheda (County Louth) to life, the third festival hub will be a haunting, three-day program of music, film, and light installations. The town will play host to projection artists de:LUX, whose artworks over the three festival nights will draw inspiration from tales of Irish folklore and the spirits of Halloween.

Púca Festival will be the ultimate celebration of this time when light turns to dark, the veil between realities draws thin, rules can be broken, and the spirits move between worlds.

For more info, visit Tourism Ireland and Púca Festival.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer, editor, and writing coach

Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey

Highclere Castle, framed by the branches of the Cedars of Lebanon, is the film location of the PBS series “Downton Abbey.” © Laurel Kallenbach

I admit it: I’m among the millions who are enthralled by the hit PBS television series, Downton Abbey, set in England during the early 20th century. We Downton Abbey fans are fascinated by the escapades of the Granthams and Crawleys, who live in an opulent country manor house.

So, as I was planning vacation in southwest England in 2012, it made sense that my husband and I should seek out the real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle. This beautiful estate—set on 1,000 acres of parkland in Berkshire, about 1.5 hours west of London—is the film location for the “upstairs” scenes of Downton Abbey.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Downton Abbey is a posh costume drama—OK, it’s really a souped-up soap opera—that follows the lives and romances of the aristocrats and servants who live in this lavish estate home.

The cast of the “Downton Abbey” TV series, which airs on PBS.

Meet the Carnarvons

In real life, the Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere Castle since 1679, and the history of the house rivals—and sometimes parallels—the dramatic storyline of the hit show that’s filmed here.

To get the scoop before we traveled, Ken and I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbeypenned by the current Countess Carnarvon, Lady Fiona, who is the Eighth Countess Carnarvon. Among the juicy historic tidbits—often more fantastic than the fictional TV show—are:

  • In 1895, Almina Wombwell married the estate-rich but cash-strapped George Herbert (the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon). Almina was the illegitimate child of the über-wealthy Alfred de Rothschild. Her generous dowry funded many improvements at Highclere Castle—and the tales of her shopping sprees are mind-boggling to us 21st-century commoners.
  • During World War I, Almina, the Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, transformed Highclere Castle into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers—as did the fictional Lady Grantham and Mrs. Crawley in Downton Abbey.
  • Lord Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, funded Egyptologist Howard Carter and was instrumental in discovering the tomb of King Tut in 1922. Some artifacts that Lord Carnarvon brought home from archaeological digs are on display at Highclere Castle.

Highclere Castle’s library.  Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

This last fact really piqued my interested, as I’ve had a lifelong passion for ancient Egypt. I’ve known who Lord Carnarvon was since I was eight years old—so imagine my excitement when at Highclere Castle I saw old photos of Lord Carnarvon studying maps of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in the same library where Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham gives instructions to Mr. Carson, the butler.

A Tour of Highclere Castle

Since Downton Abbey’s premiere, visitation to Highclere Castle has quadrupled, so I reserved tickets online 90 days before our visit—to assure that it wouldn’t be sold out. (Highclere isn’t open to the public every day because it’s a private home. Tickets gain you entry for 2.5 hours either in the morning or afternoon. There’s a separate admission fee for the Egyptian exhibition.)

The Crawley sisters from “Downton Abbey” Photo courtesy PBS.org

Our first glimpse of Highclere Castle was from the parking area; a bus was disgorging passengers. So we headed first to the loo, as we’d had an hour-long drive, which involved getting lost along the way. What’s a pilgrimage without a long, winding road filled with travail? In our case, we had to brave driving on the left side of the road, and we had to stop for directions twice. One sweet older man at a nearby village told us to cross the bridge, travel up the hill past the estate owned by Andrew Lloyd Weber (the composer of Phantom of the Opera and Cats fame), and straight on until we saw signs.

Once inside the Castle, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed as we passed through the Entrance Hall into the Library with its gold-plated leather-bound books, red carpets, and carved shelves. It’s odd to be in a place you’ve never been that seems so familiar. Such is the magic of film.

There’s no official tour at Highclere, but each room has a docent who answers questions about that room. Several of them work as stewards during Downton Abbey filming. Their job then—as it is while visitors stream through—is to be sure nothing is disturbed or broken while the light and camera crews are at work.

Highclere Castle’s Music Room is lined by beautiful tapestries displaying monkeys, rabbits, peacocks, and owls. This room isn’t used as a Downton Abbey setting, probably because it’s rather small, but it features a desk that belonged to Napolean.

The regal Oak Staircase. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Smoking Room doesn’t appear in the TV show either, but as the place where the men gathered after dinner, it was also the storage spot for a number of Egyptian artifacts. Funerary jars that were once used as umbrella stands are now in museums.

The lovely green-and-yellow Drawing Room, on the other hand, is the location for a number of scenes in Downton Abbey, as Lady Grantham and her daughters often meet there. During season 2 of the show, the wounded WWI soldiers slept on cots in this French-style room, which was decorated by Lady Almina in the early 20th century.

Throughout the house, tables and walls are covered with portraits of the Carnarvons—from the 17th through 21st centuries. The modern snapshots—far less formal than the paintings—are a reminder that this is still a private home.

There’s other evidence of modern use too. There’s a hair drier on the vanity in the Mercia Bedroom (Lady Grantham’s bedchamber on the TV show—much featured in the scenes in which she nearly died from Spanish flu). Occasional guests stay in the very bedrooms that are broadcast around the world.

Highclere’s Stanhope Bedroom became Mr. Pamuk’s bedroom in “Downton Abbey.” Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

The Stanhope Bedroom, decked out in red carpet and draperies, was the perfect setting for the scandalous television scenes involving the infamous Mr. Pamuk, who spent his last night in this bedroom following a lethal tryst with Lady Mary.

For the record, Mary’s bedroom and dressing room are actually a stage set and don’t exist in Highclere Castle. Neither do the kitchen and servants’ rooms. Downton Abbey’s entire downstairs is constructed in period style in the London studio.

The Saloon, Oak Staircase and Dining Room

The highlight of our Highclere Tour was the Oak Staircase leading from the Gallery-level bedrooms to the main part of the house. Ken and I paraded down the ornate-banistered staircase like Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary into a large room called The Saloon, the heart of this grand house—and a room that’s much featured on Downton Abbey. Its stone fireplace, carved cabinets, and arched doorways appear in famous scenes such as the Servants’ Ball and the concert for the soldiers. This spot just took my breath away.

The elegant Saloon is overlooked by the Gallery. Photo courtesy Highclere Castle

It was delightful, also, to visit the Dining Room, where many an elegant meal—usually partaken of by the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith—is filmed. It must be quite an experience for the present-day Carnarvons to sit at the table under the watchful gaze of the portraits of their ancestors.

Just as we left the main part of the house to go to the Egyptian exhibit, one of the guides asked whether we’d seen Countess Carnarvon, who had been walking through the rooms chatting with them just minutes before. Rats! We missed her. She was probably wearing jeans and blended in with the visitors.

Perhaps it’s just as well…I hadn’t practiced curtsying. But I can’t help thinking it would have been fun to say, “Good morning, Your Ladyship.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer/editor

P.S. Many thanks to the Carnarvon estate for use of the photos of the interior of Highclere Castle. You can see slideshows of Highclere Castle photos at the castle’s website.

Originally posted: February 2013

Updated: September 2019

Read more Downton Abbey posts:

Highclere’s Georgian-era house was remodeled in 1849 and became the Victorian castle as it appears today. Architect Charles Barry built the spires in the style of London’s Parliament Building, which he also designed. © Laurel Kallenbach